October 29, 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.

Stories are emerging about how thousands of people who thought they were protected from being evicted from their rental homes until January were not protected at all. Those who are protected have to win a legal fight first. The Washington Post reports:

… rather than offer a bubble of stability in the midst of the pandemic, the federal response has injected confusion into housing courts. Because of the order’s wording, which gives local judges room for interpretation, and pushback from landlords, evictions have continued. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, from Sept. 4, the date the CDC order took effect, through Oct. 17, 20,523 evictions were filed in the 22 cities monitored by the project’s researchers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got involved with the evictions issue by saying that if more people were homeless it would widen the pandemic. But unlike state or local bans against evictions, the federal order required renters to sign a document and present it to the landlord. The Post explains:

The order, which applies to individuals earning less than $99,000 annually, or $198,000 for couples, has failed to protect people for several reasons. For tenants who sign the declaration, it does not erase any of the rent or late fees they owe, nor does it provide financial relief to landlords. “Renters and rental housing providers alike have bills that need to be paid, but lack the funds to pay them,” Greg Brown, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Apartment Association, a leading landlord advocacy group, said. “The only policy that addresses these issues is a dedicated rental assistance program.”

After renters hand the document to landlords, the landlords can still boot them out, and then the issue goes to court — and you know how complicated it is to get a court hearing in these pandemic days. Maryland courts go through the process of hearing evictions cases but have been told to hold off making a judgment until the moratorium expires, which makes the hearing fairly useless. The Post says some Virginia courts are allowing the evictions to go through and some are not. In other states, judges are asking questions of the renters about whether they, in fact, cannot afford to pay rent.

Oddly, the CDC itself issued guidance to landlords that reminded them that they have no obligation to explain the application process to tenants to keep them from being evicted. Remember, it was the CDC that was encouraging landlords not to evict during the pandemic. Bloomberg reported from Texas:

Jeremy Brown, a justice of the peace in Harris County, Texas — where thousands of Houston tenants have been evicted since the onset of the pandemic — says that most tenants don’t realize their rights and even fewer have the legal resources to successfully pursue them.

“Regardless of your crime, if you get arrested, there’s an obligation for that arresting agent to tell you that you have certain rights,” Brown says. “The right to counsel, the right to remain silent — that same obligation is not there for housing.”

Here we are, 60 days or so from the end of this moratorium, with COVID-19 cases building, troubled businesses likely becoming more troubled, and rent coming due soon. Only this time, it won’t be one month’s rent; it will be all of the back rent, too.

A few of the biggest landlords are moving ahead with eviction paperwork now so when the moratorium expires they will be ready to act. NBC News reports that Progress Residential, which owns 40,000 leased homes nationwide, and another big property owner, Ventron Management, have filed a combined 380 evictions cases. Invitation Homes also filed 122 evictions, according to NBC News. Invitation, on its website, asks renters to contact the company if they are having payment problems and promises not to take eviction action if the renter cooperates with making plans for restitution.

In the meantime, The Associated Press says that landlords from Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia have filed a lawsuit in Atlanta, where the CDC is located. The lawsuit says the moratorium against evictions is crushing the landlords whose expenses keep rising while there is no income coming in.

A decision in the Georgia case, Richard Lee Brown, et al. v. Secretary Alex Azar, et al., might come in the next week or two. If landlords win, it could touch off a wave of evictions nationwide. Brown, the plaintiff, is a landlord in Virginia who has a single unit that he rents for $925 a month. His renter is now $8,092 behind on payments and once the eviction ban is lifted, the lawsuit says, Brown expects his renter will not be able to pay the back payments.

Bloomberg CityLab reported that case is typical of many, many others:

More than 6 million households missed their rent or mortgage payment in September, according to an analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Recent surveys by the Census Bureau show that as many as 11 million people living in rental housing — 1 in 6 adult tenants — were late or behind on rent as of last month. Other studies show that the ranks of people living in poverty have grown by some 8 million people after increases to the social safety net in the spring were allowed to lapse.

A separate suit brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation is still pending. One of the plaintiffs in that case, a landlord just outside New Orleans who was originally blocked from evicting a tenant by the CDC moratorium, dropped out of the challenge after she was able to pursue the eviction by a different means. Another challenge in Ohio faltered for a similar reason.

Tenant organizers point to these dropped cases as an illustration of the porousness of the federal moratorium. The policy has led some landlords to pursue nitpicking lease violations or punitive measures against tenants who are unable to pay rent — tenants who would otherwise enjoy protection under the CDC’s aegis if they went to court.

The National Apartment Association is tracking eviction lawsuits filed by landlords. The NAA represents 85,000 landlords who collectively own 10 million rental units.

