China Lashes Out at US Over Downed Balloon

China said on Monday that a decision by the United States to shoot down a balloon that had flown into U.S. airspace was a test of Washington’s “sincerity in improving and stabilizing China-U.S. relations and its way of handling crises.”

A U.S. fighter jet shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon Saturday as it traveled over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. The balloon’s flight ended after it had traveled for several days across the continental United States.   

Officials in the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said the balloon was a surveillance aircraft and called its flight over America an “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” by China.  Officials said the administration took measures to prevent the balloon from gathering any information as it crossed the country.

China is denying those claims, insisting that it was a civilian scientific aircraft that accidentally drifted into U.S. airspace.

In a statement released Sunday, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged an official protest to the downing of the balloon, describing it as an overreaction and a “serious violation of international practice.”

Xie vowed that China will “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests” of the balloon’s private operator.   

The discovery of the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a much-anticipated visit to Beijing designed to improve relations between the two economic giants which have soured in recent years.   

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters Monday that Beijing hopes Washington “will work with China to properly handle our differences so as to avoid miscalculation or damage to our mutual trust.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

India-US Technology Initiatives Launched with Eye on China

A technology and defense initiative by India and the United States aims at countering China and reducing New Delhi’s dependence on Russian weapons. Analysts say it also marks a significant push in tightening the U.S. and India’s strategic partnership.

Both countries will deepen cooperation in areas like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G wireless networks and semiconductors — areas in which China has acquired a dominating position.

“This convergence comes at a time when technology is becoming a determinant in U.S.-China relations and in some ways the geopolitics of technology is shaping the global balance of power,” said Harsh Pant, the vice president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “This also represents America placing a huge bet on India’s emergence as a major player in the Indo-Pacific.”

Senior officials from both countries met in Washington earlier this month for the U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies, which was announced by U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last May on the sidelines of a Quad summit held in Tokyo.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, told reporters that the goal is for technological partnerships to be “the next big milestone” in the India-U.S. relationship.

Concerned about U.S. reliance on China for critical components such as semiconductors, Washington has taken steps to halt the sale of advanced semiconductor technology to Beijing and wants to shift the manufacture of such components to friendly countries.

India, whose relations with Beijing have plummeted since a deadly clash along their Himalayan border three years ago, also wants to boost local manufacturing in crucial sectors such as semiconductors which are at the heart of modern electronic devices.

“Geopolitics is a big driver of this new initiative,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. He says the agreement reflects how far the India-U.S. relationship has come over the last few decades. “In recent years they’ve built enough trust to be talking about technology transfers and intelligence-sharing—something that Washington tends to do only with its closest strategic partners.”

The agreement also aims to facilitate joint development of defense technologies and weapons production in India. New Delhi wants to coproduce weapons in India with foreign defense manufacturers rather than purchase them outright, but U.S. restrictions on transferring defense technology have stalled such efforts with American companies.

The initial focus will be on jet engines, artillery systems and armored infantry vehicles. During the February 1 meeting in Washington, American officials said that the government would look into expediting a review of an application by U.S. manufacturer General Electric to jointly build jet engines in India for Indian aircraft.

“The more India and the U.S. will work on cutting edge technologies, the less relevant Russia will become to India’s strategic calculations,” Pant said.

India’s partnership with Washington has been spurred by New Delhi’s growing worries about China as troops from both countries faceoff along their disputed Himalayan border for a third winter. However, India did not join in Western sanctions against Russia or outright condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, raising questions about the divergent position it took from the U.S.

Analysts in India pointed out that besides its longstanding policy of strategic autonomy, New Delhi’s choices were also constrained by its heavy dependence on Russia for weapons. Although India has diversified its defense purchases in recent years, more than two thirds of its military equipment is of Russian origin and critical to its security needs amid its standoff with China.

“Washington’s current policy is to play a long game and to try to persuade New Delhi that over the longer term, Moscow will be too cash-strapped and sanctioned to provide military supplies to India,” Kugelman said. “And that the U.S. will position itself to provide India with the types of military equipment that New Delhi has long secured from Russia.”

However, translating the potential of the defense and technology agreements on the ground remains to be tested because much will depend on how private companies in both countries move to firm up partnerships. While India has a highly skilled workforce, American companies have long complained of Indian regulations that have been an obstacle to manufacturing in the country. India on the other hand cites strict U.S. regulations on technology transfers as hampering those efforts.

But the agreement is seen as a positive signal of the two countries overcoming long-standing issues of trust.

“Despite India’s stand on Ukraine, despite some other problems, these have become marginal to the larger strategic vision that the two nations have. It is now guided by the Indo-Pacific, where they are increasingly on the same side,” Pant said.

Leonard Peltier Remembered on Monday 

February 6 is the Global Day of Solidarity with Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who has been imprisoned for almost five decades.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement that “people around the world are calling on President Biden to finally grant Leonard clemency.” She said February 6 “marks the beginning of Leonard’s 48th year of incarceration.”

Peltier, who is 78, has been repeatedly denied parole.

He was a leader in the American Indian Movement when he was arrested, following a shoot out on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1975 in which two FBI agents were killed.

There were several inconsistencies in his case, but he was found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Before his court case began, he fled the country, fearing that he would not receive a fair trial, but he was found in Canada.

Two other men facing the same charges as Peltier were found not guilty.

“Amnesty International has long maintained that there are serious concerns about the fairness of proceedings leading to his trial and conviction,” Guevara-Rosas said in a statement.

“As President Biden prepares to address the public on Tuesday at the State of the Union Address,” she said, “we urge the administration to uphold their commitment to human rights and grant Leonard Peltier clemency on humanitarian grounds and as a matter of justice.”

US Skiers to Don Climate Change-Themed Race Suits at World Championships

Looking cool is just the tip of the iceberg for Mikaela Shiffrin, Travis Ganong and the rest of the U.S. ski team when they debut new race suits at the world championships.

Even more, they want everyone thinking about climate change.

