July 23, 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.

In a pandemic, it seems, every economic movement is an exaggeration. When the economy drops, it drops like a rock. When it rises, it is a rocket.

In June, home sales jumped a mind-boggling 20.7%. It was the biggest single-month jump since 1968, according to the National Association of Realtors. A Wall Street Journal story said:

Driving home sales are apartment renters seeking more space, young families moving to the suburbs, and wealthy city dwellers looking for second homes, brokers and economists say. At the same time, the supply of houses for sale remains low, with the pandemic making potential sellers cautious about letting people tour their homes.

“The housing market is hot, red hot,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for NAR, an industry trade group. “As we are coming out of the lockdown, we see this backlog of buyers … trying to take advantage of the record-low mortgage rates.”

Pending home sales increased 44.3% in May, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Even though there was a big jump in sales, we are still not at normal levels. Mid-priced homes are selling better than lower priced or expensive houses. Home sales matter because the housing market contributes to about 15% of the national economy. Think of all of the taxes, jobs, advertising and moving logistics that intersect with the housing market.

The big sales numbers have magnified a shortage of homes for sale, which drives prices up. Oddly, in some places that have unusually high housing costs, there is a growing inventory of homes for sale that will drive prices down.

One way to save big bucks in a pandemic recession

In a week with a lot of records we wish we could avoid, another record, this time a record low, could save people a lot of money. Home mortgage rates dropped below 3% this week, a historic low. The Mortgage Bankers Association said more than 60% of mortgages processed in the first week of July were refinances.

A 1% drop in the mortgage rate on a $200,000 home with a $160,000 mortgage decreases the monthly payment by almost $100. The 1% lower rate means the borrower will pay approximately $30,000 less in interest over the 30-year term. (Calculate a loan here.)

The general rule of thumb is that if the mortgage rate drops more than 1% below what you are paying, it will save you money to refinance your loan. But there are other factors at play, including closing costs and how long you plan to stay in your home. If you are planning to move soon, it probably won’t save you money to refinance unless you are dramatically lowering your rate.

Be careful of “no closing cost” mortgages because they often do not mean what they sound like. It may mean that you will not pay thousands of dollars in closing costs when you sign the loan and, instead, the mortgage company just adds the cost to the amount you will pay over time (and pay interest on).

Jumbo mortgages are in trouble

After the 2008 housing bubble burst, jumbo mortgages — those bigger than federal mortgage programs like the Federal Housing Administration or Fannie Mae allow — became fairly rare. Prior to the burst, jumbo mortgages were offered with easy terms and sometimes to people who clearly were not going to pay them back. In the last four years, jumbo mortgages have become more common and there are now indications that they will soon begin failing.

MarketWatch reported:

What has been largely overlooked are the mounting problems of wealthier homeowners with jumbo mortgages. They have also been slammed by the lockdowns. According to Black Knight, 11.8% of all jumbo loans were in forbearance as of June 16. That is more than double the rate as recently as April. In a mid-June MarketWatch article, the CEO of Caliber Home Loans stated that 42% of their customers who requested a forbearance were self-employed. Keep in mind that the CARES legislation did not say anything about jumbo mortgages. Lenders were under no obligation to offer forbearances to any jumbo mortgage borrower.

MarketWatch made the point that many homeowners with jumbo loans are small business owners, who have suffered big losses during the pandemic.

COVID-19 is forcing older workers to stop

For the last 20 years, the percentage of older workers who stay on the job into their 70s has been climbing. Until COVID-19. Since the pandemic seized the economy, employment among seniors dropped 50% more than for younger workers.

Tulane University researchers found, “The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession hit older people, especially older women, even harder than past recessions. This is due both to the COVID-19 recession having a larger magnitude, but also because the pandemic creates additional risks for older workers that cut their (work) lives short.”

A big increase in young adults moving home

Quartz reported:

About 35% of Americans in their 20s lived with either their parents or grandparents in June 2020, according to data from the U.S.’s monthly employment survey. This is up from just over 30% in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. The increase in young adults moving back with their family was first reported by real estate company Zillow.


