PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A rural church wedding and reception on a beautiful day in the shadow of Mount Katahdin was no doubt a happy day. But it has spread misery ever since.
That single event on Aug. 7 is linked to outbreaks in at least two other locations in Maine, with more than 170 people contracting the virus and seven deaths since.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said the single event has the power to undo much of the state’s progress during the pandemic. The virus can become “the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event in Maine,” he warned.
The “super spreader” event started with wedding attendees in the Katahdin region and spread to the community at large and to a nursing home in Madison. An attendee worked at the York County Jail, 220 miles (355 kilometers) away, where there are more than 70 cases. The state is also investigating an outbreak at a church in Sanford, home of the wedding’s officiant.
The ramifications were swift.
Across the state, brides and grooms scrambled as event venues reassessed safety rules during the pandemic. The reception venue lost its business license, briefly, and hired a public relations firm. The pastor hired a law firm that specializes in religious liberty.
The outbreak changed the calculus of state health officials, who urged renewed vigilance in a state that had largely controlled the virus previously, Shah said.
“It is spreading in the community in and around York County with remarkable force,” he said.
The epicenter was an unlikely place. Millinocket is a rural community that serves as gateway to North Woods made famous by Henry David Thoreau. Prior to the wedding, the community had no cases of the coronavirus.
It unfolded on a sunny day in August with a wedding at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket and a reception at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, population 4,400.
There were 65 guests at the Big Moose Inn — violating the state’s 50-person limit for indoor events — and many attendees didn’t wear masks or socially distance from each other, state officials said. Other guests not affiliated with the wedding brought the number to more than 100.
The officiant at the wedding, the Rev. Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, joined several members of his congregation. About 10 of his congregants also have tested positive for the virus. He declined to speak to The Associated Press.
Bell continued to hold services in Sanford and bristled over attacks aimed at him on social media. In one sermon, he urged people to put their trust in God over government and questioned the wisdom of masks, likening their effectiveness to a chain-link fence trying to keep out mosquitoes.
On a video, which is no longer public on YouTube, he said he’s been “reviled” because of the wedding.
Indeed many people have questioned the wisdom of having such a gathering in the midst of a pandemic.
“Tragic is the word for things that we don’t have any control over. In this case, we don’t have control over the virus but this pastor absolutely had the choice whether to perform the wedding,” said the Rev. Erika Hewitt, a Unitarian Universalist in Bath.
Already struggling, Maine’s summer wedding industry tightened rules, forcing people to pare down guest lists, or cancel events altogether.
In Belfast, Thom Roberts nearly blew a gasket when the Boathouse notified his daughter the venue might cancel her wedding.
“We have people already paid for travel arrangements, airline arrangements, rooms, and COVID-19 testing before traveling. Don’t mess with my daughter’s wedding less than a month before it,” he said on social media.
His daughter, Amber, said she’d already reduced her guest list, and informed guests of Maine’s quarantine and testing requirements. Her wedding is outside but she may have to drop more people from an indoor reception.
“I worry and stress out very easily,” said the bride-to-be. “We’re trying very hard to follow their guidelines so we can have a happy day.”
Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed to this report.
Queen Elizabeth II to trim costs as COVID-19 hits income
LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her family are facing a 35 million pound ($45 million) hit from the coronavirus pandemic, partly due to a shortage of tourists, the monarch’s money-manager said Friday.
Releasing the royal household’s annual accounts, Keeper of the Privy Purse Michael Stevens said a lack of income from visitors to royal buildings was likely to bring a general funding shortfall of 15 million pounds ($19 million) over three years.
He said the impact of the pandemic is also likely to cause a 20 million-pound ($25.4 million) shortfall in a 10-year, 369-million-pound program to replace antiquated heating, plumbing and wiring at Buckingham Palace, the queen’s London home.
Officials have said the palace’s aging infrastructure, which had its last major upgrade after World War II, is at risk of a catastrophic failure if it’s not replaced.
Stevens said the royal household would not ask for more government money but would “look to manage the impact through our own efforts and efficiencies.”
Buckingham Palace has already introduced a staff pay freeze and a halt to hiring.
The accounts show that the monarchy cost British taxpayers 69.4 million pounds ($88.2 million) in the year to the end of March, an increase of 2.4 million ($3.1 million) on the previous financial year.
