COVID-19 is changing office coffee. Good luck finding it in the future.

Plus, teen suicide rates are up, murder rates are rising but crime rates are falling, why it's important to get a flu shot this year, and more.

August 5, 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 pandemic has been hard for the office coffee service industry. Sales are down 40% this year, according to the research organization The Freedonia Group.

It is easy to see why. At Poynter, just as an example, we always had two or three pots of free coffee on the burner. Now we are not even allowed in the kitchen and most people are working from home anyway.

There are a couple of factors at work. Some employers see the pandemic as a way to shift the cost of coffee to the workers, so they are moving to coffee vending machines. And there is a health component to this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges employers to block off shared spaces and “replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as prepackaged, single-serving items.”

Vending Times reported that only 29% of employed coffee drinkers had a coffee maker available at work in 2020 while only 24% had a single-serve brewer available.

CNN said:

Community coffee pots are likely to go away. “Some employers are transitioning employees away from a communal coffee pot and are supplying them with discounts or gift cards to local coffee shops or supplying travel mugs to bring in their own,” said Angela Simpson, human resource knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

We are still drinking about the same amount of coffee as before the pandemic.

It is hard to imagine how journalists could live without access to the mediocre but bottomless newsroom coffee pot that sadly has been replaced by those overpriced, flavor-laced coffee pods.

Some companies are toying with the notion of having staggered lunch schedules to keep crowds away from elevators and dining areas. And there is always opportunity in change. Vending companies like Chowbotics are introducing a salad vending machine that allows users to pick ingredients and customize meals without a salad bar or other communal services.

Teen suicide in a pandemic

I want to circle back around to that Senate hearing last week in which the CDC director and other experts answered pandemic questions. It didn’t make the headlines, but it should have, that CDC director Robert Redfield said suicides and drug overdoses among high school students are way up during this pandemic. He said this is a key reason to reopen schools and get young people back in their cohort groups where they feel more secure and connected.

“I think that the cost to our nation in continuing to keep these schools closed is substantial, and I’m hopeful that resources that are necessary can be made available. That’s obviously not — it’s way above my pay grade,” Redfield said.

“But there has been another cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID,” he told senators.

It is worth pointing out that teen suicides were rising even before the pandemic. CDC data showed the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017.

EdWeek reported:

The pandemic has presented distinct challenges to schools in both preventing and responding to student suicides — which are the second leading cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds in the United States.

And the stress the pandemic is putting on students—in the form of social isolation, family financial instability, or death of loved ones — doesn’t disappear when classes are out for the summer.

Indeed, surveys of students conducted by the nonprofit groups Common Sense Media and America’s Promise Alliance have found that the pandemic has been hard on teenagers’ mental health, and that it’s disproportionately affected Black, Latino, and Asian youth.

Social isolation is uniquely hard on teenagers, said Rob Coad, a school psychologist and a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.

“One of their main jobs in life is developing social connections,” he said. “Their job is to differentiate from their parents and establish relationships with peers, and we’re blocking that. They’re missing an important developmental moment.”

Redfield’s push is to get young people back in touch with friends and, especially, around adults who might spot any troubling behavior. Experts said it might be too much to expect teachers to be able to read the emotions of 25 kids on a Zoom call the way they might detect trouble if they interacted with a student in person. EdWeek continued:

For a student who, say, was being bullied for being gay, as long as their family is supportive, their school getting shut down this spring may have benefited their mental health, said Jonathan Singer, a professor of social work at Loyola University, Chicago, and an expert on youth suicide.

“But imagine another kid, who had a very toxic home environment,” said Singer, “whose reasons for living revolved around their friends at school and the fact that their teachers gave them all sorts of positive support, where school was the only safe place. Then you have a kid who is isolated from that and is now at increased risk.”

The home lives of many students are also likely to get much rockier. Job loss and eviction brought on by the economic recession will only add to students’ emotional stress.

Confusion over murder rates rising and crime rates falling

It appears “law and order” will be a campaign theme that will play out in this year’s election, so it is incumbent upon journalists to sort out what is happening with the rising murder rate at a time when the overall crime rate is falling.

The murder rate and the violent crime rate typically move together. This year, that changed — and THAT is something worth examining locally. Experts in criminal data warn not to jump to conclusions or look for simple reasons why this year’s data is not “normal.” They warn us to look for trends, not blips.

One reason it is important to understand the data and trend is that if the public does not trust the police or the justice system to stem violence, it could lead to people taking the law into their own hands and settling the score with more killings.

By historic standards, the U.S. murder rate is low, but a rapid pandemic-era rise in murders has captured the national attention.

The Wall Street Journal compiled the data:

(Courtesy: Wall Street Journal)

At the same time, this data shows that even with steep increases in homicides, the current rate is lower than recent historic levels.

