November 13, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Your chances of encountering an infected person – according to this interactive map

Let’s say you want to know how risky it would be if you wanted to go home to Nashville for the weekend or to Dallas for Thanksgiving or to squeeze in a Utah ski trip. The peer-reviewed COVID-19 Risk Assessment Planning Tool, built by Georgia Tech researchers, helps you see the risks of gatherings across the country.
Let’s assume you are going to be someplace where there are 50 people. Your chances of being in contacted with an infected person are:


To use the tool, look on the left side of the page and move the slider to set the size of the group you might encounter. If you planned go to a bar, a wedding, an airport or a family Thanksgiving meal, you would need to adjust the bar for each. The LA Times talked with one of the researchers who developed the tool:

“In a way it’s like a weather map,” said Clio Andris, a professor of city and regional planning and interactive computing at Georgia Tech who helped Weitz build out the tool. “It can tell you what the risk is that it will rain, but it can’t tell you if you’ll get wet. That depends on if you carry an umbrella, or if you choose not to go outside at all.”

The map is updated daily with the latest information on how many cases have been tallied in every county across America. Therefore, an 8% chance of encountering an infected person on Monday could become a 12% risk by Friday.

The tool also assumes that the actual number of coronavirus cases is up to 10 times higher than what’s in the official reports, because not all cases will be caught by tests.

Marriages ‘stronger and more appreciative’ despite COVID stress

The American Family Survey (AFS), a recent nationally representative survey of 3,000 Americans, sponsored by the Deseret News and Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, in connection with, says most American couples believe the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more and deepened their commitment to marriage. And for couples who have hit on hard financial times, many say the financial troubles have made them turn toward their spouse, not away from them. There may be a Thanksgiving angle in this data if you are looking for a story on how the pandemic has made couples more thankful for each other.


So far in 2020, the divorce rate is continuing its downward trajectory, as it has for 40 years. Now, divorce is at a 50-year low in the United States.


Now wait a minute. Not many months ago, there was a lot of speculation that the pandemic would ignite a lot more divorces, but now we find that may not be true. What gives? University of Virginia sociology professor Brad Wilcox explained:

“Tough and traumatic times can change our priorities, our perspective and our devotion to friends and family for the better. When we face trials with a strong social network, the right perspective or a deep faith – as [former UVA psychology professor] Jonathan Haidt notes in “The Happiness Hypothesis” – adversity is more likely to lead to growth, strength, joy and self-improvement rather than the opposite.”

In particular, COVID time has made plenty of us develop a new appreciation for how much we depend upon our spouse – to help care for older parents, tutor the kids, run to the grocery store, bring in a paycheck, or lend a listening ear when we’re at our wits’ end. In fact, a majority of husbands and wives report COVID has made them appreciate their spouses more. So, for many, the COVID crucible seems to have made their marriages stronger.

I think the lockdowns have inhibited divorces for some couples. So I predict an uptick in 2021 divorces. But, then, like we saw in the last Great Recession, a decline in the divorce rate.

You know, the divorce rate has fallen by 20% since the Great Recession, in part, I think, because people have become more cautious about leaving their marriage in a world that seems increasingly insecure. I think the propensity to see marriage as safe harbor in tumultuous times will only increase – for those who tie the knot or are already married.

But the divorce rate may be getting lower partner because people are less likely to get married at all.  Again, the Institute for Family Studies data says:

Given the lockdown, not to mention dramatic increases in unemployment and economic insecurity in the wake of COVID, it’s no surprise that the American Family Survey also suggests the marriage rate is falling — and will keep falling in the near future. Among unmarried Americans ages 55 and younger, 6% reported an increase in wedding plans, while 7% said they are postponing their marriage. America’s marriage rate, already at a record low, seems destined to fall further in 2020 and 2021.

Initial data from the states indicates a dramatic decline in marriage for 2020, with year-to-date marriage licenses issued:

  • down 18% in Hawaii
  • down 17% in Florida
  • down 9% in Arizona
  • down 8% in Oregon

The graphic below shows the year-over-year change in marriage certificates filed in each month for each state, as examples of what you might find where you are:

(Institute for Family Studies)

COVID devastates taxi businesses

Before the pandemic, taxi drivers all over the U.S. and Canada told me they were barely hanging on because Uber and Lyft were killing them. Add the pandemic and taxi owners say  they are barely hanging on. Not only are there not enough riders, but drivers have gotten sick, some have died and the fear is non-stop.

Macy’s Thanksgiving ‘parade’ plans-no crowd, balloons go one block

The New York City Macy’s Thanksgiving parade usually attracts more than three million people and runs two and a half miles. This year the giant balloons will float down one city block and there will be no crowds. It will be a mostly TV event.

Tracking McDonald’s ‘broken’ ice cream machines

Finally, we have a website tracking reports of broken ice cream machines around the country. Twitter and Instagram users are constantly asking why they cannot get ice cream. McDonalds says it is exciting to see people care about its ice cream.

Facial recognition for bears

This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but it is dang interesting. Scientists have developed a facial recognition software that identifies bears who have no unique markings. They looked at more than 4,000 images of more than 132 bears and more than 8 out of 10 times were able to correctly ID the bear.

The times in which we live

CTV reports:
Researchers from Hungary are holding the Genius Dog Challenge, which pits six of the world’s smartest dogs against one another to show who is able to best learn the names of new objects.

The contest will be live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook.

I like the image, but it is not really an accurate reporting of this important event. All of the dogs participating in the competition are Border collies, and they come from Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Hungary and Florida.

The Florida dog’s name is Squall and the 4-year-old currently knows the names of 55 toys. The know-it-all named Whisky from Norway allegedly “knows the names of more than 100 toys.” I mean seriously, can YOU name 100 toys?

After the competition, we expect the Florida dog to a demand a recount.  A one-month delay in declaring a winner would be equal to six human months.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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