The accounts also show that Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, paid an undisclosed sum to reimburse the public purse for rent and refurbishment of their Frogmore Cottage home near Windsor Castle. The exact sum will appear in next year’s accounts. The renovation costs alone for the home were 2.4 million pounds ($3.1 million.)
Harry, 36 and the former Meghan Markle, 39, married at Windsor Castle in May 2018. The couple announced early this year they were quitting royal duties and moving to North America, citing what they said was the unbearable intrusions and racist attitudes of the British media. They recently bought a house in Santa Barbara, California.
Harry and Meghan signed a lucrative deal this month to produce nature series, documentaries and children’s programming for streaming service Netflix.
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3 ‘Strong Buy’ Stocks With Over 7% Dividend Yield
Markets are volatile, there can be no doubt. So far this month, the S&P 500 has fallen 9% from its peak. The tech-heavy NASDAQ, which had led the gainers all summer, is now leading the on the fall, having lost 11% since September 2. The three-week tumble has investors worried that we may be on the brink of another bear market.The headwinds are strong. The usual September swoon, the upcoming election, doubts about another round of economic stimulus – all are putting downward pressure on the stock markets.Which doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities. As the old saw goes, “Bulls and bears can both make money, while the pigs get slaughtered.” A falling market may worry investors, but a smart strategy can prevent the portfolio from losing too much long-term value while maintaining a steady income. Dividend stocks, which feed into the income stream, can be a key part of such a strategy.Using the data available in the TipRanks database, we’ve pulled up three stocks with high yields – from 7% to 11%, or up to 6 times the average dividend found on the S&P 500 index. Even better, these stocks are seen as Strong Buys by Wall Street’s analysts. Let’s find out why.Williams Companies (WMB)We start with Williams Companies, an Oklahoma-based energy company. Williams controls pipelines connecting Rocky Mountain natural gas fields with the Pacific Northwest region, and Appalachian and Texan fields with users in the Northeast and transport terminals on the Gulf Coast. The company’s primary operations are the processing and transport of natural gas, with additional ops in crude oil and energy generation. Williams handles nearly one-third of all US commercial and residential natural gas use.The essential nature of Williams’ business – really, modern society simply cannot get along without reliable energy sources – has insulated the company from some of the economic turndown in 1H20. Quarterly revenues slid from $2.1 billion at the end of last year to $1.9 billion in Q1 and $1.7 billion in Q2. EPS in the first half was 26 cents for Q1 and 25 cents for Q2 – but this was consistent with EPS results for the previous three quarters. The generally sound financial base supported the company’s reliable dividend. Williams has been raising that payment for the past four years, and even the corona crisis could not derail it. At 40 cents per common share, the dividend annualizes to $1.60 and yields an impressive 7.7%. The next payment is scheduled for September 28.Truist analyst Tristan Richardson sees Williams as one of the midstream sector’s best positioned companies.“We continue to look to WMB as a defensive component of midstream and favor its 2H prospects as broader midstream grasps at recovery… Beyond 2020 we see the value proposition as a stable footprint with free cash flow generation even in the current environment. We also see room for incremental leverage reduction throughout our forecast period on scaled back capital plans and even with the stable dividend. We look for modestly lower capex in 2021, however unlike more G&P oriented midstream firms, we see a project backlog in downstream that should support very modest growth,” Richardson noted.Accordingly, Richardson rates WMB shares as a Buy, and his $26 price target implies a 30% upside potential from current levels. (To watch Richardson’s track record, click here)Overall, the Strong Buy analyst consensus rating on WMB is based on 11 Buy reviews against just a single Hold. The stock’s current share price is $19.91 and the average price target is $24.58, making the one-year upside potential 23%. (See WMB stock analysis on TipRanks)Magellan Midstream (MMP)The second stock on our list is another midstream energy company, Magellan. This is another Oklahoma-based firm, with a network of assets across much of the US from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi Valley, and into the Southeast. Magellan’s network transports crude oil and refined products, and includes Gulf Coast export shipping terminals.Magellan’s total revenues rose sequentially to $782.8 in Q1, and EPS came in at $1.28, well above the forecast. These numbers turned down drastically in Q2, as revenue fell to $460.4 million and EPS collapsed to 65 cents. The outlook for Q3 predicts a modest recovery, with