July 30, 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 $600 federal unemployment checks end tomorrow. 30 million will be affected.

The $600 per week federal unemployment benefit that has kept millions of out-of-work Americans afloat will end Friday. We have known for months this day was coming and still, Congress has not — to this moment at least — acted to prevent it.

Congress is negotiating how the country should replace the plan. It will almost certainly be a lower benefit. It may eventually get tied to how much the worker earned before.

Congress may find a way to pass a short-term extension of the benefit while negotiating the more complex terms of a second stimulus bill. But Democrats don’t want to give in on a compromise since deadlines give them leverage.

The New York Times put this moment in context. Without the federal benefit, some families that have played out their state jobless benefits may have no income. “More than 40% of American households lack cash to cover an unexpected $400 expense,” The Times wrote. And even with the federal checks:

Already nearly 11% of Americans say they live in households where there is not enough to eat, according to a recent survey by the Census Bureau. More than a quarter have missed a rent or mortgage payment and doubt they will make the next one. 40% of adults have delayed getting medical care.

Normally, individual states run their own unemployment programs, setting different benefit levels and eligibility rules. On average, benefits replace about 45% of a worker’s weekly paycheck. Freelance, self-employed and part-time workers, who didn’t qualify for state benefits but received funds through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, tended to get a much smaller fraction of their previous earnings.

That is where the extra $600 a week came in. It was meant to make up for lost income and ensure recipients had enough money to buy food, pay rent, keep the lights on, afford medical prescriptions or make car payments.

Democrats want to keep the $600 per week federal benefit. Republicans say it is too high, pointing out that close to two-thirds of people getting the unemployment benefit make more money by not working, and employers have complained that they are having a hard time getting workers to come back to the job.

In an election year, everything is political. A new CNBC/Change Research poll found, “Most voters in six key 2020 election states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) support an extension of the $600 per week unemployment benefit, along with another direct payment and state and local government relief.”

Big conventions make 2021 plans to stay virtual

The Consumer Electronics Show, a blowout Las Vegas event held every January, will be virtual in 2021. I peered at the Las Vegas planning calendar and found it interesting how many events are being put off until late 2021.

Northstar Meeting Group, which tracks convention trends, said:

“The falling optimism makes sense,” agreed Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for meetings-tech platform Bizly, “and this is no doubt causing a lot of change management. People are processing the stages of loss and acceptance. The bottom line is that everyone and every company has to reimagine and reposition as a result of the pandemic, and things are not going to ever get back to where they were pre-COVID-19 — at least not for years to come.”

While nearly 80% of respondents cite a growing need for digital-event platforms, they’re unconvinced of their overall value proposition. “I’m sure the virtual-event payoff remains elusive,” said (co-founder of the Event Strategy Network John) Nawn, “but folks need to be taking virtual much more seriously. It is here to stay, but we’re still in the ‘learning to crawl’ stage. There’s so much more that can be done to make virtual events more viable — and a genuine complement/extension of in-person events. Now’s the time to immerse ourselves in this new world and master it.”

Northstar’s survey of nearly 1,200 meeting planners found:

  • 37% of planners now expect to plan fewer meetings, even 12 to 18 months after the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
  • A growing number of planners predict that when conventions do restart, they will be more regional and less national and international.

And I found this passage really insightful:

One sentiment is universal: Nothing can replace the face-to-face experience. “Virtual events have been added to our portfolio, but in-person events will remain key,” commented a planner.

Many realize, however, that they’ll need to get comfortable planning and producing digital events. Nearly 80% expect an increased need for virtual event platforms. “Virtual/hybrid meetings are here to stay,” said a respondent. “We need to become/get experts on the technology and methodology to have successful meetings.”

Get local: Check with your local hotel and conventions bureau and see how the 2021 calendar is shaping up. It is hard to imagine any big conventions being willing to hedge a bet on in-person gatherings in the first two quarters of 2021.

What is the deal with those “seeds?”

Here’s just one more way 2020 is proving to be flat-out weird.

People in 28 states reported they have received packages of seeds that appear to have been sent from China. The recipients didn’t order them and, so far, we still do not know what kind of seeds are in the packets. To be safe, agriculture officials are warning not to plant them.

The packages are a bit different from place to place. Some contain just seeds, and some include trinkets like cheap jewelry. In the last couple of days, we started hearing reports that the unsolicited packages are also showing up in Canada and Great Britain.

NBC News reported:

Some of the seeds have been mailed in white packages displaying Chinese lettering and the words “China Post.” Others, such as those mailed to people in Ohio, have been sent in yellow envelopes.

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and state departments of agriculture to investigate.

The USDA said in a statement it did not have any evidence that this was something other than a “brushing scam,” where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales.

“USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment,” the statement said.

State agriculture departments that have reported the seed packets arriving in their state include: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington state, West Virginia and Wyoming.

WGN in Chicago said it has heard from viewers that this is the second shipment some have gotten this year.