The team’s predominantly blue-and-white suits depict an image of ice chunks floating in the ocean. It’s a concept based on a satellite photo of icebergs breaking due to high temperatures. The suit was designed in collaboration with Kappa, the team’s technical apparel sponsor, and the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters (POW).

The Americans will wear the suits throughout the world championships in Courchevel and Meribel, France, which start Monday with a women’s Alpine combined race and end February 19.

“Although a race suit is not solving climate change, it is a move to continue the conversation and show that U.S Ski & Snowboard and its athletes are committed to being a part of the future,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, the president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Global warming has become a cold, hard reality in ski racing, with mild temperatures and a lack of snow leading to the postponement of several World Cup events this winter.

“I’m just worried about a future where there’s no more snow. And without snow, there’s no more skiing,” said Ganong, who grew up skiing at Lake Tahoe in California. “So this is very near and dear to me.”

What alarms Ganong is seeing the stark year-to-year changes to some of the World Cup circuit’s most storied venues.

“I mean, it’s just kind of scary, looking at how on the limit (these events) are even to being possible anymore,” said Ganong, who’s been on the U.S. team since 2006. “Places like Kitzbuehel (Austria), there’s so much history and there’s so much money involved with that event that they do whatever they can to host the event.

“But that brings up a whole other question about sustainability as well: Is that what we should be doing? … What kind of message do we need [to] show to the public, to the world about how our sport is adapting to this new world we live in?”

The suits feature a POW patch on the neck and the organization’s snowflake logo on the leg.

“By coming together, we can educate and mobilize our snow-sports community to push for the clean energy technologies and policies that will most swiftly reduce emissions and protect the places we live and the lifestyles we love,” according to a statement from executive director Mario Molina, whose organization includes athletes, business leaders and scientists who are trying to protect places from climate change.

Ganong said a group of ski racers are releasing a letter to the International Ski Federation (FIS), with the hope the governing body will take a stronger stance on sustainability and climate change.

“They should be at the forefront of trying to adapt to this new world, and try to make it better, too,” Ganong said.

Early Winners in Top Grammy Categories Announced

 

— Best alternative music performance: “Chaise Longue” by Wet Leg

— Best alternative music album: “Wet Leg,” Wet Leg

— Best rock album: “Patient Number 9,” Ozzy Osbourne

— Best rock performance: “Broken Horses” by Brandi Carlile

— Best rock song: “Broken Horses” by Brandi Carlile

— Best rap performance: “The Heart Part 5,” Kendrick Lamar

— Best rap song: “The Heart Part 5” by Kendrick Lamar

— Best melodic rap performance: “WAIT FOR U” by Future featuring Drake & Tems

— Best R&B album: “Black Radio III,” Robert Glasper

— Best R&B performance: “Hrs & Hrs” by Muni Long

— Best traditional R&B performance: “Plastic Off The Sofa” by Beyonce

— Best progressive R&B album: “Gemini Rights,” Steve Lacy

— Best audio book, narration and storytelling recording: “Finding Me” by Viola Davis

— Best traditional pop vocal album: “Higher,” Michael Buble

— Best solo country solo performance: “Live Forever,” Willie Nelson

— Best country duo/group performance: “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde

— Best country album: “‘Til You Can’t,” Cody Johnson

— Best jazz vocal album: Samara Joy

— Best dance/electronic recording: “Break My Soul,” by Beyonce

— Best metal performance: “Degradation Rules” by Ozzy Osbourne featuring Tony Iommi

— Best engineered, non-classical album: “Harry’s House,” Harry Styles

— Best compilation soundtrack for visual media: “Encanto”

— Best score soundtrack for visual media: “Encanto,” Germaine Franco

— Best score soundtrack for video games and other interactive media: “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok,” Stephanie Economou.

Miss Universe Credits Filipino-Texas Family for Her Crown 

R’Bonney Gabriel is the first Filipina American to wear the Miss Universe crown in the pageant’s seven-decade history and, at 28, the oldest entrant ever crowned.

Gabriel, the first American to win the contest since 2012, believes her success was shaped by her biracial background, which she describes as a combination of her “big, loud and fun” paternal Filipino family and her “charming, small and reserved” maternal Texan family.

“The two different sides of my family really, really shaped me to be open-minded and realize people have different ways of going about things and showing their love,” Gabriel told VOA’s Thai Service during an interview in New York days after her victory on January 14. “It really helped me to be more of a dynamic person and really just accept anybody for who they are.”

Gabriel, however, said she could not help but feel like a minority as she grew up in two Texas cities in the Houston area, Missouri City and Friendswood, where there were few Asian Americans even though that cohort is now the state’s fastest-growing demographic.

“Sometimes I wondered where I fit in, especially as a kid. We always just want to fit in and feel cool and accepted,” she said, adding that as an adult she’s come to see the importance of embracing one’s own culture.

Gabriel hopes that her victory as the oldest Miss Universe will show people that they should love themselves for being who they are.

“As a woman, I believe age does not define us,” the 28-year-old said during the Top 5 round of the final competition. “It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, but it’s now. The time is now that you can go after what you want.”

And she says she didn’t realize she would be the first Filipina American to be Miss Universe until she won the pageant which she entered, in part, to promote her sustainable clothing line, R’Bonney Nola.

Gabriel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design at the University of North Texas, displayed her design sensibility on the final day of competition. She wore a dramatic black-and-blue evening gown with glass beaded fringe by Filipino designer Rian Fernandez for the Top 5 round. She stood out from others who competed in lighter-colored confections.

“I told him that I wanted something bold, something dark and strong. And we went with black because not a lot of girls have won Miss Universe in a black gown,” she said.

“People may be fans of it or not but that doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, I love it and I own it, and that’s really a message that everybody can really resonate with,” she said. “I think we all have different styles that we need to play into different personalities to not be scared, to express it. Never play it safe in life.”

Three months before being selected as Miss Universe, Gabriel won the Miss USA 2022 contest with another unique outfit dubbed “A Beautiful Storm.” Having begun experimenting with textiles when she was 15, Gabriel painted a midnight blue tank top and trousers with “storm and rain clouds” in white, gray and blue to reflect the turmoil she felt.