EPS forecast at 85 cents. The company strengthened its position in the second quarter with an issue of 10-year senior notes, totaling $500 million, at 3.25%. This reduced the company’s debt service payments, and shored up liquidity, making possible the maintenance of the dividend.The dividend was kept steady at $1.0275 per common share quarterly. Annualized, this comes to $4.11, a good absolute return, and gives a yield of 11.1%, giving MMP a far higher return than Treasury bonds or the average S&P-listed stock.Well Fargo analyst Praneeth Satish believes that MMP has strong prospects for recovery. “[We] view near-term weakness in refined products demand as temporary and recovering. In the interim, MMP remains well positioned given its strong balance sheet and liquidity position, and ratable cash flow stream…” Satish goes on to note that the dividend appears secure for the near-term: “The company plans to maintain the current quarterly distribution for the rest of the year.”In line with this generally upbeat outlook, Satish gives MMP an Overweight (i.e. Buy) rating, and a $54 price target that implies 57% growth in the coming year. (To watch Satish’s track record, click here)Net net, MMP shares have a unanimous Strong Buy analyst consensus rating, a show of confidence by Wall Street’s analyst corps. The stock is selling for $33.44, and the average price target of $51.13 implies 53% growth in the year ahead. (See MMP stock analysis on TipRanks)Ready Capital Corporation (RC)The second stock on our list is a real estate investment trust. No surprise finding one of these in a list of strong dividend payers – REITs have long been known for their high dividend payments. Ready Capital, which focuses on the commercial mortgage niche of the REIT sector, has a portfolio of loans in real estate securities and multi-family dwellings. RC has provided more than $3 billion in capital to its loan customers.In the first quarter of this year, when the coronavirus hit, the economy turned south, and business came to a standstill, Ready Capital took a heavy blow. Revenues fell by 58%, and Q1 EPS came in at just one penny. Things turned around in Q2, however, after the company took measures – including increasing liquidity, reducing liabilities, and increasing involvement in government-sponsored lending – to shore up business. Revenues rose to $87 million and EPS rebounded to 70 cents.In the wake of the strong Q2 results, RC also started restoring its dividend. In Q1 the company had slashed the payment from 40 cents to 25 cents; in the most recent declaration, for an October 30 payment, the new dividend is set at 30 cents per share. This annualizes to $1.20 and gives a strong yield of 9.9%.Crispin Love, writing from Piper Sandler, notes the company’s success in getting back on track.“Given low interest rates, Ready Capital had a record $1.2B in residential mortgage originations versus our $1.1B estimate. Gain on sale margins were also at record levels. We are calculating gain on sale margins of 3.7%, up from 2.4% in 1Q20,” Love wrote.In a separate note, written after the dividend declaration, Love added, “We believe that the Board’s actions show an increased confidence for the company to get back to its pre-pandemic $0.40 dividend. In recent earnings calls, management has commented that its goal is to get back to stabilized earnings above $0.40, which would support a dividend more in-line with pre-pandemic levels.”To this end, Love rates RC an Overweight (i.e. Buy) along with a $12 price target, suggesting an upside of 14%. (To watch Love’s track record, click here)All in all, Ready Capital has a unanimous Strong Buy analyst consensus rating, based on 4 recent positive reviews. The stock has an average price target of $11.50, which gives a 9% upside from the current share price of $10.51. (See RC stock analysis on TipRanks)To find good ideas for dividend stocks trading at attractive valuations, visit TipRanks’ Best Stocks to Buy, a newly launched tool that unites all of TipRanks’ equity insights.Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the featured analysts. The content is intended to be used for informational purposes only. It is very important to do your own analysis before making any investment.
The DeanBeat: Agent Venture makes Zoom time fun again
Escape rooms have taken a big hit during the pandemic. But they’ve moved online, into Zoom calls and other video solutions, and that may save us all while we’re still locked in isolation.
These games are an example of the human need for play. Clever game developers are adapting escape rooms into online-only episodes that you can play with your friends while you’re talking in a Zoom meeting. Such entertainment is a lifeline during COVID-19. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of calls on Zoom or other meeting platforms, and this really hits the spot.
I played an online adventure called Agent Venture from the United Kingdom-based The Adventure Is Real. You participate in a Zoom call with up to four of your friends and go on a mission, assisting a secret agent as he tries to infiltrate the operations of the evil B.A.D. Corp. headquarters and foil the crimes of the wicked CEO, J. Bozo.