Europe’s new travel bans

A sign asks visitors to cover mouth and nose at the Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

One thing we have learned about the pandemic in the last several months is that whatever unfolds in Europe will likely unfold in the U.S. weeks later.

With that in mind, Germany just imposed new travel restrictions to take hold Monday. The new measures include:

Restaurants and bars will close, except for take-away

Large events will be canceled again

Unnecessary travel is strongly discouraged

Overnight stays in hotels for tourist purposes is banned

All those who can work from home should do so and employers should ease a transition into working from home

Meetings in public will be restricted to just two households of up to 10 people total.

Entertainment facilities such as theaters and cinemas will be closed

Public recreation centers such as swimming pools, gyms and saunas will be closed

No crowds at sports events

Churches, schools and nursing homes are staying open. The German government says self-employed people and businesses with up to 50 employees will receive 75% of their income in government support.

Pay attention to that sentence. It is WAY different from anything the U.S. government offered or is considering, but you can imagine it would do a lot to blunt opposition to a shutdown.

Many Black men and women are becoming new gun owners

While reading The Denver Post this morning, I spotted a story I have never seen. Black Americans are buying guns in significant numbers.

The Black Gun Owners Association has club chapters all over the country. A number of those chapters have Facebook Group pages.

In Aurora, Colorado, a Black pastor has opened a gun club and is asking new gun owners to come get training.

“Given the place in which we are in America — politically, racially — African Americans don’t feel safe anymore,” said Wanda James, the gun club’s co-owner. “It’s a sad scenario when people don’t feel comfortable in their homes, walking down the street or in their cars.”

In the first six months of 2020, a record 10.3 million firearm transactions were processed by U.S. retailers, according to a report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Among those sales, the highest overall increase in purchases were among Black men and women, who bought 58.2% more guns in the first half of 2020 when compared with the same period in 2019, the report found. Overall, Black men made up 9.3% of all firearms sales while Black women accounted for 5.4% during the period.

Still, Black people are less likely to own guns than white people. In 2017, about a quarter of Black Americans owned a firearm while 36% of white people did, according to a Pew Research Center study on gun ownership in the United States.

CDC gives states two more weeks to be ready to receive COVID-19 vaccines

States were supposed to have a plan in place Nov. 1 to be able to receive coronavirus vaccines. But the CDC just extended the deadline until Nov. 15. How is your state doing in building a plan? It would be really interesting to see what storage and distribution plans look like, especially in huge states like Texas, California and Florida.

Poll: Employers, businesses, local government doing better handling COVID-19, feds doing worse

This new Axios/Ipsos poll is interesting because it says Americans generally believe that businesses are doing a better job handling the pandemic. The more local the government, the more people have good things to say. But as you widen your view to state and federal governments, opinions change. Pollsters found:

Sixty-two percent believe the government is making America’s recovery worse, including more than one in three (35%) who say the government is making things much worse. This is similar to views held at the end of August, when 60% said the federal government was making things worse.

(Axios/Ipsos)

The numbers also say something important about how people are feeling about the CDC. If the people lose faith in the CDC and Food and Drug Administration, it would spell big problems once a vaccine is ready to roll out.

But look at how the same poll shows that while the public is critical of the federal government’s response, we have not substantially changed our own behavior and don’t really plan to.

(Axios/Ipsos)

A third of people polled generally do not see holiday traveling as a big risk and one-fifth of people who have made holiday plans say they will do what they have always done.

Companies are using new tech to manage safe workplace spacing and scheduling

Maptician says it has developed software that helps offices map safe distancing and even schedules. It also serves as a contact tracing notification system, so if somebody who works near you has been near somebody who is infected, you get a message.

(Maptician)

Bloomberg says about 50 companies are using the software now, while other companies have come up with their own programs or workarounds. Work.com has a program that some businesses are using to control the number of people in one place at a time by staggering shifts.

All signs of the times in which we live, I suppose.

Tupperware sales are up 42% in the pandemic

(AP Images)

As publicly traded companies report their third-quarter earnings we are learning a lot about how Americans are spending their money. Tupperware reported sales of their plastic food containers are up 42%, stunning analysts and thrilling investors. MarketWatch reports:

Sales in North America jumped 42% year-over-year, reaching $146.3 million, according to the earnings release. This is the highest level of sales growth the region has seen in two decades and the highest level of absolute sales in the region since 2002, said Miguel Fernandez, Tupperware’s new chief executive, on the earnings call, according to a FactSet transcript.

Tupperware reported third-quarter profit and sales beat consensus and increased year-over-year.

Tupperware says it seems that the more we eat at home, the more we have leftovers to store. Also, in a pandemic, we tend to be thriftier and don’t want to waste food.

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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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