A Confusing Message

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The White House added to the confusion late yesterday by sending an email to staff members telling them they would again need to wear masks. The email explained that the C.D.C. had recently upgraded Washington, D.C., to having “substantial” transmission, from “moderate.” The online C.D.C. map, however, still showed the city as yellow, meaning it had only modest transmission.

All of which raises a question: Should Americans assume that the new mask guidelines will soon apply to almost the entire country — or will remain highly regional, focused on the south and other less vaccinated regions? I asked government officials yesterday, and they didn’t have a solid answer.

The power of clarity

Clear messaging is one of the most powerful tools that public health officials have, but only when they use it. And the C.D.C. and the Biden administration did not do so yesterday. They failed to convey whether they wanted the entire country to begin changing its behavior — or whether they were focusing on only some regions, which happen to be the very places that require special attention to reach.

The new guidelines will still probably help somewhat. The highly contagious Delta variant has fueled a rise in cases across the country, which means that masks may make at least a small difference almost everywhere. But more frequent masking in heavily vaccinated communities will almost certainly not make a major difference. The much larger problem is that more than 30 percent of eligible Americans have not been vaccinated.

“The C.D.C.’s new masking recommendations seem fine to me, but it’s pretty low stakes as compared to anything related to vaccine policy,” Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote. “If you want to get mad at the public health agencies, get mad at them for not having fully authorized the vaccines yet.”

Some experts also said that Americans, frustrated by the long pandemic, need to hear a clear plan for what will allow the masks to come off. “If we want to continue to ask people to step up,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, told The Times, “we need to give them a vision of what we’re working toward.”

Latest virus news:

Willing to Accept Whatever

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MONDAY PUZZLE — It’s always satisfying to watch someone learn to make puzzles and hone their skills to the point where a crossword they’ve created is published.

But there is a substantial learning curve. To paraphrase Boromir from “Lord of the Rings,” constructors do not simply walk into Crossword Mordor and see your byline. There is an art to making a puzzle that fills successfully and uses exciting, legitimate entries. It needs a tight theme if it is a themed puzzle. The clues must be concise, snappy and appropriate for the day of the week on which the crossword is intended to run. Oh, and it’s important to know your market. If you argue with the editors about content that they deem unacceptable for their outlet, you have told them something about yourself: Not only are you not familiar with their product, but you may be difficult to work with. That will not end in your favor.

Many aspiring constructors stop at trying to fill the puzzle, surprised by how hard it is to get good, allover fill. They are also often surprised by how much harder it is to make a puzzle than it is to solve one. And they’re right. Those are two completely different skill sets.

There are also aspiring constructors who believe they can make a puzzle without any help. That may be true for some, but I believe that the majority of people who submit puzzles would truly benefit from learning the ropes from an experienced constructor. There is no reasonable downside to it, and it gives you an advantage: You’re learning quickly and from someone who knows what makes a good puzzle, as opposed to guessing and being rejected.

Little Bird of Mine

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Tricky Clues

22A. The brand name JUUL makes its New York Times Crossword debut. This is notable for the letter arrangement, and not for the distinct lack of health benefits when it comes to vaping. Stay in school. Or just say no. And remove yourself from my lawn.

39A. Very cute clue. “Little bird of mine?” sounds like a term of endearment for an avian pet, but this clue is really asking you for a little bird that you might find in a (coal) mine. Proverbially or otherwise, the answer is CANARY.

44A. Hi, kids! In the 1990s, a fitness instructor named Billy Blanks released a series of video tapes (ask your parents) of quasi-martial arts workouts that he called TAE BO. They became very popular as a way to workout at home, and with the pandemic, Mr. Blanks feels that TAE BO is even more relevant today. He has expanded his workouts to YouTube so everyone can try them.

59A. If something “Swarms (with),” say, cicadas, it can be said that it TEEMs with them. And that is all well and good, even if the gigantic carcasses that are eventually strewn all over my backyard at the end of summer gross me out.

But in the interests of science, I thought you all might appreciate knowing exactly what those swarms of cicadas are doing before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Some of them apparently become infected with a fungus that sends them into a wild tizzy of — I’m trying to think of a standards-friendly way to say this — sexual congress until their butts fall off. I’m not even kidding. Your neighborhood may be festooned with hordes of buttless cicadas at this very moment. No, don’t thank me; you can thank Smithsonian magazine for this moment of scholarship.