September 4, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued grim COVID-19 projections for the next few weeks. The CDC now forecasts that we will have measured 212,000 deaths nationwide by the end of this month. That would be up from our current 186,000 deaths.

Here are the new models just released:

(From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The CDC relies on an assembly of 33 different models.

Importantly, you can also see the forecasts for individual states. Not all models make forecasts for each state, so you cannot accurately compare one state to another.

For those of you who like to make your own graphics, here is the data in a spreadsheet.

Evictions have continued despite the CDC ban

The CDC’s ban on evictions until the end of the year will be published in the Federal Register today, which brings with it legal force. But be alert to challenges that may arise.

I recommend that you take a look at this story from CNN’s Kyung Lah, who traveled with Houston County constables as they served hundreds of eviction notices. They watched as young families and seniors were told to leave their homes because they could not afford their rent. One young man lost his job, found another and showed his paycheck — $300 — which will not come close to paying what he owes in back payments.

Despite the CDC’s rule, evictions keep happening. This story from WHYY Philadelphia pointed out that the CDC’s order does not require landlords to tell tenants about the eviction ban. It is up to the renter to present the landlord with the CDC’s document claiming protection.

Journalists, it would be a huge public service for you to report about that and, importantly, point people to the document that they must complete and give to their landlord. In most stories I have seen about the CDC’s order, I have not seen a clear link or easy-to-download PDF. Remember, if you do not have enough money to pay your rent, you may not have easy access to a computer or printer either.

The CDC order bans evictions based on health concerns, but there are lots of holes in it. It only applies to people earning less than $99,000 a year. Renters must prove they cannot pay the rent. Renters must also prove that they have no other place to go if they are evicted. And, of course, the eviction ban is not the same as forgiveness. Renters will eventually have to come up with the money they owe, and it is hard to imagine how they will do so.

It is unclear exactly how much authority the CDC has to do what it did. The Hill pointed out:

“This is definitely unprecedented,” said Lindsay Wiley, a law professor and director of the health law and policy program at American University.

“The CDC has really broad authority on its face, but it’s never pushed the boundaries of that authority,” she said.

The Detroit Free Press spoke with an attorney who represents landlords who, even if they are compassionate, still have bills to pay, too:

Matthew Paletz, CEO of Paletz Law, a Troy-based firm that represents landlords and property owners, said that landlords are “incredibly concerned” about the new moratorium. Landlords, he said, will have trouble maintaining their mortgage payments, property maintenance and utility payments.

“When you do these moratoriums you’re taking the ability away from the two parties to work out things. Now granted, they’re not forbidden from doing that, but it hampers that ability.”

Paletz said the majority of landlords he represents have been willing to participate in the state’s $50 million Eviction Diversion Program, which started in July, but that the moratorium could disrupt that process.

“You can’t kick the can down the road forever. … If the landlord can’t pay the bill because the renters weren’t paying their rent, that becomes a serious strain on the housing situation.”

A Dallas attorney drafted a simple version of the form that The Dallas Morning News sent to readers.

The jobless figures today

Today’s national jobless figures will renew a conversation about how or whether the federal government should do more to help people who are out of work.

We will also see whether the stock market’s Thursday nosedive is more than a blip or whether it is a more generalized negative mood in the making. The Dow had its worst day since June — but what went up and down was something of a head-scratcher. Tech companies like Apple and Microsoft fell sharply while companies that you might not expect to be bright spots rose, including some cruise lines and airlines.

The rise of teachers unions

One Labor Day story worth considering is how teachers unions have found new relevance in the COVID age.

In important ways, coast-to-coast teachers unions have forced school systems to embrace virtual teaching rather than going back to classrooms. The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, authorized local strikes if school districts couldn’t ensure teachers’ safety.