“I think everybody in life, when they’re going through a storm, they’re either entering a storm or leaving a storm,” she said. “But we have to find beauty in the darkness and beauty in the chaos.”

Her turmoil was only exacerbated when allegations emerged that the voting in the Miss USA contest had been rigged to ensure her victory. The contest organizers told the Los Angeles Times the allegations were “false” and “absurd.”

Keeping that mind positive on days when the world felt like I cheated to win Miss USA even though it wasn’t true.”

Moving forward, Gabriel continued to promote sustainable fashion, the hallmark of her R’Bonney Nola line. A fluffy white top designed by fine artist Rene Garza that Gabriel wore for a Miss Universe photoshoot at the Empire State Building was made with recycled plastic-mesh flower protectors.

“I want to continue promoting that all over the world, showing how you can upcycle pieces and make something fabulous,” said Gabriel, who also teaches sewing classes for low-income women who have suffered domestic violence or human trafficking.

“Women are so talented,” she said. “If we… provide those learning opportunities, it really equals empowerment and opportunity to continue on in life and change the financial ecosystem that they’ve grown up in.”

A US Political Divide on Shoot-down of Chinese Spy Balloon  

A political partisan divide quickly emerged Sunday over the U.S. shoot-down of a Chinese spy balloon, with the Biden administration defending its safe takedown offshore over the Atlantic Ocean while Republicans contended it should have been shot down more than a week ago before it could fly across the country over key military installations.

Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s transportation chief, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that China’s deployment of the balloon was “an unacceptable intrusion on American sovereignty.” But he said the U.S. military, on Biden’s order last Wednesday, shot it down Saturday “without any damage to people or property…after assessment of the risks” of doing it over the U.S. mainland.

“This was done in a very effective way,” he said.

The debris from the missile strike on the balloon, which had been drifting at an altitude of more than 18,000 meters (11 miles), landed about 10 kilometers (6 miles) off the shoreline of the southern U.S. state of South Carolina. Buttigieg said the debris field stretched for more than 11 kilometers (7 miles).

U.S. Navy ships were collecting the debris from the ocean, and it was being sent to the FBI’s laboratory outside Washington for analysis.

Republican lawmakers criticized Biden for not shooting down the balloon when it was first sighted January 28 over the Aleutian Islands, part of the far northwestern state of Alaska, rather than let it drift west to east for a week over the entire U.S. mainland, including numerous military bases.

China said the balloon was gathering meteorological data and driven off course by wind currents, sending it over the United States, which the U.S. dismissed as a cover for an intelligence-gathering mission. China has not said where it had intended for the balloon to go.

U.S. military officials said, however, that whatever intelligence the balloon may have transmitted back to China was inconsequential and no different from what China and the U.S. collect from spy satellites both deployed over each other’s territory.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a frequent Biden critic, told “Fox News Sunday” that the balloon mission was “a reminder of what the Chinese are capable of” and that it had “inflicted humiliation … an embarrassment” on the United States.

Another Republican, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, told CNN, “There was messaging behind this” from China.

“This is a failure I don’t understand,” Rubio said. “Why let it fly across the middle of the country over military bases? If we fly anything over China, they’re going to shoot it down.”

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the U.S. shoot-down of the balloon was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international standard practice,” and repeated its claim that the balloon was being used for meteorological research.

The airship first entered the U.S. air identification zone more than a week ago, then crossed into Canadian airspace. The U.S. Department of Defense said the balloon reentered U.S. airspace January 31. It was seen Thursday flying over Montana where U.S. nuclear missiles are siloed.

The U.S. has said it took technological measures to prevent the balloon from gathering any information as it crossed the country.

The discovery of the spy balloon comes at a sensitive time for China. It happened right before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China and meet with President Xi Jinping. Blinken canceled his trip after the discovery of the spy balloon.

Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, told VOA that the incident comes at a sensitive time for China’s leader.

“President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after [the] zero-COVID [policy] was lifted,” ending COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Wilder said, “… he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back.”

Wilder said he thinks the incident will set off a new round of tension between the U.S. and China.

“If the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese,” he said. “We may well very much embarrass the People’s Liberation Army. And so, I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So, there’s going to be a tense period here.”

Another Chinese balloon was spotted flying over Latin America.

Psychedelic Churches in US Pushing Boundaries of Religion

The tea tasted bitter and earthy, but Lorenzo Gonzales drank it anyway. On that night in remote Utah, he was hoping for a life-changing experience, which is how he found himself inside a tent with two dozen others waiting for the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca to kick in.

Soon, the gentle sounds of a guitar were drowned out by people vomiting — a common downside of the drug.

Gonzales started howling, sobbing, laughing and repeatedly babbling. Facilitators from Hummingbird Church placed him face down, calming him momentarily before he started laughing again and crawling.

“I seen these dark veins come up in this big red light, and then I seen this image of the devil,” Gonzales said later. He had quieted only when his wife, Flor, touched his shoulder and prayed.

His journey to this town along the Arizona-Utah border is part of a growing global trend of people turning to ayahuasca to treat an array of health problems after conventional medications and therapy failed. Their problems include eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and PTSD.

The rising demand for ayahuasca has led to hundreds of churches like this one, which advocates say are protected from prosecution by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, a New Mexico branch of a Brazilian-based ayahuasca church won the right to use the drug as a sacrament — even though its active ingredient remains illegal under U.S. federal law. A subsequent lower court decision ruled Oregon branches of a different ayahuasca church could use it.

“In every major city in the United States, every weekend, there’s multiple ayahuasca ceremonies,” said Sean McAllister, who represents an Arizona church in a lawsuit against the federal government after its ayahuasca from Peru was seized at the port of Los Angeles.

The pro-psychedelics movement’s growth has sparked concerns of a government crackdown. In addition to ayahuasca shipments being seized, some churches stopped operating over fears of prosecution. There are also concerns these unregulated ceremonies might pose a danger for some participants and that the benefits of ayahuasca haven’t been well studied.