Colleges fear students will stay home

Once the young adults move home, colleges worry they might stay there for a while.

The Chronicle of Higher Education said colleges and universities may experience the biggest “summer melt” ever. Students who planned to attend fall classes decided over the summer they would sit the semester out while schools figure out how to teach virtually or hold classes safely in-person.

In a national survey conducted this spring, one in six high-school seniors who before the pandemic expected to attend a four-year college full time said that they will choose a different path this fall. A majority expected either to take a gap year or enroll part time in a bachelor’s program (35% each), while smaller percentages planned to work or attend a community college.

As with many effects of this pandemic, the phenomenon is hitting people of color the hardest. More than 40% of minority high-school seniors have said it’s very likely they won’t go to college in the fall, or that it’s too soon to say, compared with 24% of white seniors.

Thousands of college students are self-quarantining before arriving on campus

It will take a few sentences for you to wrap your head around this item.

Incoming students from 22 states with high COVID-19 outbreaks who plan to attend college in New York state this fall will have to stay in New York for two weeks before they will be allowed to move on campus. For Syracuse University, for example, it will mean that 2,000 students are going to have to find someplace to live for two weeks (and pay for it) before they can move into dorms. Now, expand that to 238 colleges and universities and where in the heck are you going to put all of those people?

Syracuse University said the mandatory two-week self-quarantine order applies to students who come from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. (New York’s official list of quarantine states is even longer, 31 states as of Tuesday, but the list seems to change day to day.)

Syracuse students will have to show proof that they completed the quarantine and that the accommodations included access to both an individual living space and an individual bathroom. Students will also have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all imposed the self-quarantine orders for people coming from out of state. On Tuesday, New Jersey added 10 states to its self-quarantine list.

How far will this go? Where will thousands upon thousands of college students quarantine for two weeks and how on earth will they pay for it? Will other states impose similar requirements? There will be a breaking point that will tip the scales that will cause students will say it is not worth returning to campus.

Here’s how to find out how people in your state used the last round of stimulus money

While Congress considers whether to send you another check, it might be useful to know how the public spent the last one.

This week’s U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey included the latest state-by-state data on how your readers/viewers/listeners spent their stimulus checks. Go here and you will see each state listed at the bottom of the page. Just click on the tab.

Generally, Americans spent the most on groceries, followed by utilities, household supplies, rent and car payments. But a significant portion also went toward paying off credit card and student loan debt and to savings.

For example, Floridians saved about 6% of the stimulus money the government sent to them. Floridians spent about 12% of their stimulus funds paying off debt.

NFL talks are at a critical point

The NFL and the players union have not been able to do what the MLB and its players did, work out a contract to play in a pandemic. The NFL Players Association said Wednesday it wanted players to be paid for a full season even if a resurgence of COVID-19 cuts the season short. The two sides agreed to safety measures, testing and even opt-out provisions for players who do not feel safe playing this season.

The NFL agreed to allow players to use their helmets to display the names or initials of victims of systemic racism and police violence, according to ESPN.

But money is the sticking point and time is running short to work out a deal.

The NFL generates about $16 billion in revenue according to Wall Street Journal calculations.

‘We will soon see more masks in the ocean than jellyfish’

The quote in the headline above comes from a French group that said when we have billions of masks and gloves in use outside of hospitals and other places used to dealing with medical waste, we can expect that some of it will end up in the environment as trash and floating ocean pollution.

Personal protective equipment waste already makes up about 5% of the stuff that one ocean cleanup charity has collected. There is every reason to believe, the group said, that soon this stuff will be widespread in ocean waters.

The Associated Press reported:

“We were rather unpleasantly surprised when we started to see gloves that were buried in the sand,” Joffrey Peltier, founder of Operation Clean Sea, told The Associated Press. “(A mask looked) like a jellyfish, we didn’t know exactly what it was at first.”

