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Morning News Brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukrainians are waiting to see what Russia does next.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

They're waiting for a new Russian offensive against the eastern part of the country. That's expected as Russia tries to refocus after multiple failures. But as Ukrainians wait, multiple cities face Russian attacks. On the Black Sea coast, the defenders of a port city face an ultimatum, and in the far west, missiles fell on a Ukrainian city.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in yet another Ukrainian city under threat and is going to catch us up. Eyder, welcome.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Leila mentioned missiles striking a western city, Lviv, which I know you've passed through. What happened there?

PERALTA: Yeah, look; that's - it's not far from the border with Poland. And throughout this conflict, it has been a safe haven. It had received very few air strikes, and the city felt, in a lot of ways, totally normal. Restaurants were open. People were strolling through the parks and squares. It's home to a lot of Ukrainians who have fled from more dangerous parts of the country. But today, local authorities say several Russian missiles struck the city. They say that civilians were killed and that one of the missiles hit a tire repair shop, but most were aimed at infrastructure. These are the first fatalities that have been recorded in the city of Lviv. And we spoke to one resident who said that Lviv had felt safe, but these strikes change everything.

INSKEEP: Then there's this ultimatum against Mariupol, which has not felt safe at all throughout the war. Defenders have held out for weeks. But what is the Russian threat?

PERALTA: Look; it feels like over the past few days the war is intensifying. And Mariupol, you know, it's a city that's almost entirely destroyed. The Russians say that they have gotten the upper hand. Ukrainians say that their forces there have not given up, despite the Russian ultimatum. And we should note that Mariupol is entirely under siege. It has been from the beginning of this war. So it has been mostly cut off from the outside world. We don't have a clear idea of what's happening there. Farther to the north, the fighting in Kharkiv has intensified. Witnesses there tell us that the center of the city has been bombarded. When we were there, the front lines were pretty stable, but now the Ukrainian military says its troops are on the offensive. So fighting is intensifying everywhere. I think the big question is whether all of this new fighting is the beginning of the Russian offensive that Ukraine and its Western allies have been warning about for weeks.

INSKEEP: You've been putting your finger on different parts of the Ukrainian map as we're talking here. Let's do one more. The city where you are, center of the country, Dnipro - what are you seeing there?

PERALTA: It's quiet. Actually, the air raid just went off right now. But it's quiet. Yesterday, the Orthodox Church celebrated Palm Sunday, which is the beginning of Holy Week, and the air raid siren went off then, and that still didn't stop people from waiting outside the church to get their palms blessed. I spoke to a couple there, Savidge Alexei (ph) and Zincheko Valentina (ph), outside the church. Let's listen.

Does this mean something different this year, this Easter season?

SAVIDGE ALEXEI: (Through interpreter) Pretty much, you can't feel it at all.

ZINCHEKO VALENTINA: (Through interpreter) I'm a strong believer, and obviously, when I go to church, I put some candles for our military and for our guys, to protect them. And I don't know how reasonable it is to do it. Maybe it's a bit strange thing (laughter). But I also do one candle always for death of Putin.

PERALTA: A candle for the death of Putin. So yeah, look; you can see spring flowers here, and people are planning gatherings for Orthodox Easter next week, but there's always this sense of unease, of fear that death and destruction of this war could catch up with you at any moment.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Dnipro, Ukraine. Thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A holy weekend in Jerusalem was also a weekend of violence.

FADEL: Israeli forces used stun grenades and tear gas around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and entered the mosque. The hilltop compound is among the holy sites in Jerusalem. Palestinians threw rocks. And all of this and more happened during a convergence of holy days.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's in Jerusalem. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you try to walk us through the last several days?

KENYON: Well, sure. For the first time in something like three decades, the Jewish and Christian holidays of Passover and Easter are taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, so more people than usual are converging on this sensitive area. So early on Friday morning, Palestinians gathered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, seen as the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and some collected rocks. Israeli authorities, which provided protection for Jewish groups visiting the site - which they call the Temple Mount and count as their most sacred holy site - they said the Palestinians were throwing rocks at people. Police responded by storming the mosque compound. Tear gas and stun grenades were used. Palestinians threw rocks back. Medics said some 150 Palestinians were injured Friday. Hundreds of people were arrested. Worst violence in the area in some time.

And then on Sunday, more clashes, as Israel said Palestinians were again attacking visiting Jewish groups. Palestinians threw fireworks. Police moved in, 18 more arrests, some 17 people wounded, although the clashes seemed to be less violent than on Friday. And the Associated Press is now reporting 14 people killed in Israel by Palestinian attackers and 25 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in recent weeks.