It was dark as the Hummingbird ceremony began on a Friday night in October, except for flickering candles and the orange glow of heaters. Psychedelic art hung from the walls; statues of the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth were positioned near a makeshift altar.

Participants sat in silence, waiting for Taita Pedro Davila, the Colombian shaman and traditional healer who oversaw the ceremony.

A mix of military veterans, corporate executives, thrill seekers, ex-members of a polygamous sect and a man who struck it rich on a game show had turned up for the $900 weekend. Many appeared apprehensive yet giddy to begin the first of three ceremonies.

The brew contains an Amazon rainforest shrub with the active ingredient N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and a vine containing alkaloids that prevents the drug from breaking down in the body.

Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colors and going on wild, sometimes terrifying journeys that can last hours. In this dreamlike state, some say they encounter dead relatives, friends and spirits.

“You were invited for a weekend of healing,” Davila told the group, before people lined up for their tea.

Locking eyes with each participant, Davila uttered a prayer over the cups before blowing on them with a whistling sound and handing them over to drink.

Gonzales and his wife, Flor, were among the ayahuasca newcomers.

They had driven from California, hoping for relief for 50-year-old Gonzales. He’d battled drug addiction for much of his life, was suffering the effects of COVID-19 and had been diagnosed with early stage dementia.

“My poor body is dying and I don’t want it to die,” said Gonzales, who rarely sleeps and is prone to fits of anger.

Maeleene Jessop was also a newcomer but grew up in Hildale, the Utah town where the ceremony was held. She is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a polygamist offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hildale was the group’s stronghold. The ceremony was held in a tent on the grounds of a house once owned by a former FLDS member.

Jessop, 35, left the church after its leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. He is serving a life sentence in federal prison. Jessop has struggled to adapt to her new life, battling depression and haunted by the physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child.

The roots of ayahuasca go back hundreds of years to ceremonial use by Indigenous groups in the Amazon. In the past century, churches have emerged in several South American countries where ayahuasca is legal.

The movement found a foothold in the United States in the 1980s and interest has intensified more recently as celebrities like NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Hollywood actor Will Smit h talked about attending ceremonies.

Some spend thousands of dollars to attend five-star ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon. But in the U.S., the movement remains largely underground, promoted by social media and word of mouth, with ceremonies held in supporters’ homes, Airbnb rentals and remote areas to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.

Like many of these, Hummingbird won’t be mistaken for a traditional Western church.

It has no written text and relies primarily on Davila’s prayers, chants and songs to guide participants through the ceremony. Davila follows traditions learned from his grandfather.

Courtney Close, Hummingbird’s founder who credits ayahuasca with helping her overcome cocaine addiction and postpartum depression, believes the designation as a church helps show that participants are “doing this for religious reasons.” But when it comes to defining it as a religion, Close stressed that depends on individual participants’ experience.

“We just try to create a spiritual experience without any dogma and just let people experience God for themselves,” she said.

Back in California, Flor Gonzales is convinced ayahuasca is behind her husband’s improvement. “I just feel like we have a future,” she said.

Dogs Are Coming Back to the Office With Their People

During the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, millions of people adopted dogs for comfort and companionship, and because they had the time to care for them at home since they were not commuting to work.

As many companies reopen to a hybrid work schedule — allowing their employees to work both at home and in the office — many pet owners want to keep their canine companions nearby and are taking them to work.

“Our pets are becoming our families, and it makes sense they should come to work with us,” said Steve Weinrauch, chief veterinarian at Trupanion, a pet insurance provider based in Seattle.

“It’s really important to me to be able to bring my dogs to the office,” said Diana Cross, partner support manager at Trupanion. “I love having both of them here, so I can pet them and play with them.”

Trupanion, like some other companies, allows well-behaved dogs to join their owners at the office during the workday. Trupanion was even doing that before the pandemic.

“As we go back into the office environment, the dogs are helping people adjust,” said Bridger McGaw, executive director of global security and services at athenahealth, an electronic medical records software company near Boston. He told VOA that pets are also beneficial to the company because they help build camaraderie and people are more engaged at meetings when the pets are there.

Helping to improve morale

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, began its Dogs at Work program more than 25 years ago at its headquarters in Seattle. Today, some 10,000 dogs are registered at more than 140 Amazon buildings, according to Amy Neumeister, global services senior manager.

Having pets in the office helps with “morale and engagement at work and provides emotional support from bringing your best four-legged friend to work,” she told VOA.

They also bring joy to colleagues who may not have a dog.

“It brings smiles to people’s faces when they see a dog rolling around or chasing its tail,” said Weinrauch.

“During meetings, folks will drop in to see the dogs and get a cuddle, and I think that’s important in the workplace,” McGaw said. He noted the company even hosts “yappy hours” — a happy hour for employees and pets— which includes special dog treats.

Lorelei Pate, a program manager at Amazon’s Herndon, Virginia office, said she will be bringing in her dog soon. “After working remotely and then returning to the office part of the time, this will help maintain the balance between my work and personal life.”

Social benefits

Having a dog in the office can also be an ice breaker.

“It’s been awesome bringing in my green-eyed Labrador named Pistachio,” said Logan Cunningham, a senior financial analyst at Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “As a newer employee, Pistachio has allowed me to meet a ton of new people since dogs are usually a great conversation starter.”

“I have met people at work who I didn’t know because they came up to me and said they would like to pet my dog, Chai, an adopted pit bull, who wears a pearl necklace,” said Molly McLaughlin Soha, a senior marketing associate for athenahealth.

Health benefits as well

Studies have shown that pets can improve mental and physical health by reducing loneliness, relieving anxiety and lowering blood pressure.

A study by Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced less stress during their workday and had a higher level of job satisfaction.

“My dogs bring me comfort, especially if I’m having a hectic day with a lot of phone calls or meetings,” Trupanion’s Cross told VOA. “Taking a few minutes to snuggle or play fetch with them is really relaxing.”

