March 25, 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.

These next few paragraphs may sound like what my kids used to call my “dad voice,” but I think we owe it to our audiences to explain where this government bailout money will come from and how it will be repaid. My kids would tell you they have heard a speech that includes phrases like “money does not grow on trees” and “there are no money fairies coming by our house.”

The price of the bailout has grown in hyperspeed.

On Feb. 24, President Donald Trump proposed a $2.5 billion plan to fight the coronavirus. Congress said that was not near enough.

On March 6, Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help local governments prepare. The single biggest chunk of that bill, about $3 billion, went to help pharmaceutical companies and researchers work on a vaccine. About $1 billion of it also went to help agriculture and small businesses. The bill also allowed Medicare to expand virtual doctor visits.

On March 18, Congress passed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which allocated billions more to cover COVID-19 testing costs, two weeks of sick leave for 87 million Americans who work at small businesses and to help states to amp up their unemployment insurance responses.

That leads us to this week’s $2 trillion plan.

That would be more than twice what the 2008 bailout package would be worth in today’s dollars.

Let me put $2 trillion into perspective.

Let’s remember that before this, the U.S. was about $20 trillion in debt. That number has grown in recent years, even while the economy has been healthy. President Trump’s tax cuts added about $1.5 trillion to the national debt. It may well turn out that we will look upon the last few years as missed opportunities to pay down debt so that a $3 trillion addition today would not be so overwhelming.

So, how does the government finance debt?

Back to the “dad question” about who will pay for all of this. The U.S. government would borrow the money it would send to you for an economic stimulus by issuing Treasury bonds. Because Congress suspended the “debt ceiling” for two years in 2019, the government can go into as much debt as it wishes. 

Axios explains what happens next: “The bonds are sold to banks, and if the banks don’t have enough money to buy them, the Federal Reserve will lend them as much as they need. The banks then turn around and sell the bonds, at a small profit, to investors from around the world.”

And because bonds can be attractive to investors in uncertain times, there is always a market for them.

It is not that anybody is wild about taking on more federal debt now, but not taking on the debt might be worse, economists say. If workers are jobless for months and if businesses go under, the effects would be catastrophic enough to outweigh a burgeoning federal debt. Recessions feed debt.

“Congress right now should be concerned about the American workers,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week. “In different times we’ll fix the deficit. This is not the time to worry about it.”

President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill came in at $836 billion and Republicans called it a waste of money. But Florida Senator Marco Rubio said there is a big difference between the country’s situation today and what happened in 2008.

“We’re not talking about businesses here that made bad decisions and had to be bailed out,” he said. “We’re talking about an effort to control this virus that requires us to tell business to close and people not to frequent things in order to save lives. … We’ve got to try to do the best we can. Some of those other issues in the past just won’t matter.”

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Congressional Budget Office issued its newest projections that said debt will reach 98% of gross domestic product by 2030. On our current course, the CBO said, debt will grow by $13.8 trillion — from $17.5 trillion today to $31.3 trillion — by 2030.

All of this to say: Journalists, when you report on the bailout, don’t just toss around numbers like $2 trillion like that money is growing on trees. Ask how we are thinking about repayment. We are heading into an election where candidates will have to speak to this issue more urgently. Everybody wants relief from whatever is upon us and relief is not free.

Trapped at home with an abuser

It is tough enough to be hunkered down at home for a few weeks or more. What if you were stuck there with an abuser? The National Domestic Violence Hotline said it is hearing such stories. It is worth checking with your local domestic violence shelters and emergency hotlines.

The hotline said COVID-19 might uniquely affect domestic violence victims in a lot of ways including:

  • Abusive partners may withhold necessary items, such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants.
  • Abusive partners may share misinformation about the pandemic to control or frighten survivors, or to prevent them from seeking appropriate medical attention if they have symptoms.
  • Abusive partners may withhold insurance cards, threaten to cancel insurance, or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they need it.
  • Programs that serve survivors may be significantly impacted — shelters may be full or may even stop intakes altogether. Survivors may also fear entering shelter because of being in close quarters with groups of people.
  • Survivors who are older or have chronic heart or lung conditions may be at increased risk in public places where they would typically get support, like shelters, counseling centers, or courthouses.
  • Travel restrictions may impact a survivor’s escape or safety plan — it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or to fly.
  • An abusive partner may feel more justified and escalate their isolation tactics.

The National Domestic Hotline also passed along what operators are hearing from callers.

  • “A chatter mentioned that the abuser was using the virus as a scare tactic to keep the survivor away from their kids.”
  • “A chatter said the abuser was using COVID-19 as a scare tactic so that they would not visit family.”
  • “A health professional still living with their abuser called and said they were physically abused that night because their abuser was sure they were trying to infect them with COVID-19.

Many victims who might have escaped to parents’ homes now don’t consider that an option because they don’t want to pose a risk to senior citizens.

Businesses are avoiding paper money

Businesses are increasingly either shunning paper money or discouraging customers from paying with it, even though there is thin evidence that the coronavirus spreads through contact with softer surfaces like cash.

And Grubhub, DoorDash and other delivery companies are using “no-contact” deliveries that involve doorstep dropoffs and electronic payments.

The coronavirus does not enter the body through the skin of your hands. It is when you stick your contaminated hand in your mouth that you can become infected. If you touch a contaminated phone or credit card terminal to make a cashless payment and then touch your face, experts said, you are at just as much risk as if you touched germy cash.

CNBC added this context: “Cash is notoriously covered in germs; studies suggest that paper bills can contain bacteria and viruses, plus lead to the spread of disease. The lifespan of various bills ranges four to 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve, meaning your bills have a lot of time to accumulate germs.”

China ran paper currency through sanitizing machines. The U.S. Federal Reserve said it has procedures for handling dirty money.

One study carried out in New York City found that in the U.S., $1 bills have the highest volume and the shortest average life span, 5.8 years, compared to 7.9 years for $20 bills and 15 years for $100 bills. Another study found the kind of germs you find on coins and banknotes depends on where you got them. For example, “banknotes recovered from hospitals may be highly contaminated by Staphylococcus aureus. Salmonella species, Escherichia coli and S. aureus are commonly isolated from banknotes from food outlets.”

As boring as this advice sounds, the evidence points to exactly what your mother told you — wash your hands after you touch money and before you stick your hands in your mouth.

If, however, you do not want to keep cash around, feel free to donate it to The Poynter Institute, where we will still accept it.

A boom time for bean sales

This is one of the most interesting stories I didn’t expect to enjoy. Bean sales are way up, as in up 40% across the industry, because of the coronavirus.

The New York Times reported:

At Goya, the increase has been even more dramatic: Sales of black beans, pinto beans and other canned products have spiked as much as 400%. In the last week, Goya has delivered 24 million cans to retailers.

“I’ve seen earthquakes and hurricanes. This is the first time I’ve seen this,” said Bob Unanue, the company’s president. “This is a tsunami, this is a hurricane that’s not hitting one market. It’s hitting all markets.”

What might grocery stores tell you they are selling that they have never sold as much of before? You know, except for toilet paper.

This might be a great time to adopt a pet

Look, if you are going to be working from home, it could be a good time to adopt a pet (or, if shelters are already closed in your area, when they reopen to the public).

The Humane Society pointed out that pets can be just the comfort you need right now. Even if you cannot adopt a pet, fostering a dog could also be helpful at a time when shelters are running short of volunteers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is no reason to believe that humans can get the coronavirus from a pet.

If owning or fostering a pet isn’t the right idea for you, here is a list of charities that help pet owners who are in financial trouble or who cannot afford veterinary care for their pets.

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 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,…
Al Tompkins

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