(Courtesy: BBC)

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times compiled some data:

Homicides usually rise in the summer, which coincided this year with many people emerging from pandemic lockdown. In one recent weekend in Chicago, 14 people were killed and at least 106 people were shot, the most in eight years.

And as The New York Times reported recently: “It has been nearly a quarter century since New York City experienced as much gun violence in the month of June as it has seen this year.”

An additional 11 cities provide year-to-date murder data. Murder is up 21.8% in all 36 cities with 2020 data through at least May, with 29 of those cities seeing an increase this year relative to last year.

How often do murder and other types of violent crime move in opposite directions? There have been only four years since 1960 (1993, 2000, 2002 and 2003) when murder increased but overall violent crime decreased nationally, and the increase in murder was small in each of those years. The average absolute difference between the national change in murder and violent crime since 1990 has been just 2.2%, so a big increase in murder nationally while violent crime falls is almost unheard-of.

In the Times’ story, Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, offered the notion “that increased domestic violence may be playing a role. He also hypothesizes that ‘COVID-19 could have reduced the market and opportunities for recreational drug use/dealing, which puts stress on the drug markets and increases violence.’”

Get your flu shots early this year

Within a few weeks, the annual flu shots will be available. NPR reported it will be especially important this flu season to get as many people inoculated as possible to keep hospitals clear for COVID-19 cases:

And though what’s normally thought of as flu season in North America doesn’t really begin until October and peaks between December and February, because of changes wrought by COVID-19, now is the time to start thinking about when, how and where you’ll get immunized against the flu this year.

“People who can avoid the flu will help reduce the burden on a U.S. health care system already overwhelmed by COVID-19,” Thompson says.

Emergency rooms and urgent care clinics are often flooded with flu patients during winter months, he explains. So, getting a flu shot can help prevent those visits — and thereby prevent the co-mingling of flu patients and COVID-19 patients, who can infect each other and spread their viruses to other ER patients.

“This year, more than ever, we’re trying to get out the message that flu is no benign disease and you should do everything you can to prevent it,” says L.J. Tan, the chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition, a nonprofit group in St. Paul, Minnesota, that provides educational information for physicians and consumers on immunization. “In particular, get your flu vaccine. Take flu off the table.”

Do we really need so many government offices?

A U.S. Senate committee heard last week that the COVID-19-induced work-from-home way of getting the job done may have taught us that we do not need so many government offices. Federal News Network noted:

Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday that agencies could save $11 billion annually — about $13,000 a year per employee — if the all telework-eligible federal employees worked from home for half their workdays.

Federal employees would also benefit, Lister said, saving $2,500-$4,000 a year on commuting costs and everyday purchases like ordering coffee and paying for dry cleaning.

According to the Federal Work-Life Survey and Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, teleworking employees say they’re more engaged, more satisfied with their job and less likely to leave their agency.

The federal government, in turn, could reduce its office space by 25% and save $1.7 billion a year in reduced real estate costs.

The General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, has also been the biggest federal adopter of telework. The agency, as a result, decreased its office space square footage by 32% in the past four years and cut its operations and maintenance by $10 million.

All of this raises the question of whether your local governments, which are so pressed for money, are considering anything similar.

Should there be some way to require an agency to reconsider whether it really needs as much office space as it has before entering into a new lease, renovating or building a new headquarters? Are there security and productivity concerns that would prevent such a shift? 

Private business is warming up to the idea that letting employees work from home is not such a bad idea, even after the pandemic.

Rent a private pool

Yes, you can rent a private swimming pool using an app called Swimply. Fox Business reported:

Swimply, billed as the Airbnb for swimming pools, has connected owners of private pools with people seeking a way to cool off, especially during the summer months, since it launched in July 2019. Pools are rented by the hour and the company offers a private and contact-free process for a “close-to-home vacation” experience, Swimply founder and CEO Bunim Laskin told Fox Business. The company now has more than 200,000 users and is available through its website and mobile app.

To date, the company has had a 3,300% increase in traffic from 2019 and a 25% increase week over week. From July 23-30, the online marketplace had 10,000 hours booked.

Pools rent for between $45 to $100 an hour in the D.C. area. Some places give you access to a fire pit, grill and pool toys. Most limit groups to 15 people.

The way we live now

I can’t say exactly why window-swap intrigues me so, but I have spent way more time on it in the evenings just staring out other people’s windows around the world. I see a beagle lying in the sun in Paris and I see families pushing a child in a swing in a Russian park. 

The Window Swap website makes me feel connected with places I have never seen with my own eyes and it feels more real than travel brochures.  It’s like nobody is trying to prove anything by showing opulent views or tourist vistas.

On my monitor today I have a view of Bandar Sunway, Malaysia, staring out of “Nathan’s window.” There is a whiff of jazz music off in the distance.

(Screenshot, Window Swap)

Sitara in Chennai, India, shares a handsome dog and a relaxing sun porch.

(Screenshot, Window Swap)

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.