INSKEEP: Most of what you described, of course, happened in a very tiny area inside the old city of Jerusalem. When we widen the lens out a little bit and look at the violence of the past month or so, how does that fit together?

KENYON: Well, there has been a series of Palestinian attacks inside Israel, including three shootings and a mass stabbing. Israeli forces are continuing to carry out military operations, arrests and raids in the West Bank, where they've deployed extra troops. And just under a year ago, there was an 11-day war between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. That was preceded by a big police operation at the Al-Aqsa compound, along with Palestinian protests against Israeli plans to evict people from a part of Jerusalem. Hamas wound up firing thousands of rockets into Israel, killing around a dozen. Israel conducted more days of heavy airstrikes in Gaza, killed more than 200. So tensions have been elevated for some time now. And this Holy Week, it seems that it's just getting even sharper.

INSKEEP: You're giving us a reminder that there have been occasions in the past where violence in this one narrow area has widened out to a wider war. So who's trying, if anyone, to make sure that doesn't happen again?

KENYON: Well, there have been calls for restraint, including from Washington. There's also been condemnation of the violence from people like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, who condemned Israel's, quote, "intervention on worshippers." He wrote on Twitter that he spoke with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Erdogan told him that Turkey would stand against provocations and threats. Erdogan, of course, has been trying to mend fences with Israel, too, and he's likely to stay on that path, despite his complaints about these recent clashes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Jerusalem. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Today, Philadelphia becomes the first major city in the country to reinstate an indoor mask mandate.

FADEL: And many have criticized the move as premature since case rates are lower than in other nearby cities and lower than the CDC benchmark for its masking recommendations.

INSKEEP: So what's going on? We've called up health reporter Nina Feldman of WHYY in Philadelphia. Hi there.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I guess you're somewhere by yourself so you don't need to be wearing a mask this morning, right?

FELDMAN: That's right (laughter).

INSKEEP: Just checking on that. OK, so why is it that Philadelphia would be doing this now?

FELDMAN: Philadelphia's decision to reinstate the mask mandate was triggered by a system that the city set up, like the CDC's, to monitor COVID risk, but its own system. So once a combination of case rates and case counts and hospitalizations cross a certain threshold, the mask mandate automatically goes into effect. Hospitalizations here are still very low, but case counts and the rate of increase are both rising, as they are elsewhere. And city officials said, you know, cases might look low, but they're likely a dramatic undercount since so many people are using rapid tests at home now. And they said, you know, they want to get out ahead of a wave before things get even worse. So here's health commissioner Cheryl Bettigole.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHERYL BETTIGOLE: We don't know if the BA.2 variant will have the kind of impact on hospitalizations and deaths that we saw with the original omicron variant this winter. I suspect that this wave will be smaller than the one we saw in January. But if we wait to find out and to put our masks back on, we'll have lost our chance to stop the wave.

FELDMAN: And Bettigole said, you know, it makes sense to put precautions in place sooner here than other places because Philadelphia has a greater proportion of low-income residents than elsewhere, and that's who's more likely to have health conditions that can lead to severe illness.

INSKEEP: OK, so we have an explanation here for why Philadelphia is doing this when the CDC numbers would not seem to support it. It's because they do their own count, and they're making their own judgment, and they're looking at the situation. That's what the health officials say. What about residents? What do they think?

FELDMAN: You know, it's really been a mix. You have some people saying they wish the mandate had never gone away, and they question, you know, why there was even a week delay between when the announcement came and when the policies being implemented today. In that week was Passover and Easter - so lots of chances to gather. And then you have others like the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association who says this is going to be a disastrous blow to business. There's already been a lawsuit filed against the city for this. You know, it is worth noting that under the new rule, restaurants can choose to require proof of vaccination instead of masks. So there are options here.

INSKEEP: Interesting. So that's what some residents think. What about public health experts?

FELDMAN: You know, most of the public health types I talked to were in favor of the move. They acknowledge that there's no perfect time to put restrictions back in place but said better too soon than too late. I spoke with Jennifer Kolker, who's a health management professor here at Drexel University, and she said it's all about balancing an inconvenience you're asking people to make against a benefit to the public.

JENNIFER KOLKER: Public health's job is to protect the public's health through the least restrictive ways possible. That's our charge, right? That's why we don't lock people up with tuberculosis anymore, right? We used to just lock people up. Then you'd have no spread. Can't just do that, so we come up with other ways.

FELDMAN: And, you know, with masks, it can be a little tricky to show that the inconvenience paid off since you're measuring something that didn't happen. That said, the city said if case rates go down again, they'll drop the mask mandate. So I think everyone's sort of watching to see what will happen and if it will look dramatically different here than other places.

INSKEEP: Nina Feldman of WHYY. Thanks so much.

FELDMAN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.