October 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.

Walmart has pulled guns and ammunition from its sales floors. The Wall Street Journal broke this story late Thursday:

Walmart Inc. has removed all guns and ammunition from the sales floors of its U.S. stores this week, aiming to head off any potential theft of firearms if stores are broken into amid social unrest.

The retail giant, which sells firearms in about half of its 4,700 U.S. stores, said customers can still purchase guns and ammunition upon request even though they are no longer on display.

Walmart says the move is temporary and that it intends to keep selling guns and ammo but gave no indication when it would resume.

This is not a first for Walmart. CNBC points out:

The action echoes an identical one in June, when Walmart pulled firearms and ammo from sales floors following demonstrations over the police killing of another Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest related to an alleged counterfeit bill.

“We have seen some isolated civil unrest and as we have done on several occasions over the last few years, we have moved our firearms and ammunition off the sales floor as a precaution for the safety of our associates and customers,” Walmart said in a statement.

“These items do remain available for purchase by customers,” the retail giant said.

The statement noted that “we only sell firearms in approximately half of our stores, primarily where there are large concentrations of hunters, sportsmen, and sportswomen.”

Gun sales are rising around the country.

Newsweek reports:

Background checks for gun-buyers at a store or a private sale, those seeking a concealed weapon permit and other transactions included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) totaled 28.826 million through September, eclipsing last year’s record of 28.369 million, a 28% increase, the FBI reported. While the statistics include gun sales, the total number of checks doesn’t represent the number of weapons sold, the FBI said.

Some states routinely re-check all categories to keep the data current.

Through September 30 this year, Illinois led the nation in background checks for all purposes with 5.6 million. It’s followed by Kentucky with (2.364 million) checks, Texas (1.730 million), Florida (1.386 million), Indiana (1.203 million), California (1.187 million) and Pennsylvania (1.030 million), the FBI reported.

The New York Times compiled other data and points out that when Americans sense that new regulations might be on the horizon that could make gun ownership more difficult, gun sales go up.

The nation is on track in 2020 to stockpile at record rates, according to groups that track background checks from F.B.I. data. Across the country, Americans bought 15.1 million guns in the seven months this year from March through September, a 91 percent leap from the same period in 2019, according to seasonally adjusted firearms sales estimates from The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on gun issues. The F.B.I. has also processed more background checks for gun purchases in just the first nine months of 2020 than it has for any previous full year, F.B.I. data show.

While there is no way to know for sure who is buying guns right now, gun shop owners told the Times that they are seeing more shoppers who are Black and more women than they usually see.

A federal judge refused to void the CDC’s eviction moratorium

A federal judge delivered reassuring news for people who are behind on their rent and awful news for landlords who cannot evict renters who have not paid anything in months.

U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions, which expires at the end of December, still stands until there is a trial to hear a lawsuit filed by landlords around the country. The Atlanta-based judge wrote that the landlords have shown they are being hurt by the order but did not present evidence that would justify an injunction.

I explained the lawsuit and the implications of it in some depth yesterday so I won’t backtrack today.

More than 6 million households missed their rent or mortgage payments in September, according to an analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association. When the eviction ban ends, they will still owe all of that back rent. The CDC estimated that without the eviction ban, somewhere around 40 million renters might be forced out of their homes in what the CDC said would be “a wave of evictions” that would be “unprecedented in modern times.”

I am just saying that in a couple of months, we will be right back at that threshold.

What are people searching for about COVID-19?

I often check Google Trends to find out what people want to know most about the pandemic. Usually, the questions people are asking are the most basic questions that directly affect their health. These are the big questions people asked this week, which might give you a compass on what you could be covering to answer their needs.

(Screenshot, Google Trends)

Globally, people are asking different questions:

(Screenshot, Google Trends)

The “Rule of Six” question refers to the rule in England that took effect on Sept. 14 in which it became illegal for people to meet socially in groups of more than six people. There are some exemptions.

