October 12, 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.

The Paycheck Protection Program was a godsend to some businesses that needed it when the pandemic hit. When they applied for the “loan,” they understood that if they used most of the money to keep their workers on the job, they could use the rest to pay for rent and utilities and such.

But the Small Business Administration now says businesses that got less than $50,000 — and that is about 70% of all “borrowers” — can still get loan forgiveness even if they did cut employees. They just have to fill out some additional forms.

The Consumer Bankers Association is pressing for more. The association wants the government to forgive all PPP loans for less than $150,000 and be done with it. It says “mom and pop” businesses should not be spending more time and money filling out more government forms.

96,000 businesses are waiting for the SBA to say for certain that their PPP loans are forgiven. The New York Times says business owners are nervous because if they are denied, it would be curtains for their companies.

The Small Business Administration has been slow to act on loan forgiveness applications that lenders have sent in. The agency began accepting the forms on Aug. 10. By late September, it had received 96,000, but had not yet approved or denied a single application, its chief of staff, William Manger, said at a House subcommittee hearing. By law, the agency has 90 days to respond after it receives an application. A representative of the agency said it had sent its first approvals and loan payments to banks on Oct 2.

Lynn Ozer, a banker who specializes in small-business lending, said borrowers she worked with at Fulton Bank in Lancaster, Pa., were “panicked” at the prospect that their forgivable loans would become debts if they made mistakes on their paperwork.

It’s real and it’s now: driverless taxis in a pandemic

A Chrysler Pacifica hybrid outfitted with Waymo’s suite of sensors and radar is displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Today, in Tampa, the Beep autonomous vehicle begins offering riders the experience of riding in a vehicle with no driver. The Tampa experiment only goes for 12 blocks. But a much bigger driverless project just opened with more ambitious goals.

Last week, Waymo Driver opened its doors for business. It is a driverless taxi company near Phoenix that is opening in a pandemic. The first service area is a 50-square mile area around Phoenix. There are hundreds of these minivans in Phoenix. Waymo announced:

In the near term, 100% of our rides will be fully driverless. We expect our new fully driverless service to be very popular, and we’re thankful to our riders for their patience as we ramp up availability to serve demand. Later this year, after we’ve finished adding in-vehicle barriers between the front row and the rear passenger cabin for in-vehicle hygiene and safety, we’ll also be re-introducing rides with a trained vehicle operator, which will add capacity and allow us to serve a larger geographical area.

As AZCentral puts it:

First, the company will allow the “thousands” of Waymo One riders, who also had to be preapproved to be in the program, to ride in a fully autonomous car. They can bring guests, too.

Once the existing Waymo One customers get the opportunity to ride in an autonomous vehicle, which could take weeks, Waymo offers its app to anyone from either Google Play or the Apple App Store.

The Arizona Republic explains that even though there will be no driver, riders will wear masks:

The roll out is happening in the midst of a pandemic, but the company has implemented steps it believes will help keep riders safe.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said riders are asked via a checklist to confirm they are healthy, haven’t been exposed to COVID-19, and also will insist on riders wearing masks, which the company can confirm via in-car cameras.

He also said that the air in the cabin is “flushed” multiple times between rides to prevent spreading COVID-19.

Waymo, like its sibling Google, is a division of California-based Alphabet Inc.

Tesla’s Elon Musk has trash-talked Waymo’s reliance on maps.

(Screenshot, Twitter)

Fox Business took a ride in one of the taxis. Waymo says it has been “driving more than ten years and millions of miles.” Waymo says it has tested vehicles in 25 cities in 6 states.

Bloomberg says driverless cars are coming in a very few years and not just to big cities. But Marketplace says it’s going to take “a long time” for driverless cars to catch on. But if you alter your expectations some to think about automated cars that take over once you are on the freeway, then you take the wheel again when you need to exit, driverless cars are more than doable within a couple of years.

Think about the implications of this in a pandemic. Think about the fact that a third of auto fatalities involve drunk drivers.

Fox Business’s Liz Claman offers a number of every-person kind of questions:

“What if a squirrel runs out? Waymo CEO John Krafcik says the computerized driver “understand the difference” between how a small animal and a larger one or a person might react and responds differently.

“What would cause it to stop, drop and pull over?” Krafcik said it would pull over for the same reasons that a person might pull over including a massive downpour of rain.

Krafcik says it has been difficult for the company to figure out how to program the cars to navigate parking lots because there is such a mix of shopping carts and people who do not walk in predictable ways.

The American Bar Association raises all sorts of legal questions to consider:

What happens, for example, when an autonomous vehicle crashes into a pedestrian or another motorist? Is it the driver at fault, who never had control of the vehicle in the first place? Is it the artificial intelligence (AI) or automated system developer who created the driving software? Is it the auto manufacturer who assembled and supplied the vehicle?