Could these seeds be from an invasive species? That’s the concern.

If this is a “brushing scam,” what exactly is that? It involves online sellers sending unsolicited packages to help boost their ratings. Fast Company explained how it works:

There are a few different variations of the scam, but one version is that sellers create fake customer accounts, buy their own products — usually very cheap or worthless versions of products — and send them to people’s homes in other countries. The online customer accounts might be fake, but the addresses are real, and the sellers can then use those accounts to register real deliveries, post glowing reviews of the products, and improve their rankings on e-commerce sites like Amazon or eBay.

See, once they know the item is delivered, they know they have a real address. The shipper then uses that name and address (yours) to write a fake review of the product. For the price of a package of seeds, the shipper might have thousands of confirmed names and addresses — confirmed because they were delivered — that might become fake reviewers saying others can trust that shipper.

The Better Business Bureau explained why all of this is bad news for you:

The fact that someone was able to have the items sent to you as if you purchased them indicates that they probably have some of your personal information such as your name, address, and possibly, your phone number. Once the information is out there on the internet, it could be used for numerous crooked enterprises.

The fake online review angle is only one way they benefit. By using the brushing scam, they also are increasing their sales numbers. After all, they aren’t really purchasing the items, since the payment goes right back to them. Increased sales numbers, even though padded with fake purchases, look good for the company and help lead to more sales.

Then there is the “porch pirate” angle. There are instances where thieves use other people’s mailing addresses and accounts, then watch for the delivery of the package so they can steal it from the door before the resident gets it.

The Weight of Gold

HBO’s fascinating documentary “The Weight of Gold” aired last night and gave the public an insider look at post-Olympics depression, which is way more common than we realize. Olympian and executive producer Michael Phelps said, “A good 80%, maybe more, go through some kind of post-Olympic depression.”

Phelps said he became so consumed in his sport that, “I thought of myself as a swimmer, and not as a human being.”

I want to take this insight, which goes beyond the high-profile medal winners, to ask how your local athletes are adapting to the realization that the 2020 Olympics are not underway now … and may not happen in 2021. I wonder if you would also find high depression rates among athletes who have had college or high school level sports canceled or diminished by the pandemic.

Dr. Mitchell Greene, owner of Greenepsych Clinical and Sport Psychology, wrote for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

I have watched the doubt and negativity rise among many athletes and exercisers, who are intimately aware that their training and competing is as much for their mental muscles as it is their physical prowess. Despite all the bad headlines, I remind them of the good news which is that the virus can’t infect an athlete’s insatiable need to find games to play, and novel adventures to give them a daily spark.

The Weight of Gold website includes lots of resources that might be helpful for journalists who pursue the local story.

Even when classes are virtual, schools require childhood vaccinations to be up to date

I had not thought of this until WRC in Washington D.C. reported it. Even if your kids are enrolled in virtual classes, they still must be up to date on their vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said since the pandemic began, many parents have not kept their children’s shots up to date.

I am seeing stories from around the country of health departments warning parents that even if classrooms are not open, the vaccination rules apply.

A journalist’s guide to reporting on COVID-19 data

The Radio Television Digital News Association did a great job assembling this guide to COVID-19 data. We have an obligation to do all we can to clarify the data we use at a time when clarity is essential.

What worries parents the most?

This new Kaiser Family Foundation data says that most Americans think the worst is yet to come in this pandemic and that the mental health impact of it all is piling up.

(Courtesy: Kaiser Family Foundation)

Every one of these bullet points would produce stories for you.

• Amid a surging coronavirus pandemic and record numbers of new cases in many states, the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll finds most U.S. adults feel the worst effects of the pandemic are yet to come, and seven in 10 (including four in 10 Republicans) rate the federal government response to the pandemic as fair or poor.

• The survey also indicates that the pandemic is increasingly taking an emotional toll, with a majority of U.S. adults (53%) saying that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 39% in May.

• Most parents with kids in school (60%) say it is better to open schools later to minimize infection risk, even if students miss out on academics and social services and some parents will not be able to work.

• About half as many (34%) say it’s better to open schools sooner so parents can work and kids can get services, even if there’s some risk of infection.

• If schools don’t reopen, about two-thirds of parents are worried about their children falling behind socially and emotionally (67%) and academically (65%), and about half worry about losing income if they can’t go to work (51%) or not being able to pay enough attention to their kids if they’re working at home (47%).

• The inability to access other services schools provide is a concern for some parents: 40% worry about their child not getting needed social services if schools remain closed, 31% worry they won’t have access to technology needed for online learning, and 24% worry about their children having enough food to eat at home. Many of these worries — both about the risks of school reopening and the loss of learning and social services — are much higher among parents of color and those with lower incomes than they are among White and higher-income parents.

From a July 27 survey (Courtesy: Kaiser Family Foundation)

(Courtesy: Kaiser Family Foundation)

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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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