The troubled oil industry will cut thousands of jobs

As we use less oil during the pandemic, the companies that produce it are cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Exxon says it will lay off 14,000 workers around the world in the next two years and that 1,900 of those jobs will come from Houston. The Dallas Morning News, via the Bloomberg News Wire, points out that this is the same story across the oil industry:

Exxon’s Big Oil rivals are also cutting thousands of jobs in response to the pandemic-induced demand slump. BP Plc plans to slash 10,000 jobs, Royal Dutch Shell Plc will cut as many as 9,000 roles and Chevron Corp. has announced around 6,000 reductions.

(U.S. Energy Information Administration)

You may be thinking of this as just an oil company story, but it is far more. Of course, gasoline sales also determine tax income, which pays for roads and bridges. And gasoline sales reflect the demand for corn. AgWeb points out when we use less gasoline, we use less ethanol:

As a result, ethanol production, which is the use of around 40% of U.S. corn production, dropped in step with gasoline consumption.

“Ethanol came into this situation with too high of stocks,” Jordan Fife, ethanol trading manager with BioUrja says. “The ethanol industry did a phenomenal job of cutting quick, much quicker than the oil industry.”

While gasoline consumption has recovered significantly from the March lows, Widmar says, the recovery has been stalled around 90% of the five-year average.

What will it take for gasoline and ethanol consumption to return to normal? Fife says the unemployment rate needs to drop so people resume commuting and vacations. Also, a COVID-19 vaccine will restore economic confidence.

“I think those two will happen in the next year or two,” he says. “The third and hardest part to quantify is how much demand has permanently shifted away due to people working from home and more business done on Zoom calls?”

(U.S. Energy Information Administration)

A room, a bar and a classroom: How the coronavirus spreads

El País produced a terrific explainer on how the coronavirus spreads in a classroom, a bar and a room. The tutorial also explains how just the act of speaking spreads the virus so much faster. And you will see the difference good ventilation makes in how quickly the virus moves through a room.

(El País)

Is God using the pandemic to tell us something?

Pew Research asked Americans whether they believe God is trying to communicate with us through the COVID-19 pandemic and a fair number of people said “yes.”

Pew found:

A large majority of U.S. adults (86%) say there is some kind of lesson or set of lessons for humankind to learn from the pandemic, and about a third of Americans (35%) say the lessons were sent by God. The remainder say the lessons were not sent by God (37%), they do not believe in God (13%), or there is no lesson to be learned (13%).

Some respondents see lessons in society’s failure to face up to problems like racism, economic inequality and climate change. According to a 24-year-old woman, “the system that is in place currently needs to be dismantled. We need change, equity and true equality for all races, gender, religions, etc. The facade of America being a country of the free and of equal opportunity is being exposed.”

Much of the public discourse this spring centered on whether lockdown orders were causing unnecessary harm to the economy. Americans see lessons on both sides of this debate. “The economy should be important, but grandparents and parents shouldn’t die because people are too antsy to stay home or try and accommodate for current events,” a woman in her mid-20s writes. “People should be the first concern in health and human rights over economic value and growth.”

But others said the main lesson of the pandemic is not to trust the government to tell you the truth, and a solid number of people said this pandemic points out the real value of the so-called essential workers. One person wrote to Pew researchers:

“Just who are essential workers? It’s not the financiers and money pushers or the 1%,” writes a 65-year-old woman. “It’s the plant and factory workers, the grocery clerks, the people producing our food, the caregivers in nursing homes and daycare centers, the janitors. The disparity and inequity in this country must be addressed. Our infrastructure and health care systems need fixing.”

Harley is about to make an E-bike

In March 2021, “riding my Harley” could mean something very different as the motorcycle company moves back into bicycles. It might surprise you to know that this is a step back in time to 1903, when Harley’s first motorcycles looked a lot like their new bike. The bicycle division will be a spin-off of the motorcycle company. See photos and video here. We do not have a good answer as to how much it will cost yet.

