The connection between COVID-19 and why you might see more rats

Plus, whether life insurance will cover COVID-19 deaths, meal deductions may see a return, and confusion for AP students

March 30, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to create desperate rats, which once had restaurant scraps and such to eat but now have to go scrounge elsewhere, like your house, The Washingtonian reported.

The Washingtonian spoke with rodent expert Bobby Corrigan, who put it this way:

Corrigan says the rats will first go into “panic mode” and start running around in the streets to look for food in their usual areas. So don’t be surprised if your usually rat-free neighborhood is suddenly swamped with fuzzy creatures cavorting in broad daylight. Once the rodents realize their go-to buffets are closed, they’ll begin to turn on each other and go Full Cannibal. And yeah, rats that are more inclined to “flight” than “fight” will forage for new food supplies, and potentially make their way into your garbage can or kitchen.

In New Orleans, where the French Quarter has gone quiet, people said the rats are much more visible than normal.

Speaking of rodents, mice are widely used in research labs and Science Magazine reported that labs are euthanizing thousands of them because of the coronavirus.

University laboratories say they have to kill lab mice because of the “stay at home” orders that leave nobody to attend to the care of the creatures. Science Magazine said there is no evidence that labs are killing larger animals, like dogs or monkeys, and that mice make up about 95% of all lab animals in the U.S.

Some of the mice are quite valuable to researchers because of their unique breeding that is designed to fit genome profiles that the scientists are studying. The Jackson Laboratory is the world’s biggest supplier of lab mice and has said it is deeply involved in coronavirus research.

Will life insurance cover COVID-19 deaths?

Australian journalists got their hands on an internal memo circulating inside an Australian insurance company that indicated the company was working on policy language that would exempt COVID-19 deaths from coverage.

I checked around some of the bigger life insurance companies’ websites to see what they are saying about coverage as it relates to COVID-19. Generally, insurance companies cover deaths, even pandemic related deaths, as long as you were truthful about your travel and health when you applied for your policy.

MetLife, for example, said, “For Group Life Insurance … there are no policy limitations that would limit a claim payment resulting from COVID-19, provided the individual met all other certificate requirements.”

If you are applying for a new policy, the process may be slower than usual right now. If you have tested positive for COVID-19, a life insurance company will likely make you wait until you are clear of the virus to write your policy.

If you are so worried about COVID-19 that you feel you need to get life insurance fast, there are companies that will cover you. There are companies that offer “temporary” coverage, too.

Insurance companies did write pandemic exclusions into other kinds of insurance that do not involve life insurance. Tax and business consultant firm KPMG said:

Most insurers learned the lessons from the SARS outbreak of 2003 and introduced exclusion clauses for communicable diseases and epidemics/pandemics into most non-life products such as business interruption and travel insurance.

Business interruption policies usually pay out only if physical damage occurs to an organization’s assets or operations — so coronavirus related claims may not be covered, but there is potential for future disputes on this issue.

KPMG does warn that there could be a spike in worker’s compensation claims related to COVID-19.

We could see spikes in workers claiming they were not adequately protected by their employers against exposure to the virus brought about by their normal working duties. It is impossible to know at this stage how significant such claims could become. But insurers offering this type of cover to employers may need to brace themselves, depending on how things develop.

Trump wants to allow businesses to deduct meals again

In his Sunday evening update on COVID-19, President Donald Trump said he wants to restore old rules that allow businesses to deduct expenses related to meals and entertainment.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act limited deductions for expenses related to food and beverages provided by employers to their employees.

The change in deductions made taking a client to a football game or concert, for example, non-deductible.

But meals were still partially deductible depending on the circumstances. For example, if you took a client to a football game and paid for food, the food could be deductible. Meals for employees who travel for business were 50% deductible, while meals employers fed workers at the business where they worked (think newsroom pizza), such as a break room or cafeteria, were also 50% deductible.

President Trump said restoring the meal expenses would help restaurants that are suffering during the COVID-19 crisis.

The business expense write-off is in some peril right now. The IRS proposed new regulations that would make it even more difficult for businesses to spend money on food and entertainment and plans to hold public hearings next month.

