October 23, 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.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said the “poison pill” that is holding up a stimulus package is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s insistence that any agreement must include a provision that limits the liability for businesses if workers or customers get sick and try to blame the business.

All summer, the president and GOP congressional leaders have insisted that liability protection be included in any second stimulus bill. Many states have similar protections, but one opus federal bill would supersede the patchwork of state protections.

Ephrat Livni reports for Quartz:

“Unchecked litigation for any injury linked to the coronavirus would significantly increase uncertainty — for small businesses, nonprofits, corporations, universities, transit systems, shopping malls and retirement villages,” writes Evan Greenberg, CEO of Chubb Insurance, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “What Won’t Cure Corona: Lawsuits.”

This view has also been articulated by Trump administration officials like White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow, who told CNBC this week, “You’ve got to give the businesses some confidence here that if something happens, and it may not be their fault — the disease is an infectious disease — if something happens, you can’t take them out of business. You can’t throw big lawsuits at them.”

The American Medical Association lends its support to a limited liability bill via an editorial saying such protection does not exempt negligence or willful or careless misconduct. And the AMA says it disagrees with people who argue that it puts everyday workers at risk if employers don’t protect them from the virus while forcing them to return to the factory, office or warehouse.

The National Law Review says COVID-19 liability lawsuits are flooding courts:

The number of lawsuits alleging violation of labor and employment laws in relation to COVID-19 continues to grow, with close to 500 suits filed to date. The number of complaints doubled from April to May and rose by an additional 50% in June. Then July saw even more filings than June. And these numbers do not include the thousands of cases that have been filed under tort and personal injury laws alleging exposure to the virus itself.

Labor unions say limited liability laws encourage businesses to shortchange worker safety.

The New York Times explored the matter:

“The idea that there is going to be this cavalcade of lawsuits is a total myth,” said Linda Lipsen, the chief executive of the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers. “Outside of meatpacking plants, cruises, nursing homes, veterans homes and other hot spots, there is not going to be that race to the courthouse because there are already all of these barriers to getting to court.”

Ms. Lipsen said current laws already protected companies from lawsuits if they took “reasonable” precautions to safeguard their workers. And with the virus widely circulating, it is difficult for lawyers to prove in court that employees were infected at work, rather than while commuting or shopping for groceries.

David C. Vladeck, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, told lawmakers the same thing last month at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. And when it comes to stimulating the economy, further liability protections could actually backfire, he said, by eroding the public’s trust.

The CDC’s new close-contact definition

I want to go back to the case from Vermont that touched off the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to rethink the definition of “close contact.” Two reasons: Because the scenario (who infected whom) that I described yesterday was wrong, and because the new definition changes a lot about the way we should be thinking about protecting ourselves from this virus.

The new guidance reflects findings from Vermont, where researchers tell the story of a young prison worker who had had 22 interactions with a number of incarcerated people that totaled 17 minutes over an eight-hour shift. Six of the people he had contact with had been transferred to this prison on July 28 from out of state. The prisoners were held in quarantine while their COVID-19 test results were pending. None had obvious COVID-19 symptoms when they were transferred in, but all six tested positive for the coronavirus soon after they arrived.

On Aug. 4, the corrections employee — who had been wearing a mask, face shield and gloves with every encounter — came down with COVID-19 symptoms and then tested positive. The incarcerated people also wore masks most, but not all of the times they interacted with the guard.

A CDC report said the correctional officer had no other known contact with an infected person, the positive rate in the surrounding area was low and that he was most likely infected by his multiple short contacts with a number of infected incarcerated people. Those short, multiple contacts, which added up to 17 minutes a day, seem to have been enough to expose and infect the guard.

There are some key issues in this case. The guard who was infected had taken all of the typical precautions, including a mask, gloves and shield. The obvious questions would include what else might have prevented infection and whether this finding sends shockwaves through an already shocked prison and jail system that has been an epicenter for this entire pandemic.

As StatNews explains:

One reason why the length of interactions might matter, experts think, is because people need to be exposed to a certain level of virus if they’re going to get infected. Researchers still aren’t sure what that “infectious dose” is — and if a higher dose corresponds to how sick people are likely to get — but the thought is that the longer someone is around someone else who is infectious, the higher level of virus they will be subjected to, and the more likely they are to get Covid-19.

(Thanks to reader Shawn Cunningham at The Chester Telegraph for closely reading the CDC bulletin on the Vermont outbreak and pointing out my mistake.)

Should prisoners get stimulus checks? States stand in the way

Prisoners stand outside of the federal correctional institution in Englewood, Colo, in February. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

The Marshall Project, once again, delivers a story I have seen nowhere else. Marshall reports on two newsletters that communicate with thousands of federal prisoners. But recently, the newsletters — by Thomas Root and Brandon Sample — were blocked by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Marshall Project reports:

What did last week’s newsletters have in common? Citing a recent court ruling, both told prisoners how to apply for the $1,200 economic stimulus checks that much of the rest of the country received in the spring through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

The possibility of checks for prisoners has been a contentious issue, with the IRS first allowing and then disallowing the payments before a federal judge stepped in late last month to clarify: Prisoners, too, can get paid.

But according to attorneys, prisoners and their advocates, some prison systems appear to be erecting roadblocks to payments approved by Congress and the courts. Advocates in several states have raised concerns that some prisoners do not have access to the forms they need to apply for the money, and that some officials are not providing information about how to fill them out correctly. The newsletter authors called their suspension last week another sign of the reluctance by some officials to allow the payments.