Roller skating is back

Protesters on roller skates attend a Black Lives Matter march, on Sunday, June 14, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Paula Munoz)

The people at bike shops here in St. Petersburg, Florida, tell me they still cannot get enough bikes to sell. They get a couple of bikes in a week, and no more, because people are snapping them up.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times reports that roller skating is making a comeback:

A combination of lockdown boredom and viral social media posts kicked up a renewed interest in roller skating. Throughout the summer, roller skates became another quarantine shortage, and Instagram feeds were flooded with people glide-dancing across pavement.

What does air travel look like now?

The Wall Street Journal’s Sebastian Modak enlisted the help of colleagues to document air travel around the world. You will see some airlines blocking off middle seats, some not. Some load planes from the back to the front to lessen interaction, and some don’t.

Why don’t landlords have to tell you if your rental floods?

NPR’s reporting on climate change recently included a story that found 29 states require a property owner to disclose the flood risks of that property to the buyer. But only one of those 29 states required a similar disclosure to a renter. NPR reports:

An NPR review of the laws in 29 states that require disclosure of flood risk during real estate transactions found that only one mentions tenants. That law, in Georgia, doesn’t apply to everyone who rents: Landlords must only make a disclosure if an apartment or rental home has flooded at least three times in the previous five years.

The lack of information leaves tenants unprotected against floods, says Miyuki Hino, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Because tenants are less likely than homeowners to understand their flood risk, they are also less likely to have adequate insurance. Typical renters insurance does not cover flood damage.

As a result, those who rent houses or apartments in flood-prone areas are putting their safety, belongings and financial security at risk without knowing it.

“You go into these apartments, and they look beautiful,” Daniels says. “You don’t think ‘I’m at risk for flooding.’ But you should know what you’re getting involved in.”

Renters who are new to a community may have no idea that since they are far from the ocean or a major waterway they are still in a flood zone. A third of Americans are renters.

NPR says:

More than half of Chicago residents are renters, according to 2019 census data. The same is true in other major cities, including Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. Nationwide, about a third of Americans rent their homes. People of color are more likely to rent because discriminatory housing, employment and banking policies over the decades have kept many from owning homes. As a result, more than 70% of white Americans own homes, while fewer than 50% of Black and Latinx Americans do.

Some states recently considered requiring flood disclosures for future buyers and renters but the legislation died in New York and Virginia. Texas passed flood disclosure legislation after Hurricane Harvey but it does not include notifying renters of their risk. It might also be useful for you to remind people that they should search for properties on flood maps.

Let’s give a shoutout to Realtor.com, which now is including flood maps on its property searches.


The way we live now

The New York Times provides proof that perhaps we are at wit’s end about how to report something new about this election and it is just about time to get to countin’.

(Screenshot, The New York Times)

While it is mostly a playful article that draws on stereotypes of what you might think a Biden or Trump voter might have in their fridge, it is not totally without some underlying marketing data. The Times says:

Researchers say certain brands are, indeed, correlated with how people intend to vote. According to a survey this month by MRI-Simmons, for example, people voting for Mr. Biden are more likely than the average adult to have had Grey Poupon mustard or Minute Maid orange juice (not frozen) in the house, while Trump supporters over-index on Ken’s salad dressing and Pace picante sauce.

The fine print at the end of the article might be useful to any of you who are considering something like this:

Lucid used an online survey available to U.S. residents using mobile phones from Sept. 25 to Sept. 30, providing the Times with 1,010 responses. For the game, we included images from people who said they planned to vote for president, planned to vote for either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden, took the picture themselves, and gave permission to publish it. We omitted images from people who said that not all of the voters in the household supported the same candidate, as well as images that were very dark, blurry or appeared elsewhere on the internet. Here, we have shown a balance of images from Biden and Trump supporters.

For the record, I looked in our fridge and found it to be largely leftovers, three eggs, some salad stuff that is starting to age, four boxes of chicken stock (which I find mystifying), two onions and almond milk that belongs to my wife. To my Wisconsin friends, I want the record to show that stuff will never touch my lips.

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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,…
Al Tompkins

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