It would be interesting to hear from hotels, restaurants and sports venues about how the 2017 changes affected them and how the president’s idea — and it is just an idea right now — would further affect them.

Lessons for journalists from a South Korean tourism video

An arm of the South Korean government produced a remarkable video that has gained more than 3 million views. It focuses on how South Korea became a leader in “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus and did so without closing factories or shopping malls.

I used that video to teach journalists how to tell stronger video stories. Watch the original video first, then go here to see my line-by-line deconstruction. I will teach you about story structure, sentence structure, photo editing and framing, character development and the use and abuse of music and production techniques.

The confusing and changing exam schedules

For the millions of high school students taking Advanced Placement classes, the difficult exams just got more challenging.

The College Board, which administers the AP exams, said it will have new dates and guidelines in place by April 3. This week, students began opening emails from the College Board that said the AP exams will be open-book this year.

AP courses allow students to take rigorous high school classes and, if they score high enough on the final exam, they can earn college credit, which can save them a lot of money on tuition. But students depend on in-class reviews of the lessons to pass the exams. So the College Board said, “Beginning on Wednesday, March 25, students and teachers can attend free, live AP review courses, delivered by AP teachers from across the country.”

TV anchor reading children’s books on Facebook

The other day I was chatting with my friend, John Hoffman, the news director at FOX 13 in Tampa. I suggested that it might be both fun and useful for well-known anchors, like Kelly Ring, whom I adore, to read children’s books. The kids could watch and read along.

John took the idea and ran with it and Kelly is just marvelous. She read “The Giving Tree” and “Where the Wild Things Are” and hundreds and hundreds of people have joined in. Teachers are telling students to watch.

I hope my friends at Spanish language stations will join in, too.

The next idea I have is to get your local celebrities, mayor, police chief and sports stars to join in. We have to pass this time at home somehow. Let’s read.

I would love to see Jimmy Carter read “Click, Clack, Moo.” I remember seeing Jesse Jackson hosting “Saturday Night Live” and reading “Green Eggs and Ham.” It was hysterical.

Is it time for a serial story?

The unfolding pandemic, like all stories that capture our collective attention and spark our collective fears, is fertile ground into which to plant the seed of an idea. There are unfolding dramas around us. Some are about life and death, some involve more mundane struggles.

Medical professionals who must struggle with what they want to do and what the situation requires of them. Families worried about loved ones. Couples who plan weddings only to have a pandemic delay them. Workers who worry about whether they will have a job. Business owners who worked day and night to build a dream to see it evaporate through no fault of their own. All of these stories would resonate with the public. None of them can be told deeply enough in a single installment.

Under normal circumstances, people might be too busy to sit down and read such things on anything other than a Sunday morning. But in our stay-at-home weeks, it could be a cool idea.

My Poynter friends Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan have, in years past, written serials, some novel and some nonfiction, that newspapers ran over a spread of days.

Journalist Tom French, who also occasionally teaches with us at Poynter, wrote an award-winning serial story about life inside a high school. He wrote a second serial story on a murder case.

In 2009, my friend Lane DeGregory won the Pulitzer Prize for her serial story “The Girl in the Window.” She talks about that story in this podcast.

More recently, this idea of a multi-part news story has taken the form of podcasts and online multimedia coverage.

One of the most extraordinary serial podcasts I have heard in recent years was about Harper High School in Chicago. In 2012, reporter Linda Lutton spent five months inside the school, which experienced shootings and other forms of violence. She came to understand the rules about who runs which parts of the community’s streets.

KUSA TV in Denver has published three “true-crime” podcasts that it hopes are “binge-worthy.”

Doug Barker, the editor of The Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington, told me that he contacted a local writer and asked her to share a short essay regularly to document life as we know it.

This is how we work

My dear friend, photojournalist Ali Ghanbari, who works at WJW in Cleveland, posted this image of a cool portable desk that fits over his steering wheel. He can sit in his driver’s seat and edit stories. We presume he is not driving while editing, but hey, we all need to get the stories in the outbox, right?

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.