May 28, 2020

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

The New York Times used the phrase “avalanche of evictions” in a story about how we are about to experience the reality of what it looks like when one in five workers is unemployed and unable to make monthly rent.

Until now, states have protected renters from evictions. That protection is expiring. The Times reported:

In many places, the threat has already begun. The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that evictions could begin again in the nation’s second-largest state. In the Oklahoma City area, sheriffs apologetically announced that they planned to start enforcing eviction notices this week. And a handful of states, like Ohio, had few statewide protections in place to begin with, leaving residents particularly vulnerable as eviction cases stacked up or ticked forward during the pandemic.

The Tampa Bay Times is following the story, which will become more urgent for Floridians next week, when the moratorium on evictions expires. A guest column from leaders of local organizations that focus on health, income and race equity, said:

In the St. Petersburg-Tampa metro area, where a dire shortage of affordable housing was an important topic of concern even before the current crisis, it is estimated that there are more than 144,000 renter-households with at least one worker likely impacted by the COVID-related economic decline. Nearly 70,000 of those households (more than 175,000 people) were already rent burdened — paying more than 30% of their income on rent — before the pandemic. Based on national estimates, Latinx and black households are disproportionately more likely to be impacted by this renter crisis.

The 2008 recession was linked to home mortgages, so renters didn’t feel the crush of the crisis in the same way as homeowners. But this recession will hit renters squarely. The New York Times story pointed out:

Though about 90% of renters made full or partial rent payments by late May, down only 2% from last year, lawyers and landlords alike fear that the trend will not last. More than 38 million people have filed jobless claims since March, including a high proportion of people living in households making less than $40,000 a year. In a survey released this month by the Census Bureau, nearly a quarter of respondents said they missed their last rent or mortgage payment or had little to no confidence that they would be able to pay on time next month.

The devastation has drawn comparisons to the Great Recession, when millions of people lost their homes during a foreclosure crisis. But this time, renters are likely to be on the front lines.

Even if your state’s moratoriums expire, moratorium bans will last until the end of June for apartments or homes that were purchased using government-backed Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. You can click on the links and enter your address and see if your apartment is federally financed under one of those lenders.

It’s a ‘COVID camper’ summer

Recreational vehicle dealers said foot traffic on their sales lots is way up this year as people try to find a way to escape summertime crowds and COVID-19.

RV sales and rentals are up. Fox Business News quoted a Kansas RV rental business owner who said they are seeing the highest number of rentals in six years.

The RV Industry Association said although “shipments” of new RVs to dealers are way down from last year because factories had to close due to the virus, recreational vehicle dealers report as much as a 170% increase in sales for May compared to last year.

One way to look at the camper and RV market is to see what Wall Street thinks about it. Stock prices for Camping World — an American corporation that sells RVs and RV parts — were below $4 a share in April. They are more than five times that now.

(Graphic via Google Market Summary)

CBS Los Angeles said RV camps are filling up. The RV industry is maintaining an updated map of open and closed campgrounds around America.

The Colorado Sun called the booming RV sales and packed campsites “a quarantine on wheels,” and reported:

A survey of 4,000 U.S. and Canadian residents released last week by the world’s largest network of private campgrounds, Kampgrounds of America, Inc., showed the pandemic sparking interest in camping, especially among first-timers and younger generations.

“Once it is safe to travel, it’s likely the camping market will get a greater share of leisure travelers’ trips in 2020,” reads the May 11 report measuring the effects of COVID-19 on the campground industry. (The study showed camping drawing 16% of leisure travelers for the rest of 2020, up from 11% before the pandemic.)

At least once a year for the last 25 years, my wife and I have gone to the St. Petersburg, Florida, RV show. With the fresh scent of vinyl in our noses, we dream of buying an RV, packing up the kids and the dog and driving away on an adventure. Thankfully, before we write a check, we snap out of it and realize we don’t have weeks of spare time to drive to the Rockies, and don’t think of sitting in an RV park as our idea of fun. We did rent an RV a couple of times.

I admire people who can do that kind of getaway and have a great time. But just as you should watch the movie “The Money Pit” before you renovate a house, before you take off on an RV trip, think of this movie as an investment.

What it will really look like when schools reopen

I am not sure we have come to grips with how much will likely change in eight or nine weeks when public schools reopen.

Schools are openly talking about a schedule that would include blended learning, with students in the classroom a couple of days a week and learning virtually for the rest. Once they are in school, they might not leave the classroom for most of the day. School buses may only run a quarter or a half full, meaning they may have to make several routes twice a day and kids will arrive at school at staggered intervals.

My friend David Schechter at WFAA in Dallas took a deep look at what Dallas area public schools are sketching out as their fall plans, which could begin the first week in August and include much longer breaks in case the virus flares up again mid-term.

This would be a good time for journalists to plow through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for schools.

I think this is exactly the sort of reporting your viewers, listeners and readers need right now. This kind of schedule change will create huge disruptions in family schedules, day care plans and what we expect from schools, and kids are understandably anxious about what all of this means to them.

I am starting to see stories about parents who are asking that their children be held back because the children all but stopped learning in March. Other kids are ready to learn but do not have the tech at home to connect.

You may have reported on the technical browser glitch that prevented some of our best students from submitting their high-stakes Advanced Placement exams. It must be maddening for these teens who have studied so hard to qualify for college credit to now have to take the exam over again in June. I recall how stressful they were for our kids under normal circumstances, much less taking them virtually and not having working computers.

Journalists, you are going to have to set up protocols for how you will announce and verify school closings, just as you do for severe weather. It may be that you will see individual schools or even parts of schools close if a positive COVID-19 case arises.