The amount of virus garbage remains limited, he said, but “it’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done. On our beautiful Cote d’Azur (France), we know that as soon as it starts to rain, all the garbage coming from the gutters will end up in the sea.”

Street cleaners in Paris have also complained about a rise in masks littering the sidewalks as France started relaxing confinement measures and more public places require people to wear masks.

We might be able to learn something from Europeans, who are ahead of America in containing the pandemic and reopening. The United Kingdom experienced a surge in littering after it reopened the country, partly because waste haulers were still way behind because of the lockdown. And, Brits held a lot more picnics and other outdoor events that resulted in trash overwhelming park trash cans.

I am seeing similar COVID-19 litter stories in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York.

138,000 vaccine volunteers

I am really impressed that when the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said researchers needed 120,000 volunteers to help test potential COVID-19 vaccines, 138,000 people said yes. There will be more than 100 clinical testing sites around the U.S. and the world.

There are 463 other COVID-related drug trials going on in the U.S. so there will likely be one fairly close to you. You can find them here. Many of them are still looking for volunteers.

COVID-19 increases food insecurity for seniors

The Association of Health Care Journalists published a helpful piece about how older Americans may be facing food insecurity problems because seniors don’t feel safe leaving their homes and especially using public transportation to get to stores.

The story included something I had not heard before:

Certain sub-populations of older adults are at particular risk. The percentage of LGBT people who did not have enough food to eat is more than twice the proportion of food insecurity in the general population, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute. LGBT adults experience food insecurity and participate in SNAP at higher rates than non-LGBT adults. Add risk of compromised immune systems from other conditions like diabetes or heart disease, and it’s not hard to see why some elders would rather risk going hungry than going to the store for groceries.

A shortage of prisoners to fight forest fires

Forbes unraveled one of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic. What is unfolding there could point you toward a story near you.

Forbes explained:

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to nearly 4,000 wildfires ravaging 34,000 acres in the first seven months of 2020, up from 2,800 over the same period a year ago. To help fight these fires, the state typically depends on about 2,200 incarcerated people to work the frontlines, but state prison officials have announced that at least 30 of the state’s 77 inmate crews are now under lockdown due to outbreaks of the coronavirus in their camps.

The state could hire firefighters to replace the incarcerated people, but the state does not have the money to do that because prison labor costs a fraction of what the state would have to pay to hire others. Forbes said:

Inmates typically fight fires for wages between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour during active emergencies for their potentially life-threatening efforts. The firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 each year before overtime pay and bonuses. Cal Fire has around 6,500 year-round employees, and around 9,000 during fire season. Inmates, which make up “hand crews” represent a very significant portion of that staff.

The California story might point you to see what prison labor produces in your area and how the COVID-19 shutdown of prisons affected production. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that even when factories and businesses closed for the pandemic, prison industries kept working.

Wired reported:

In at least 20 states, from Florida to Michigan to Texas to California, incarcerated workers are making hand sanitizer, face masks, and protective gowns at prison manufacturing facilities. In Indiana, they’re making plastic face shields. In Oregon, they’re doing hospitals’ laundry. If they are paid at all, most workers make between $0.14 and $1.50 per hour, and no laws or FEMA guidelines require those rates increase in times of emergency. That said, COVID-19 has created dubious windfalls for a few. New York City has reportedly offered incarcerated workers jobs earning $6 per hour, a towering sum by prison standards. All they had to do was dig mass graves.

NPR reported:

Companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods and Victoria’s Secret have all relied on the labor of incarcerated people. And right now, there are people in prisons all over the country working for little to no money-making hand sanitizer and face masks to help fight COVID-19.

This industry is not well understood. Incarcerated workers are not included in official employment statistics and there’s not a ton or economic research done on this topic, so it can be difficult to know just how substantial this sector of our economy actually is.

While incarcerated people might make needed hand sanitizer, they are not allowed to use it because it is a banned substance behind prison walls.

An advocacy group called Worth Rises recently published a list of 4,100 businesses that it says profit from prison labor.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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