May 11, 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.

Jails and prisons are still some of the hottest hotspots for COVID-19. The virus is still spreading behind the bars and you won’t see politicians dropping by there to deliver supplies. In fact, deaths in prisons and jails are spiking, not flattening.

The Marshall Project has doggedly tracked the data in local jails and state and federal prisons. This is the data as of last week.

(Courtesy: The Marshall Project)

Marshall said at least 304 prisoners have died of the coronavirus or virus-related causes. These numbers are not slowing. Prisoner deaths had risen 39% in one week by mid-last-week.

The Marshall Project reported:

Much of the remarkable recent growth in coronavirus cases has been due to a small handful of states — Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina among them — that began aggressively testing nearly everyone at prisons where people had become sick. This spate of testing would suggest that coronavirus had been circulating in prisons in much greater numbers than known, and that in the many states where tests have not been prevalent, far more people may have been carrying it than were initially reported.

(Courtesy: The Marshall Project)

Journalists, ask local, state and/or federal officials how much testing they are doing in their facilities.

The Marshall Project provided data for every state here. But remember, just because your state’s rate is low does not mean much if hardly any testing is being done.

Unless the COVID-19 infections can be brought under control in jails and prisons, there is every reason to believe the outside population will keep getting exposed to the virus as people in prison cycle back into society and as employees come home after being exposed to the virus. In fact, only 11 states are releasing any data about how many prison staff workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Marshall calculated 6,100 prison and jail workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 22 died. That, in all likelihood, is an underestimate of the actual number.

The Marshal Project is providing their data for you to explore and adapt. If you use the data, they just ask that you drop them a note and let them know.

May rent payments seem to be steady

Just a week ago, there were some forecasts that a wave of rent defaults would start unfolding in May. It has not turned out that way … yet. Some 80% of renters have paid at least some of their May rent so far according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents some of the biggest landlords in the country, who combined run more than 11 million rental apartments and homes.

(Courtesy: National Multifamily Housing Council)

Some analysts are saying the 80% figure indicates people are missing their rent payments. But hold on. Here is the surprise: The number is off less than 2% from the same date in 2019 and is up from the same time in April.

The housing council’s website said:

“Despite the fact that over twenty million people lost their jobs in April, for the second month in a row, we are seeing evidence that apartment renters who can pay rent are stepping up and doing so,” said Doug Bibby, NMHC President. “We expect May to largely mirror April, when the payment rate increased throughout the month as financial assistance worked its way to people’s bank accounts.”

“However, we are in uncharted waters and will be watching this closely over the course of the month as millions of households will not be able to access unemployment benefits, and those who have may find that they are not enough to cover rent plus all the other financial pressures caused by this crisis,” said Bibby.

In Dallas, just for example, only 8% of renters missed April payments, according to analysts.

Will rent prices drop?

As COVID-19-related unemployment causes renters to struggle to pay the bills, in Austin, Texas — a town that has exploded with growth in recent years — apartment rent prices are starting to drop.

NBC News said this could be the start of a bursting in the bubble that has buoyed apartment rents for years.

Why any drop in rent might be short term

Undermining the notion that the financial turmoil COVID-19 caused might force landlords to drop rental prices is the reality that there is a big need for more apartments, especially apartments that people can afford. Occupancy rates right now are high. With construction slowing down because of stay-at-home orders, the demand will remain, even when the economy has not recovered.

(Courtesy: ManageCasa)

Nationwide, apartment rents have more than doubled in the last decade according to a Harvard study. The study, published in January, found that renting is not just for families who cannot afford to buy a house. In fact, households with incomes of $75,000 and above accounted for the majority of new renters in the last decade. The study said:

This shift has significantly altered the profile of the typical renter household and, nationwide, a growing number of renters with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000 are now cost-burdened (i.e. paying more than 30% of their income for housing). Even more alarmingly, a majority of lowest-income renters spend more than half of their monthly income on housing. Not surprisingly, these conditions have also led to increases in homelessness, particularly in high-cost states.


(Courtesy: The Joint Center for Housing Studies)

The Harvard study said Americans 35 to 64 years of age once were the most likely to buy homes, but now it is far more common for people in that age group to be renters. In fact, families with children now are more likely to rent than own their homes. The study said:

“Rising rents are making it increasingly difficult for households to save for a down payment and become homeowners,” says Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a research associate at the Center and lead author of the new report. “Young, college-educated households with high incomes are really driving current rental demand.”

Do runners need to wear masks?

Runner’s World took a look at some questions that runners are asking about masks. Do they harm performance? Are they even necessary?

Wearing a mask is not a substitute for 6-foot spacing and you should certainly wear one while running near others. If you are running unmasked through the forests, however, there is not evidence that you are endangering the rabbits and deer.

I have seen some online pundits arguing that masks restrict oxygen. I think I get where they are going, but it is not accurate. Masks restrict airflow but the oxygen mixture is not changed. Some trainers suggest that wearing a mask and therefore breathing more actually may increase the workout on your lungs and increase your overall lung capacity.

Is the mask here to stay?

Only a matter of weeks ago health “experts” were telling us not to bother with masks. Now if we don’t wear them we are reckless.

It didn’t take long for mask makers to turn them into fashion statements. From adorning them with American flags to Florida tropical plants to flashy bling, masks are sort of the new makeup.

I spotted this passage in The Washington Post that made me sit back and think about the importance of our states of mind when we put on a mask. Are we doing it out of fear for ourselves or more out of concern for others? The Post said:

The question about face masks is how will they morally change us? To some extent the answer depends on our motivation for wearing them,” says Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University. “If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear. Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.

“But if you are wearing the mask to protect others, wearing it will create a feeling of connection to those in your community,” she says. “You’ll see others wearing masks as a sartorial sign that they are willing to sacrifice some freedom and comfort for the common good.”

“The meaning we give to these masks matters.”

Look, it does not do anybody any good if you are wearing a lovely mask but do not wear it properly. The World Health Organization’s video about when and how to wear masks says you should never touch the front of your mask. You should take it off by pulling the ear bands, not the front of the mask.

One study of homemade masks showed them to be about half as effective as surgical masks. Another study took an even dimmer view of cloth masks, but found they are slightly better than nothing.

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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