“The animals offer real value to athenahealth,” McGaw said, “by lowering the stress in the office and helping people to really connect with each other.”

Keeping employees

Having dogs in the office may also encourage employees to stay at their workplace.

A recent survey by Rover.com found that 75% of dog owners said they were more likely to remain with an employer that lets them bring their pet to work.

Amazon’s Cunningham said being able to bring a dog to the office “was a big selling point” when she accepted her position. She said it’s been nice making friends with some colleagues who take a break from their work to play with her dog.

McGaw at athenahealth is encouraging other companies to consider allowing dogs at work.

“I think it helps with the recruitment and retention of employees and provides a valuable benefit for employees with the care of their pets,” he said.

VOA Interview: Chinese Balloon Operation Shows Disconnect Between Foreign Ministry and Military, Former CIA Analyst Says

Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, discussed the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was spotted drifting across the United States this week with VOA on Saturday.

Wilder, now a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, spoke with VOA’s State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching shortly after the U.S. military shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

Asked if the U.S. had missed the opportunity to collect intelligence of what’s inside the balloon, Wilder said, “No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board.”

China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft earlier this week had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.

The State Department has declined to comment on if there’s further diplomatic communication following the downing of China’s balloon.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: The PRC surveillance balloon has been shot down. What is the U.S. calculation? Did the U.S. miss the opportunity to collect intelligence on what’s inside the balloon?

DENNIS WILDER, FORMER CHINA ANALYST WITH THE CIA: No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board. Now, whether that package of sensors is intact, or was broken up upon entry into the sea, we won’t know. But they have divers out there. If it fell into the water and went deep in the water, they may be able to recover it from the ocean floor. But they will certainly make an effort to recover whatever the sensor package was on board.

VOA: Do you see an internal divergence within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, a disconnection between the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the balloon operation?

WILDER: Well, first of all, what I know to be fact is that there was definitely a disconnect between the foreign ministry and the military. My understanding is when first approached, the foreign ministry had no idea of this balloon system being over the United States. So, they were taken completely by surprise. My analysis is that this, because it was a spy operation, and because it was probably handled by the People’s Liberation Army, could well have been stovepipe. It could well be that it wasn’t well coordinated within the Chinese system.

Often when you have covert operations, and even here in the United States it’s the same way. Often when there’s a covert action or a covert operation that you’re trying to keep secret, you don’t inform everybody within the political system. So, there’s a real question of how high up the chain of command in Beijing, this was approved. Who knew about it? Were they given a chance to comment on it? Or was this really very much an operation of the People’s Liberation Army?

VOA: You have been watching PLA for more than three decades, is it typical for PLA to act alone without looping in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Within the PRC political system, does Chinese military have more influence on policy direction, more so than Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

WILDER: When it comes to an area like this, that’s in the PLA’s area of both expertise and authority. Then, yes, it has much more influence within the system than the foreign ministry.

I can tell you that there were several different times when we found that the Chinese foreign ministry and others were not informed. Let me give you a couple of examples. When Robert Gates as secretary of defense went to Beijing in January of 2011, immediately before his meeting with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military announced that it had tested its new stealth fighter aircraft and released pictures of that aircraft for the first time. Secretary Gates felt that the PLA was trying to embarrass him. And so he decided to embarrass the PLA, because he thought that this might well not be a coordinated operation. So when he met with President Hu Jintao, he immediately said: “Your military has just tested a new stealth fighter on the eve of my visit. I will be asked whether this was done to embarrass me. President Hu, was this done to embarrass me?” President Hu laughed nervously and then turned to his PLA advisers, and asked, “Is this true?” Bob Gates, very well knew from seeing the body language, that President Hu Jintao had no idea that the military was going to do this kind of thing.

Another example is when the Chinese tested an anti-satellite missile against one of their own satellites. It was very apparent to the U.S. side, and Secretary Robert Gates was the defense secretary at that point, as well, it was very clear that the foreign ministry had no idea that this test was going to occur and was very embarrassed about it.

So I could give you more examples, but there is a clear history of the PLA not running these things through the foreign ministry and running it through very, very few people in Beijing.

VOA: In your assessment, how badly does the PRC want a high-profile visit from the United States secretary of state? And why?

WILDER: (Chinese) President Xi Jinping himself has indicated how important this visit was to him. President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after zero-COVID was lifted, where he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back. He wants to see American companies not thinking of moving their supply chains and diversifying them away from China to places like India, Vietnam, other Southeast Asian nations.

And so, I think that the rapid speed of an apology from the Chinese yesterday is an indicator that he hoped to keep the visit of Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken on track. It is very unusual, in fact, I can’t give you an example of a time when the Chinese have apologized to the United States for anything.

And so this was unprecedented, and it showed how much China actually wanted that visit to occur. Of course, Secretary Blinken canceled the visit and now you see a bit of a harder edge out of Beijing rhetorically. But there was an attempt on the Chinese side to keep this visit in place.

VOA: What needs to be done before Secretary of State Blinken is to reschedule his trip to China?

WILDER: Well, I think we are in a new period of heightened tensions between the United States and China. Because if the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese. We may well very much embarrass the People’s Liberation Army. And so I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So there’s going to be a tense period here.

One of my concerns is that as these tensions rise in the next week or two, there could be difficulties in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea. Because Chinese military may feel they need to be more aggressive than they have been against U.S. reconnaissance flights in the area.

And you will recall that in December the United States accused a Chinese pilot of flying unsafely near an American aircraft. Now I was in the government and very involved in April of 2001. Actually, it was on April 1, 2001, when a Chinese pilot, flying very unsafely, collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft, forcing the aircraft, the American aircraft to land at Lingshui Airfield on Hainan Island, a military airfield. Fortunately, none of the crew are killed. Unfortunately, the pilot of the Chinese jet was killed.

