July 27, 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.

A key question today is whether Congress will agree to pass a narrow economic rescue bill while Republican senators and Democratic House members disagree on key issues in an aid package that would affect millions of households, schools, businesses, COVID-19 testing sites and so much more.

Republicans promised to have a plan to extend a federal unemployment package last week. It may come today, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it will take weeks to hash out. The GOP said Sunday that it is targeting a 70% wage replacement for laid-off workers, a plan that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said is too complicated for states to handle. States have said the same thing, urging Congress to stick with a flat rate.

The White House initially proposed to cut the federal unemployment aid to $100 a week. Senate Republicans initially proposed $200 a week. But as of Sunday evening, the general agreement in the GOP is to phase out a flat rate and propose that nobody gets more than 70% of their previous pay. White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Sunday that the Republican plan will include help for small businesses, including restaurants, that will include reemployment bonuses, retention bonuses and tax credits.

The Democrats have urgency as leverage to get what they want. If they compromise to meet the Friday deadline, they lose that leverage.

Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said the current $600 weekly federal unemployment aid is “ridiculous” and a disincentive for people to go back to work. He also promised a fresh round of $1,200 stimulus checks would be coming in August.

The federal eviction ban expired over the weekend. 12 million risk eviction.

On Saturday, the 12 million Americans who were protected by a federal ban on evictions lost that protection, which was in place for four months. The ban applies to properties that are attached to federally backed loans. You can use this map to find out which properties are covered nationwide.

The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project said African American and Hispanic renters will be most vulnerable. Without federal protection, the group said about 20% of the nation’s renters could be forced out of their homes by the end of September.

The White House said the GOP plan that is to be rolled out today would extend the federal eviction ban.

With the eviction ban ended, renters still have a little time for Washington to expand the moratorium because landlords are required to give renters 30-day notice before filing an eviction complaint. Any evictions would not happen until fall.

Even if evictions are delayed until January through an extension of the ban, renters will still owe back payments. They will not, however, owe late fees or added penalties that they would usually pay if they miss a payment. Borrowers from the federal Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac programs have more protection.

Some states enacted their own eviction bans, but much of the country did not.

States with eviction bans (ProPublica)

The American Apartment Owners Association said its members are under pressure to make payments themselves.

Nearly 60% of landlords said their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus, and 80% said they’re willing to work with these renters, according to an American Apartment Owners Association survey of more than 1,100 landlords in May.

“Some tenants are really having a difficult time,” says Alexandra Alvarado, director of marketing and education at AAOA.

Several states have implemented emergency policies to help renters, including eviction freezes, late-fee waivers, and payment grace periods. But, often, landlords are still required to make their mortgage payments and cover other expenses, like taxes and insurance.

Nearly 60% of landlords said their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus, and 80% said they’re willing to work with these renters, according to an American Apartment Owners Association survey of more than 1,100 landlords in May.

But, the AAOA said landlords are often still required to make their mortgage payments and cover other expenses, like insurance and property taxes that can average $3,500 per year. The group said landlord insurance policies typically cost about 25% more than standard homeowner policies.

Get local: The Eviction Lab at Princeton University built a nationwide database of evictions. You can explore your community, and build maps, charts and data.

This is the Eviction Lab’s constantly updated monitoring page.

(Data from The Eviction Lab. Data includes filings from July 12 through 21.)

It shows that since the moratorium has been in place, evictions in major cities are on steep declines compared to recent years. But, without the protection, evictions will skyrocket.

The Eviction Lab monitors about two dozen cities, noting, “The U.S. government does not collect eviction data, and most state governments don’t either. Instead, eviction records are housed within county court systems and can be very difficult to access. The cities represented in the ETS are cities that have the data infrastructure that allow us to track evictions on a weekly basis.”

Here is a place where you can find organizations near you that work with people who are facing evictions. (The data is a little old, only reaching to 2016. But the list of cities with the most evictions could be a compass for where you might be especially alert to evictions now.)

(Data collected by The Eviction Lab. Note the data is from 2016. The Lab is working on an update that would list the companies with the most evictions.)

Check local courts to see how many eviction cases are being filed, find out how the cases are being heard (virtually?) and whether anybody is even serving eviction notices in a pandemic.

ProPublica reported:

Eviction filings have started to tick up in recent weeks as courts in many jurisdictions are either scheduled to or have already reopened.

That sets the stage for a potential crisis for renters and landlords alike if lawmakers don’t extend measures to support renters as Congress returned to session this week, housing advocates say.

“The next three weeks are going to be critically important,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a tenant advocacy group. “There will be a bill at the end of it, one way or another, and the scope and extent of it will determine if a tsunami of evictions will happen.”

Limited liability from COVID-19 lawsuits is still in the balance

The White House is still pressing for a new stimulus bill to include liability protections to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Current federal law provides liability protection to businesses but is limited to COVID-19 related injuries resulting from health care or manufacturers of personal protective equipment.

Sen. McConnell said the GOP would not support any version of a coronavirus relief bill that does not include this legal protection for businesses. Democrats are dug in against such blanket protections. This could well become a key sticking point, maybe even more than how much money to give to the unemployed. 

Labor unions said such protections could be misused by businesses that do not do enough to protect workers. But businesses said they just want protection from lawsuits brought by customers who catch COVID-19 while, for example, shopping or dining.

States have not waited for the feds to pass such legislation. One by one, states are passing COVID-19 limited liability bills for businesses that are somewhat close to the Good Samaritan laws that protect people who offer help at an accident scene, for example.

There’s a beer/soda can shortage

Yup, it is yet another 2020 thing. There is a national shortage of aluminum cans. Beer and soda manufacturers said there may be shortages of some of your favorites throughout the summer. Forbes reported:

“We’re seeing unprecedented levels of out-of-stocks,” says Ian Yonushonis, vice president of sales and marketing for Crescent Crown Distributing in Arizona.