Wait, you mean prisoners can get stimulus checks? The answer is “yes,” but now the government is trying to get the money back. Marshall’s Keri Blakinger and Joseph Neff pick up the story:

Initially, the IRS issued payments to people behind bars. The $2 trillion federal stimulus package excluded dependents and foreigners without legal residency, but it didn’t explicitly disqualify incarcerated people. When an internal auditor noted in May that the IRS was automatically sending checks to prisoners and dead people, the agency abruptly changed course, blocking payments to prisoners and saying those who’d already received the money should pay it back. A federal report in June found that the government had paid $100 million in stimulus money to about 85,000 prisoners.

That’s when prisoners decided to sue. In stopping the payments, the IRS cited in part a different law that bans prisoners from receiving monthly Social Security benefits. In its response to the lawsuit, the agency also cited concerns about fraudulent claims made using prisoners’ identities and said the CARES Act did not give prisoners a right to the stimulus payments, which are essentially a credit on a person’s 2020 taxes. At the end of September, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton for the Northern District of California ruled in the prisoners’ favor, agreeing with their claim that the government’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious” and ordering the IRS to send checks to incarcerated people. The government has given notice that it is appealing.

This group is sending packets to prisoners nationwide trying to help them get $1,200 stimulus payments, saying that incarcerated people have until Nov. 4 to file for the money. Law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein produced a video that explains what it says are the rights for people in prison to get stimulus checks.

The great patio heater shortage of 2020

Restaurants will keep outdoors areas open for longer this fall and winter with heaters. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

Businesses that want to serve customers outside this fall and winter need patio heaters, which are in short supply. Quartz reports:

“We have been in this business for over 55 years…and we have never seen demand like we have seen in the last 90 days,” says Pete Arnold, the president and CEO of AEI Corporation. Demand has been “at least double” what it usually is for this time of year, he says.

Outdoor heaters, which warm outdoor spaces using electricity, propane, or gas, are in such high demand because the pandemic has people avoiding indoor space. Homeowners are using them to extend the time they’re able to socialize with friends at a distance in their backyards; restaurants need them to warm diners as government restrictions limit indoor capacity. In New York City, the mayor just extended a program allowing restaurants to take over parts of the street to increase the space for outdoor diners year-round.

Oh my goodness, look at what you find when you look on Google Trends for how many people are searching for patio heaters:


There may be some price gouging going on. Chicago Eater told this story:

Anna Posey, a chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant Elske, says she and husband David ordered four heaters at around $140 each from Lowe’s a few weeks ago, but then received an unusual email asking them to wait for confirmation before picking up the items. Days turned to more than a week, and after some phone wrangling, a Lowe’s employee finally told Posey that “the manufacturer can’t agree on a price, so they’re cancelling any orders that are currently pending.”

Sure enough, her order was canceled the next day and Posey was left with the impression that the original manufacturer (not Lowe’s) planned to increase the price.

“We couldn’t get any at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ace Hardware — the only place where we were able to source them is [party rental company] Tablescapes, and they charge thousands for rentals,” says Posey. “It doesn’t make sense financially to spend $8,000 on four heaters.”

And then there are safety concerns to contend with. Slate reports:

In San Francisco, the adaption of heaters was initially constrained by red tape. David O’Malley, head of operations for the restaurant Coqueta, was at first hesitant to install heaters because city regulations required Fire Department personnel to be present while a business operated them. But he says San Francisco eased the restrictions once it became clear outdoor dining would have to be the norm. “It’s a game-changer for us. Without these heaters, we would’ve never been able to seat lunch or dinner,” O’Malley said.

As you might hope, some smart people are finding ways around the problems. There is an award-winning invention called The Urban Parasol that uses solar energy and space blanket technology to make cold places like bus stops more bearable. Some are dreaming that such technology might be useful for restaurants.

We probably have too many turkeys this year

A turkey struts through a field at Water Works Park, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Turkey farmers have a problem. They probably have too many turkeys for this Thanksgiving. The Washington Post says:

The coronavirus pandemic will interrupt 50 years of steadily increasing turkey consumption, threatening to change holiday traditions forever. Social distancing and travel challenges will mean more, smaller holiday gatherings this November — thus smaller home-cooked turkeys on the table, fewer holiday restaurant reservations and, in an increasing number of households, no turkey at all.

The shift in demand for this most seasonal of commercial animal proteins is causing havoc for turkey farmers, processors and retailers who typically solidify their plans months ahead of the holiday season.

At the country’s 2,500 turkey farms, farmers are trying to predict demand and processing schedules, fear they will be stuck with too many big turkeys and not enough small ones.

The people who know about such things expect shoppers will opt to buy a much smaller bird this year, or not buy a whole bird at all, because they will feed fewer people at the COVID-interrupted holiday table this year. In addition to a troubled Thanksgiving feast season, the decline in state fairs and other festivals has weakened the demand for those giant roasted turkey legs.

Americans typically eat about 16 pounds of turkey per capita each year. In 1970, it was half that much.

The pandemic may mean people will stay home for Thanksgiving and not freeload on their parents or go to restaurants, so experts predict a lot more first-time Thanksgiving cooks will give it a go and try to produce their own feasts. Pre-made side dishes are expected to be big sellers this year.

The Post reports, “The Butterball Turkey Talk Line, which for 39 years has been answering consumers’ Thanksgiving cooking questions, is predicting greater demand than ever from panicked first-time cooks asking about thawing times and cooking temps.”

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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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