It took us 11 days of negotiating with the Chinese to get that crew back. And in part, the problem was, that the Chinese government claimed that we had been at fault, that our pilot had done unsafe things, which was absolutely untrue. And the video camera footage that we had from the plane proved this decisively. Nonetheless, the Chinese insisted on an apology from the United States at that time, and we gave them a letter of regret from our ambassador in Beijing and that seemed sufficient to get the pilot and the crew home.

Chinese Spy Balloon Shot Down Over Atlantic Ocean

Eyes were locked on the skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon passed over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard — where local authorities warned civilians against taking potshots with rifles — before it was shot down when it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean. 

Software engineer and storm chaser Brian Branch captured photographs of the balloon high above western North Carolina just hours before it was shot down. 

He could see a payload hanging from the round, white balloon, which officials have said was about the size of three school buses. 

It was shot down off the Carolina coast Saturday afternoon and an operation was launched to recover the debris. The Biden administration had previously hesitated to shoot the balloon because of risks to people on the ground from falling debris. 

“I’m kind of surprised they didn’t shoot it down over Montana,” Branch said. 

There had been reports of sightings throughout upstate South Carolina, including Greenville and Spartanburg, and suburban Charlotte in North Carolina. 

The maneuverable balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week and it wasn’t acknowledged by government officials until Thursday, a day after commercial flights were temporarily halted at the airport in Billings, Montana and people on the ground saw the balloon seemingly loitering high above the city. 

China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed. 

In Congress, Republicans pounced on the initial decision not to shoot it down over rural Montana as a sign of weakness on the part of the Biden administration. 

But in York County, South Carolina, not far from the North Carolina border, the county sheriff’s office advised against anyone trying to take out the balloon on their own. 

“Don’t try to shoot it!!,” the sheriff’s office tweeted Saturday as the balloon passed over the region at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). “Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.” 

The fascination with the balloon that swept the nation also spawned fake videos that purported to show it being shot down. 

Those included an unverified video out of Billings that purported to show a “massive explosion” over the city Friday evening, two days after the balloon passed over. The video was picked up and broadcast by Fox News, where Montana Governor Greg Gianforte said in an interview with Tucker Carlson that he was “monitoring the situation.” 

It was viewed millions of times before local officials batted down speculation that a Chinese balloon had been shot down. The city of Billings issued a statement that declared “there have not been any explosions in, around, or across #Montana.” 

Another video purported to show the balloon brought down in North Carolina by Friday afternoon — about the same time people reported seeing it above Missouri. 

By Saturday morning in Polkville, North Carolina, Branch — the storm chaser — said he was able to watch the balloon for about an hour and 15 minutes before it drifted into the path of the sun. 

“It went east to the point where the sun blocked it out for me. Nothing around it, nothing barring it and no rednecks in North Carolina shooting at it,” he said. “I let it just pass on by. If it was spinning, if it was a tornado, I would have chased it.” 

50-Car Train Derailment Causes Big Fire, Evacuations in Ohio

A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order and a declaration of a state of emergency in an Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below.

About 50 cars derailed in East Palestine as a train was carrying a variety of freight from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said in a statement Saturday. There was no immediate information about what caused the derailment. No injuries were reported.

Mayor Trent Conaway of the village of East Palestine declared a state of emergency, citing a “train derailment with hazardous materials.” Air quality was being monitored throughout a one-mile zone ordered evacuated and there had been no dangerous readings to report, he said.

Norfolk Southern said the train was carrying more than 100 cars, 20 of which were classified as carrying hazardous materials, defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger “including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.”

The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday that it was “launching a go-team to investigate” the derailment, and board member Michael Graham would “serve as spokesperson on scene.”

Firefighters had been pulled from the immediate area and unmanned stream devices are being used protectively while crews try to determine which cars were still actively burning, village officials said in a separate statement Saturday that warned residents that they might hear more explosions as the fire burns.

A high school and community center were opened to shelter dozens of people, while residents beyond that radius were urged to stay inside. The few dozen residents sheltering at the high school included Ann McAnlis, who said a neighbor had texted her about the crash.

“She took a picture of the glow in the sky from the front porch,” McAnlis told WFMJ-TV. “That’s when I knew how substantial this was.”

Conaway said firefighters from three states responded. The derailment happened about 82 kilometers northwest of Pittsburgh and within 32 kilometers of the tip of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. Freezing temperatures in the single digits complicated the response as water being pumped from trucks froze, he said.

Norfolk Southern said it has personnel on-site coordinating with first responders. The fire created so much smoke that meteorologists from the region said it was visible on weather radar.

Nuclear Envoys of US, South Korea Downplay Seoul’s Nuclear Intent

South Korea’s top nuclear envoy said an agreement with the United States to jointly bolster “extended deterrence” against North Korea gives the Yoon administration needed confidence that the alliance will be able to effectively defend against aggression from Pyongyang.

The U.S. commitment, laid out in a joint statement by the two countries in mid-September, includes an affirmation that a North Korean nuclear test “would be met with an overwhelming and decisive response.”

It adds that the two countries will “continue and strengthen close Alliance consultation regarding U.S. nuclear and missile defense policy.”

Kim Gunn, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, reiterated a recent statement by South Korean President Yoon Suk on the matter during a Friday interview with Washington Talk, a weekly on-air discussion on North Korea by the VOA Korean Service.

“In his recent interview, my president made it very clear that we have confidence in the U.S. extended deterrence,” he said. “We are having a very close coordination [with the U.S.] on how to strengthen the effectiveness of our extended deterrence.”

On January 11, Yoon received widespread attention with a suggestion that Seoul could respond to the North Korean nuclear threat by building its own nuclear weapons or having U.S. strategic assets redeployed to South Korea.

His remarks came amid growing concern among the South Koreans over the U.S. commitment to defend their nation against growing North Korean threats. But Kim Gunn said on Washington Talk that the alliance’s focus on bolstering the extended deterrence should allay the public concern.

Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea, who appeared on the show with Kim Gunn, also seemed to play down speculation that South Korea is contemplating the development of its own nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

“President Yoon has made clear that the ROK is not interested in pursuing a WMD program but is instead working very closely with us in all levels to make sure that our defense and deterrence are as strong as it needs to be,” he said.