The contact on the ground, Agent Venture, is played by an actor, whose face you never see. They supply the drama and voices for multiple characters. Your group of four or five friends serves as the remote team, dubbed CRTL, to help get Agent Venture where he needs to go. And the agent doubles as the game’s coach in case your team gets stuck.
How it came to be
Agent Venture originated with Chris Sytlianou, a former accountant who wanted to build an escape room. He met an actor, Jason Phelps, who had done escape rooms before. They collaborated on the story. Sytlianou formed the company, The Adventure is Real, and became managing director. Their first escape room went online in London at the end of 2019. But the pandemic derailed their plans to spread out.
“We launched an immersive board game experience at the end of last year, sort of like Dungeons & Dragons as an escape room,” said Stylianou. “We hit momentum at the end of February. That was right around lockdown.”
They decided to move online. To get their first script up and running, the team gave themselves a deadline of two weeks.
“We put our physical experience on hiatus and created something new,” Stylianou said. “It was too had to do a sword and sorcery experience in Zoom. We had to design for the lockdown. We had to make it feel immersive for a group of friends sitting around on a computer. That’s where we got the idea of a spy team talking to each other through computers.”
It’s like the team that helps James Bond on his missions. At the outset, the game had “huge demand,” Stylianou said. The company can now do 40 or so sessions per week, with a number of actors and actresses contributing as guides. All of the performers have training in improvisation.
“We’re very much in uncharted territory and circumstances are changing all of the time,” Stylianou said. “We just want people to have something fun to play with people all over the country or the world.”
I’ve played two of the episodes now with my Facebook friends. Tammy McDonald served as our hacker both times. Chris Cataldi was our navigator. Mike Prasad was our researcher. And Ted Tagami and Stephen Ip alternated on different episodes as the communicator. I served as the head of the team, the coordinator, and was largely responsible for nothing.
When you sign up for a mission, you pay $17.86 (£14) a person for evenings or $12.76 (£10) a person for afternoons. You get an invitation to a Zoom session at a pre-scheduled time. The game lasts about 80 minutes, with 60 minutes of that time racing against the clock and the rest for tutorials.
Assembling your A-team
The mission is designed to be immersive, with a focus on audio communication. If you need to look at documents, the agent shares them with you via Google Drive. The visuals, like a map of the target area for the mission, are simple maps of buildings or their surroundings. When you guide the agent into a building, he has to narrate what he sees to you. The navigator figures out where he is on the map and issues audio instructions to the agent on how to maneuver past obstacles or guards.
The navigator spends most of the game looking at the floor plans and guiding the agent. The hacker has to look at a set of puzzles that are in the Google Drive. McDonald had to solve the puzzles in order to break into B.A.D.’s servers, open security doors, and find secrets. Her interface was full of technical language whose sole purpose seemed to throw us all off while we needed to do something urgently. If you’re going to choose a hacker, you have to find someone good at sudoku or logic. This was not me.
The researcher was also inundated with a bunch of documents that seemed irrelevant until they were needed in the storyline. The researcher also had to sift through those docs to find something that could help us get past an obstacle, like finding a character that would cause the evil CEO to go berserk and give us an opening.
The communicator was in charge of calling via telephone or radio to social engineer the guards or employees into granting access to security protocols that stood in our way. As coordinator, I wasn’t really necessary. But I did make use of four computer screens to try to monitor what was happening with each member of the team so we could all solve problems together.
We had worked out our roles ahead of time, and Agent Venture gave us our relevant docs one at a time. We could all see each other on Zoom and share our screens when we needed to. But we could never see Jason, our agent. We only heard his voice coming from behind an image of a man in a mask. That added some mystery, and it enabled one actor to voice different characters.
“If we showed a physical actor, we needed to show them in some kind of background and change that around as they moved around,” Stylianou said. “We decided to rely on the actor for narration to tell our story.”
Our heist mission
The hardest part was scheduling a time that worked for all of us. We all managed to show up on time. And then we went into the first episode, The Heist. It took a good 10 minutes for Agent Venture to narrate the plot to us, describe our roles, and answer our questions.
I started out as the coordinator by helping our hacker to get the agent into the building. She had to sort through hyperlinks, find the right puzzle to solve, and then the agent would describe what happened after she solved a puzzle. He would say, for instance, that a door opened. We shared the docs, but it was clear that I had no idea how to solve it, and McDonald had to do it all herself.