How should we handle insurance? Once you remove the act of driving and give control to a computer or automated system, how do you determine what constitutes as safe versus risky driving?

Furthermore, when is it legal to take your hands completely off the steering wheel and leave the vehicle in control? Should there be restrictions on what you can do in the car? Should you be allowed to browse social media or use your smartphone while the car navigates for you, for example?

If the vehicle’s AI has to make a split-second decision between saving your life or the lives of passengers in another car nearby, how should it go about doing that?

Automotive World assembled a comprehensive collection of reports and research that raises and tries to answer a lot of other legal issues in the driverless era:

Amtrak and local mass transit say they are facing big layoffs without relief

If driverless rides come just when we don’t want to share a car with somebody else, some of the strongest evidence that we don’t want to be around other people riding to wherever (or that we do not have any place we need to go right now) is the decline of mass transit during the pandemic.

You have heard the cries from airlines, hotels and restaurants. Now Amtrak wants you to know that the passenger rail business is troubled, too, and without new stimulus money it will lay off 2,400 more workers. Amtrak says its ridership is only 25% of pre-COVID levels and it expects its 2020-21 income will be around 40% of what it was before the pandemic.

Reuters says local transit bus and train systems are in financial trouble too:

Major U.S. public transit systems have sought $32 billion to keep municipal buses and trains running. That’s on top of a $25 billion bailout public transit received in April.

Last week, the U.S. private motorcoach, school bus and domestic passenger vessel industries said they collectively furloughed or laid off an estimated 308,000 employees over the last eight months.

“Unlike other modes of transportation, such as airlines, rail and public transit, these transportation industries have not received direct economic relief to date, putting them in peril,” several trade groups said in a joint statement.

Can mass transit recover?

Suddenly, thanks to the pandemic, car ownership is popular again. Can local mass transit franchises recover?

Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan nonprofit, tells Axios, “Unfortunately it’s less an issue of increasing ridership as it is keeping them from disappearing.” 

Axios reports:

While the CARES Act included some federal dollars for urban transportation, experts say it wasn’t enough and will run out imminently, sending, for instance, the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to the brink as early as January.

Puentes says that commuter rails that exist to bring white-collar workers into an urban core have seen ridership plummet as much as 97%, while the overall figure for rail systems is more like 90%.

Municipal buses, which tend to carry essential workers and low-income people who don’t have alternatives, have seen less of a drop — perhaps two-thirds.

In New York, the normal disruptions on subways cause more than delays — they cause COVID-19 concerns when people pack into cars.

In Tempe, bus ridership is at half of normal. It is close to the same story in Indianapolis.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving Day as COVID-19 cases spike and leaders worry

In Ontario, where cases are spiking, the government announced the province would go back to stage two restrictions for a month. So over the weekend, indoor dining, gyms, movies and casinos were closed again. Big weddings are off-limits and there are renewed restrictions on real estate showings.

Today is Canada’s Thanksgiving day and health authorities are worried that unless Canadians socially distance, the virus could become a runaway train. We will know whether their warnings mattered in a week or so.

Broadway is closed until June 2021

A view of the Broadway show Aladdin in New York City USA during coronavirus pandemic on April 27, 2020. (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

I wanted to make sure I mentioned this because it is one of those sobering reality moments. Broadway theaters will be closed until at least the end of May 2021. That will be 444 days closed. The implications for New York City restaurants, hotels and other businesses are hard to overstate. And when 41 theatres close for that long, asking how many will be left to open even when they can is a real question. Of course, you can take what is happening there and see how it is reflected in your city’s arts and performance world.

Hey journalists — get COVID-19 coverage training

I am a big fan of the Association of Health Care Journalists and today AHCJ is announcing its plans for a deep and detailed look at COVID-19 in a Nov. 16-19 virtual conference. You will get the latest info on vaccine efforts and hear from the head of the National Institutes of Health. They also have sessions on the convergence of the pandemic and the seasonal flu. See the schedule, which is still developing.

Tomorrow the Social Security increase for 2021 will be set

For a lot of you, this news seems minor. But for the millions of older Americans who rely on monthly Social Security checks, the annual Cost of Living Adjustment increase is big news.

The COLA is based on the 12-month inflation rate (technically it is “Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers” or the CPI-U) and the inflation rate for September comes out Tuesday. The index, of course, uses the fiscal year calendar. The best guess seems to be that the COLA will be around 1.2%.

There are some who argue that the formula to calculate the Social Security COLA is unfair to older Americans because they have different spending patterns than younger people. By some calculations, if the COLA was factored based on the “Consumer Price Index for the Elderly” (or CPI-E), it would be at least a quarter of a percent higher because of housing and medical costs.

(Chart from Kiplinger.com)

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

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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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,…
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