The ROK stands for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.

The U.S. envoy continued, “That includes engaging in a very serious dialogue about how we strengthen extended deterrence, including things like looking at the frequency and intensity of U.S. strategic deployments on the peninsula.”

Bolstering extended deterrence

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup agreed at their meeting on January 31 in Seoul to boost deterrence measures including ways to expand information sharing and to respond to North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons through tabletop exercises scheduled for later this month.

The U.S. conducted joint military drills with South Korea on February 1 involving U.S. B-1B long-range strategic bombers and stealth fighters as a show of force to provide “credible extended deterrence against North Korea,” according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

In response, North Korea released a statement Thursday saying the combined drills have “reached an extreme red-line.” It vowed to “take the toughest reaction to any military attempt of the U.S. on the principle of ‘nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation.’”

At the same time, Pyongyang rejected any prospects for dialogue.

North Korea launched more then 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year, including several intercontinental ballistic missiles. In September, it codified into its law the right to use nuclear weapons preemptively against threats it perceives as imminent.

Diplomatic outreach

Both envoys said North Korea largely dismissed calls by their nations for talks despite efforts made to engage Pyongyang.

Sung Kim said, “I can assure you that we have sent multiple messages to Pyongyang through various channels, including the New York channel.” The New York channel is the Permanent Mission of North Korea to the United Nations.

He continued, “Unfortunately, North Koreans have shown no interest in diplomatic engagement with us, but we will continue to remind them that our position has not changed, that we are, in fact, willing to engage in dialogue with them without preconditions.”

Kim Gunn said, “I think it’s obvious North Korea does not heed our call for dialogue.”

Despite Pyongyang’s lack of interest in engaging in talks, both envoys said the policy of Washington and Seoul to seek North Korea’s denuclearization has not changed.

When asked if he believes denuclearization is possible without changing the regime headed by Kim Jong Un, Sung Kim said yes. “We believe so.”

He continued, “That’s why our aim remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

China and Russia

Sung Kim, who also serves as the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, said China and Russia have said they share the goal of denuclearization, but he emphasized that neither has made commitments toward that goal.

“They have a responsibility to faithfully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions,” he said. “And we have seen a lot of information suggesting that both Russia and China are helping the DPRK evade sanctions.”

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

China and Russia blocked on May 26 a U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by the U.S. calling for strengthened sanctions on North Korea in response to its renewed ballistic missile tests, including an ICBM launched the previous day.

Again, on November 4, China and Russia blocked a U.N. action on North Korea by providing Pyongyang with “blanket protection,” according to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The remarks came a day after North Korea launched an ICBM, which apparently failed.

Kim Gunn stressed the importance of China’s role in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.

Despite China’s increasingly assertive role in the region, a South Korean Indo-Pacific Strategy released in December described China as “a key partner.” Asked during the Washington Talk show about his country’s reasoning, the South Korean envoy said, “China must be our partner to persuade North Korea to give up [its] nuclear weapons.”

Human rights

Also on the show, Sung Kim lauded President Joe Biden’s January 23 nomination of Julie Turner, a longtime State Department official, as the special envoy for human rights in North Korea. The position has been unfilled for the past six years.

“The signal it sends is to demonstrate [Biden’s] strong commitment to improving the lives of North Korean people, because we know that the human rights situation in North Korea remains very troubling,” said Sung Kim.

The Biden administration has maintained that human rights concerns are at the core of its foreign policy since it took office in January 2021.

Gun Violence Puts Young Americans at Risk  

America’s urban youth may not live in war zones, but some face staggering death rates from gun violence that exceed the mortality rates of U.S. troops in recent wars, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers focused on gun-related deaths among young men in four major U.S. cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. The death rates for men ages 18 to 29 in two inner-city postal zones were higher than those faced by U.S. military personnel while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These results are an urgent wake-up call for understanding, appreciating and responding to the risks and attendant traumas faced by this demographic of young men,” said Brandon del Pozo, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, who was one of the researchers.

The study comes as firearms surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. public health agency said 3,597 children died by gunfire in 2021.

Overall, gun violence remained endemic in the United States in 2022, including 648 mass casualty shootings, a near-record, according to Gun Violence Archive, a Washington organization that tracks firearms violence. The first month of 2023 saw more than 50 mass shootings across the nation, defined as an incident in which four or more people were wounded or killed, not including the shooter.

While the JAMA report focused on four of America’s largest cities, gun violence claims eye-popping numbers of lives in many other U.S. metropolises as well.

Young lives taken

In Washington, firearms casualties involving young people are a near-daily occurrence. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department reported a surge of gun violence at the start of 2023, including eight adolescents shot in five separate incidents on a single day in January.

“I’ve seen it all too often,” said Metropolitan Police 7th District Commander John Branch, speaking at a late-night news conference last month after the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old and the wounding of a 14-year-old. “I’m tired of having to come to these shootings. We must learn as a community how to resolve our problems and our issues peacefully and without gun violence.”

Days later, three people, including a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, were wounded during an exchange of gunfire between two teenagers.

Last year, 105 juveniles were shot in the nation’s capital — 18 fatally — according to Lindsey Appiah, Washington’s deputy mayor for public safety.

In Baltimore, Maryland, a shooting last month left one man dead and three young people injured. After being shot, a young female motorist crashed her car, injuring a 3-year-old boy and a 2-month-old infant.

“I see a lot of folks out here acting like they are tough, but they are really weak,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott during a news conference after the shooting. “Only weak people shoot somebody when they know children are right there.”

Five high school teens were shot in Baltimore last month, one fatally across the street from their school.

In Baltimore and many other U.S. cities, communities are demanding an end to the carnage while political leaders promise change.

“We will make sure that our communities and our children are safe, and they have a right to be safe in their own homes,” said Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a Democrat, addressing a recent anti-gun-violence rally in Annapolis.