Politico pointed out:

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Florida’s teachers union successfully sued the governor over school reopenings. In Missouri, the teachers union is demanding that the state track and publicly report the COVID-19 cases that show up in schools. New York City educators threatened to strike but reached an agreement to delay school openings and got assurances of safety measures that the city will put in place.

Politico said teachers may have lost some of the goodwill that came from their heroic work in the spring, when they shifted fast from classroom teaching to virtual teaching.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

What started as a call for COVID-19 safety planning has expanded to other matters, Politico said:

But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

It is not just teachers, but university students who are also starting to unionize. The Chronicle of Higher Education said:

Could undergraduate unionization represent the next front in campus labor relations? Recent developments have opened the door. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling involving Columbia University gave graduate students — and, for the first time ever, undergraduates — the right to form unions at private colleges. In recent years, undergraduates have attempted, sometimes successfully, to unionize.

The story continued:

The uncertainty caused by the virus has led to a resurgence in labor organizing on campuses, often in broad coalitions. The pandemic has instilled a sense among many campus employees that their fates are connected, and in several states, unions are organizing “wall to wall” bargaining units that include faculty, staff, and graduate assistants. In the University of North Carolina system, faculty and staff members joined forces in a lawsuit to delay its opening this fall.

Undergraduates have also called for protections. At the University of Virginia, they helped create a union, affiliated with the Communication Workers of America, over the summer “as a direct result of growing dissatisfaction with the university’s repeated sidelining of student and worker input when developing its pandemic response,” according to a news release. The union wanted the university to abandon its in-person plans for safety reasons.

Student workers say that schools are severely cutting their work hours and that they depend on those jobs to pay for essentials. The biggest cuts seem to be coming in university food services.

Universities are using wastewater to detect COVID-19

We have been hearing that universities planned to test wastewater from student housing to detect COVID-19 cases before students notice and report symptoms. Just yesterday, Syracuse University said it found a possible incidence of COVID in the wastewater of one dorm. The school ordered everyone living and working in that hall to quarantine until the school could get them tested.

Close to 300 students in Utah were quarantined because of COVID-positive wastewater in four dorms.

The University of Arizona said wastewater testing may have caught an outbreak before it happened.

Warehouse workers are worn out and the holiday rush is coming soon

Online sales will begin earlier than ever this year and retailers will have to rely less on holiday shoppers showing up in person. Warehouse workers said the pandemic has caused a five-month rush that now will be followed by a three-month holiday sales season.

The Washington Post noted:

Warehouse workers across the country say they’ve been under enormous pressure for months, working extended hours to fulfill a crush of pandemic orders. Working conditions, they say, have steadily deteriorated during the crisis, leaving many distribution centers understaffed and ill-equipped to accommodate frequent hand-washing and other safety protocols. Now the nation’s 1 million warehouse workers are preparing for an unprecedented surge in demand, as retailers kick off online holiday sales earlier than ever.

“We see it every year: When demand increases, so does the pressure on warehouse workers,” said Beth Gutelius, associate director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “This year, many workers are already operating at elevated levels because of the pandemic. Then you layer the holiday peak season on top of that, along with a surge of new hires, and there are real questions about worker safety.”

Why do some people “get out of jail free?”

Vice News explored the routine practice of police handing out “get out of jail free” cards to friends and family to keep them from being arrested by other cops. This seems like a fairly easy thing that lawmakers should be able to stop. Why don’t they?

I wonder how many members of city councils and how many state lawmakers carry one of these little cards in their pockets? I sure as heck hope no journalist reading this has one tucked away.

We drive so much less now that Google has to change traffic predictions

For the last 13 years, Google Maps would estimate how long it would take to get from here to there using historical traffic patterns as a basis. But now, we are driving so much less those calculations are not accurate.

CNBC reported:

Google says global traffic fell by 50% after lockdowns started earlier this year. To give a more accurate estimated time of arrival, Google now prioritizes traffic data from the last two to four weeks in its calculations rather than historical patterns.

We’ll be back Tuesday 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,…
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