While we were talking, the navigator and the researcher figured out the best path to get through reception on the ground floor. They had a list of approved names and other ways to finagle their way past security. The aim was to get to the top floor to the CEO’s office and steal something. Then we were supposed to make our way back down from the skyscraper and escape with the goods.
Prasad figured out how to get to the service elevators and take a fake delivery upstairs. The team had to instruct the agent where to go at every turn. The agent would tell us if a door was locked and needed to be hacked. Our communicator had to smooth talk employees into helping us.
We didn’t accomplish our first goal in 30 minutes, which was the deadline. Our agent got caught. But then we had to figure out how to save the agent’s life and help him escape. Our communications guy, Tagami, managed to spring a trap on the CEO. I had no idea he was going to do it, but it worked and it bought us precious time. I counted down the time as the team worked. We managed to escape with just 24 seconds left on the clock. We were exultant. The 80 minutes flew by, and I was tired after we were done. We got a chance to do a postmortem and then we took a Zoom picture to celebrate. The end experience felt like we had just finished a ride at Disneyland.
“We wanted to create something where people had to coordinate and do their part,” Stylianou said. “We wanted a team environment where the information is imperfect and people have to use their tools. You could also help each other so the team wasn’t held back by a weak link.”
Of course, I think I was the weak link as coordinator, but I felt like I didn’t have any strict responsibility, so I didn’t do so much damage as the leader. If I did anything good, it was to tell the team to work on multiple things at once and then pay attention to the time we had left. I was the taskmaster, and my advantage was having multiple monitors to soak in the big picture. But if your team doesn’t have a coordinator, you can still complete the game with just four people, Stylianou said.
When we were struggling, the actor stepped in and offered us some clues. But he never told us exactly what to do.
It would have helped us enormously to get all of our documents ahead of time. Instead, we got a couple of sentences describing our roles, and the actor shared the Google Drive with us as we joined the Zoom call. All of this information coming at the last minute was overwhelming. I asked Stylianou why they didn’t just give this to us ahead of time. The idea was that they wanted us to work under pressure and feel like we were always barely figuring out what we needed to do.
“We wanted the game to feel frantic,” Stylianou said. “The overwhelming amount of information imbues a level of panic and tension. We also wanted to create something that was log in and play.”
The first episode was originally half the length it was now. It was a half hour, and players thought that it was too short. So they extended the episode with more events that follow one of the dramatic moments.
“At that point, people enjoyed the length better,” Stylianou said.
Mission on Cyborg Island
The second episode was Cyborg Island. It was also an 80-minute mission, and it took place on B.A.D.’s island full of guards and cyber drones. Our team knew what to do this time, but all of the materials were different, and we had different challenges to overcome.
We had to make our way through a cargo area with guards and then break into a casino, make our way to the high-roller suites, and then break into a secret compound.
We had to maneuver Agent Venture across a grid. We relished our solution of dumping a truck full of rubbish an obstacle that helped us get on our way. I laughed when Ip, our new social engineer, extemporized by demanding his high-roller suite have green M&Ms.
It turned out that we needed a certain kind of puzzle solver to unlock a key part of the game. McDonald and I didn’t have this skill, but Cataldi had it. I won’t spoil what it was, but Cataldi solved that problem in a matter of seconds. I wouldn’t have solved that puzzle in a million years.
Sadly, we ran out of time on the second mission. We were sweaty and had fun, but the game defeated us that time.
Right now, Agent Venture is getting popular through word of mouth. It’s a small business now, but it’s growing. The team is adding a third mission soon in the Agent Venture series. Over time, the team can make the game more sophisticated or even more like a video game, where you can do a lot more on the computer than reading a doc in a Google Drive.
Overall, I thought it was so fun to sit back and see how people adjusted to their roles. It was a great teambuilding experience. It reminded me of Skillprint, a company that observes people playing games and discerns their personalities. Stylianou said it was gratifying to see this take off, especially since he was in a state of panic when the gravity of the pandemic sunk in.
“We had to decide if we pack everything up and wait until everything goes back to normal,” Stylianou said. “We decided to take a bit of a risk and try something new. We’ve tried to be resourceful, and our focus is on making it accessible.”
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