I remember those important days for my kids at the beginning of the school year included parent night, when parents walk through their kids’ class schedules, meet teachers and learn what would be expected that semester. It might also be a good time for journalists to explore who has the computer and IT contracts for local school systems and see how that very crucial work is going.

And then there is the issue of how schools will pay for all of this new coordination. The systems we have will be difficult and expensive to change at just the time when schools will be faced with a new financial reality. NPR reported:

“I think we’re about to see a school funding crisis unlike anything we have ever seen in modern history,” warns Rebecca Sibilia, the CEO of EdBuild, a school finance advocacy organization. “We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined … a year ago.”

Schools receive nearly half of their funding from state coffers. But with businesses shuttered in response to the pandemic and the unemployment rate already nearing 15% — well above its 10% peak during the Great Recession — state income and sales tax revenues are crashing.

For April, the first full month of the coronavirus lockdowns, states are now reporting “really shocking declines” in tax revenues, says Michael Leachman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states have lost “as much as 25% or a third of their revenues compared to the previous year in the same month,” Leachman says.

Journalists, if your newsroom no longer has an education reporter — and lots do not, especially in local TV and radio — I would advise you to assign somebody to focus on this beat.

It is going to be complicated, controversial and expensive. Important decisions will be made in boring-sounding meetings. You are going to need to be there.

The COVID-19 DIY stuff that went really bad

It is one thing to have a bad COVID-19 haircut, but a nurse is posting photos of people who tried DIY face peels that went really bad. She said it should not be so easy to buy these kinds of products online. Buzzfeed’s story about her said, “In the past few weeks, she said she has seen more disturbing images of bad results than ever before.”

“Microneedling,” or “dermarolling” is another DIY treatment that seems to hold interest for people wanting to revive their skin. It’s also a bad idea, Refinery 29 reported:

The trend for microneedling shows no sign of slowing down either, with Google searches for the treatment and its aliases having increased over 1,500% in the last 12 months alone. With skincare show-and-tell the new norm, social media has fueled the uptick in popularity as celebrities and influencers advocate microneedling as the secret to their glowing complexions. Touted for reducing fine lines and scarring, smoothing the skin’s surface, improving skin elasticity and evening out skin tone, it’s no surprise that the growing popularity of the treatment has caused an exponential rise in DIY devices. However, unlike bleaching your roots or giving yourself an at-home manicure, self-perforating the skin with hundreds of tiny needles carries a lot of risk and could leave you with permanent damage.

How Zuckerberg’s predictions could affect you

I want to circle back to some things that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said last week to underline the importance of what has transpired in the last couple of months.

Zuckerberg said half of Facebook’s team might be working at home by 2030. Twitter, Square and a bunch of others are saying similar things.

Think through all of the implications of this.

  • That prediction would change how we think of which homes we buy or the apartments we rent. Instead of a clubhouse, what if our condos or apartment complexes came with community office spaces?
  • Think how a change like this would alter traffic if we are not commuting.
  • Would this be a cost savings for companies if they need less office space?
  • Will the IRS recognize the changes in the ways we work and rewrite how it allows us to write off home workspaces? Currently, the write-off comes with stipulations that you cannot use the space for ordinary living, meaning a home office is an office, not a bedroom that also serves as an office.
  • What internet security protocols would need to be changed if we are working from home rather than in a secure internet environment at work?
  • What new management skills will we need to communicate with employees? How do we make sure introverts don’t get ignored? How do we build relationships with employees that go beyond what is in their outboxes? We lose a lot of interpersonal communication when we are on the phone or Zoom, and even more when we are communicating by email or message. What will become the news office “water cooler” where we trade information, ideas, hot topics and personal insights about our lives? Please don’t tell me Slack is how we will stay in touch. Please, no.
  • How would remote work change the way we think about recruiting? If the employee does not need to be in our town, does it open new opportunities for recruiting globally?

Forbes noted some other fallout from this “trend,” if it becomes a trend and not just a COVID-19 response:

If people can work from home, they don’t have to live in San Francisco or close by to maintain a reasonable commute. They can now freely leave the city and move to a less expensive area. Consequently, housing prices will fall. Similarly, commercial real estate will plummet, as companies will let their leases expire and decide to take smaller space or forgo a physical location. This trend will be exacerbated if other tech companies in Northern California pursue the same work-from-home strategy as Twitter and Square.

If other companies based in cities similar to San Francisco, such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, enact work-from-home plans, the same fate will play out there too. Home and commercial real estate in and around the cities will fall in value, as a good amount of people will move to less expensive locations. They’d gladly trade their small, cramped apartments and pricey homes for larger places, especially since they’d be spending all of their working and downtime in their homes.

From a newsroom perspective, I see a big upside to remote working: Journalists might be freer to live in areas that are further from the office, putting them in touch with communities that might otherwise be ignored.

But remote work can be isolating. Businesses will have to be intentional about including diverse voices in decisions. We tend to live near people who are more like ourselves in terms of ethnicity, education, income, race and age. Workplaces should be a part of our lives where we come in extensive contact with people who are not just like ourselves. That forces socialization that exposes us to new views, which makes for richer decisions.

When we work at home, what will be lost because of social isolation? Or do you believe that beyond work, we will vigorously mix with others unlike ourselves?

My boss, Poynter president Neil Brown, said something the other day that really stuck with me. He said, “when we interact with colleagues just through Zoom calls, it means that every interactivity we have with each other has to be scheduled. Often the most important conversations we have are unscheduled. They happen because we are near each other.”

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 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,…
Al Tompkins

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