Maryland’s legislature is considering several gun control proposals, including mandating that gun owners ensure their weapons cannot be accessed by anyone younger than 18. Another measure would increase the minimum age to legally own a rifle or shotgun in the state from 18 to 21.

Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, a gun rights advocacy group, called the proposals unconstitutional.

“Similar legislation has already been struck down by federal courts in New York and New Jersey,” Pennak said in a statement. Other groups have vowed to fight any new gun control laws via the court system.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has called youth violence an emergency and pledged more resources for law enforcement as well as establishing alternative justice programs for young criminal offenders.

“We need to make sure there are consequences to committing crime,” Bowser told reporters after a meeting with community leaders earlier this week. “Consequences in many cases can be a way to stop a kid from graduating to more violent offenses,” she said.

Bowser recently vetoed legislation by the D.C. Council that revised the criminal code to reduce maximum sentences for some serious crimes. Her veto was overridden.

“We don’t make ourselves safer by necessarily having a very aggressive, tough-on-crime response to everything,” said Brian Schwalb, attorney general for the District of Columbia, in an interview with WJLA-TV.

While there may be no single cure for gun violence afflicting urban youth, communities in Washington and elsewhere are looking to boost engagement with at-risk youngsters.

“We have got to give these kids and young people something meaningful to do,” said Ron Moten, a community activist. “We have to give youth the platforms they need to succeed so they will reject turning to crime.”

Others are simply pleading with young people to stop the gun violence.

“If you need a job, we will get you one. If you need support or mentoring, we’re here for you, but you got to make the change,” said D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George during a recent demonstration to address the rash of shootings. “Killing and shooting in our neighborhoods is unacceptable, especially when our babies are being shot and some killed.”

Federal legislation

Last June, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the first major federal legislation limiting firearms in a generation. A major component of the law seeks to deny firearms to those deemed to be a threat to public safety.

Congress passed the gun safety bill with bipartisan backing one month after an 18-year-old gunman wielding a semiautomatic assault weapon killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

“We have to find out a mechanism that will make a family member see they need to step in” and try to stop a relative who might pose a threat of gun violence, said Northeastern University criminology professor emeritus Jack McDevitt.

“That person should have their guns taken away, at least temporarily,” he told VOA. “We don’t see that being exercised as much as we think it might be, based on the number of guns out there.”

Arctic Blast Grips US Northeast, Bringing Frostbite-Threatening Temperatures

A powerful arctic blast swept into the U.S. Northeast on Friday, pushing temperatures to perilously low levels across the region, including New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, where the wind chill dropped to -79 Celsius, forecasters said.

Wind-child warnings were posted for most of New York state and all six New England states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine — a region home to some 16 million people.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said the deep freeze would be relatively short-lived, but the combination of numbing cold and biting winds gripping the Northeast would pose life-threatening conditions well into Saturday.

Schools in Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, New England’s two largest cities, were among those closed Friday over concerns about the risk of hypothermia and frostbite for children walking to school or waiting for buses.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu declared a state of emergency through Sunday and opened warming centers to help the city’s 650,000-plus residents cope with what the NWS has warned was shaping up to be a “once-in-a-generation” cold front.

The bitter cold forced a rare closing of a floating museum that presents a daily reenactment of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when a band of colonists disguised as Native Americans tossed crates of tea taxed by the king into Boston Harbor in protest.

“It’s too cold for that, we’re closed,” a receptionist at the museum said Friday.

Early Friday, the arctic surge flowing into the United States from eastern Canada was centered over the U.S. Plains, weather service forecaster Bob Oravec said. Kabetogama, Minnesota, near the Ontario border, was America’s coldest spot at 1 p.m. EST, with a temperature of -39.5 Celsius.

Sub-freezing, blustery conditions spread eastward through the day, sending wind-chill factors — measuring the combined effect of wind and cold on the body — plunging into the –40s across much of Maine, NWS meteorologist Brian Hurley said.

In Mount Washington State Park, atop the Northeast’s highest peak, temperatures fell to -43 Celsius on Friday evening, with sustained winds of 145 kph driving wind chill to -76 Celsius, according to Hurley.

By comparison, air temperatures in Eureka, Canada’s northernmost Arctic weather station, were hovering at -40 Celsius on Friday morning.

Boston was at -13 Celsius on Friday evening, while in Worcester, Massachusetts, 64 kilometers to the west, the mercury hit -16 C, with temperatures expected to fall even lower, Hurley said.

Record cold was expected in both cities Saturday.

Forecasts called for a low of –21 Celsius in Boston, exceeding an 1886 record –19 Celsius for the date. Worcester was headed for a low of –24 Celsius on Saturday, which would break its previous 1934 record of -20 for the date.

‘Before the real cold hits’

Despite the extreme cold, Nhon Ma, a Belgium native, was out Friday with his Zinneken’s food truck near Boston University selling Belgian waffles made from homemade batter and keeping warm with three or four waffle irons going at once.

“Those create heat, but of course it’s cold, it’s going to be cold, but we’re here,” Ma said.

In a frigid Biddeford, Maine, about 150 kilometers north of Boston, Katie Pinard, owner of a coffee and book shop, said business was brisk as customers came in from the cold, with some opting to work from her shop, Elements: Books Coffee Beer, rather than commute.

“Yeah, Mainers are pretty hardy, but talk to me tomorrow and we’ll see if we’re busy or not,” she said, looking ahead to Saturday morning, when temperatures were expected to drop to -28 Celsius. “I think people are out and doing what they need to get done before the real cold hits.”

While the Northeast was hunkering down, Texas and parts of the South were starting to warm up in the aftermath of a deadly winter ice storm that brought days of freezing rain, sleet and ice, causing massive power outages and dangerously icy roads.

But the weather was warming up, with temperatures in Austin, Texas, expected to hit 11 Celsius on Friday and 22 Celsius by Monday, forecasts say.

Meanwhile, a Pacific storm was expected to bring another round of heavy snow to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains Saturday night. Periods of moderate rainfall were forecast in lower elevations of central and northern California and the Pacific Northwest through the weekend.