“You know when you put in an order generally a large percentage of stuff isn’t going to show up,” agrees Jon Whitaker, beer program director for the Midwest’s International Tap House craft beer bar chain.

The reasons vary from brand to brand and market to market but generally, wholesalers and retailers blame a few main factors: wildly unpredictable consumer demand, massive disruption to the normal direction of sales, a shortage of aluminum cans and packaging materials, and severe shortfalls caused by orders from the Mexican government to shut down breweries from early April to early June. One thing appears consistent across the country, however; the hardest beers to buy rank among the most popular: Coors Light, Corona, Modelo, Dos Equis, and White Claw spiked seltzer, especially in less traditional package sizes.

In short, we started drinking at home rather than at the bar so instead of getting beer from a tap, we bought cans. The can companies had no idea that would happen. Then, as people do, they started hoarding, which just made things worse.

Industrial Equipment News said:

The Brewers Association says larger brewers are seeing extended wait times for cans, and orders for some smaller beverage companies aren’t even being fulfilled.

Increased demand due to COVID-19 is just one of the causes. Experts say America’s newly discovered thirst for hard seltzer has also contributed to the run on cans.

And there is another factor. Mexico, which shut down a lot of manufacturing because of the pandemic, produces about 70% of all of the imported beer that Americans drink. Mexico produces 10% of all beer sold in the U.S.

CNN Business explained:

The supply problem is prompting brewers like Molson Coors, (TAP) Brooklyn Brewery and Karl Strauss to cut back on the breadth of brands they sell and exacerbating concerns of out-of-stocks.

“Everyone who makes anything that goes into a 12-ounce can is being challenged to some respect,” Adam Collins, Molson Coors’ spokesperson, told CNN Business.

One major factor is the coronavirus and changing habits related to it. Beer that would have ended up in kegs at restaurants and bars has shifted, along with other kinds of alcohol, to being sold in retail stores and through online channels and consumed at home — often in cans. The boom in pantry loading in the spring has compounded the problem by throwing brewer supply chains out of whack.

The coin shortage gets real

The COVID-19 pandemic is linked to a national shortage of coins, as we are staying home, some people are avoiding handling money and businesses that might increase coin circulation have been or are closed.

“The typical places where coin enters our society have slowed or even stopped the normal circulation of coin,” the Federal Reserve said.

Places that rely on coins, like laundromats, are scrambling to protect supplies. The Kenosha (Wisconsin) News talked with a local coin laundry owner:

His laundromat is entirely coin-operated. He has a change machine in the building, and he checks to see how empty it is every couple hours when he stops by to clean. If it remains tough to get coins for the next few weeks, he might be out of luck.

The problem isn’t only that there are fewer coins in circulation right now. Wuerker said he can’t get his hands on any coins from banks. He’s tried going to several banks, even ones at which he doesn’t have an account, to get coins; only one has given him any, and that was a one-time offer, he said.

Many banks have their lobbies closed to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. And ATMs only give out paper currency. No coins.

Anti-coiners have argued for years that we should rethink whether we should have pennies at all. The argument centers on the fact that it costs more to produce a penny than a penny is worth. CNN Business writer Clare Duffy reported:

In 2019, it cost 1.99 cents to make each penny, leading to a loss of more than $72 million on the 7.3 billion pennies shipped during the year, according to the Mint’s annual report. (The same is true of nickels, too, which cost more than 7 cents to make.)

The proposal to ditch the penny could be a win for businesses. Getting rid of the penny could save some serious time for store clerks and consumers, according to Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores. He said about 52 million cash transactions occur at convenience stores every day.

“If we save every one of these customers 2 seconds, that’s 104 million seconds or 1,203 days,” Lenard said. “And that doesn’t factor in time compounding — saving 2 seconds for the other people waiting in line before they get to pay. That’s some serious productivity.”

And on top of saving time, “it could minimize contact with coins that are less in favor as consumers seek out contactless payments or at least payments by plastic” during the pandemic, Lenard said.

Interest in “school pods” is spreading

As I mentioned last week, there seems to be a lot of interest in the notion of parents pooling resources and hiring tutors to teach a small pod of children rather than sending kids to school. Other parents want to have in-person teachers to augment whatever virtual teaching offers.

For the moment, it is mostly just a lot of social media chatter, but within weeks we will find out if it really comes to fruition. In the meantime, there is opportunity in confusion. The Texas Tribune reported:

A whole new industry is springing up around the learning pod trend, with new organizations offering to connect pods of families with teachers or tutors. The Texas Learning Pod, for example, started by a University of Texas at Austin student, links families with college students, offering packages that range from $20 to $55 per hour depending on the number of children and grade levels. And public and private school teachers who are worried about getting sick when schools resume in person are looking for opportunities to teach learning pods.

How real is the idea of school pods? One business, Swing Education, which finds substitute teachers for schools, is now pairing parents with school pod tutors.

Clara Totenberg Green, an Atlanta emotional learning educator, wrote an opinion column for The New York Times that predicted pod school will add to segregation:

This segregation will only intensify if learning pods become the norm. When people choose members of their pod, they will choose people they know and trust. In a country where 75% of white people report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is “entirely white, with no minority presence,” it is not a leap to predict that learning pods will mirror the deeply racially segregated lives of most Americans.

Parents are also more likely to join pods with families who have similarly low exposure to the coronavirus. This seemingly rational impulse will, in practice, exclude many Black and Latinx families, who are disproportionately infected by the virus. In New York City, a staggering 75% of all the city’s essential workers are people of color. In Georgia, Black people make up a third of the population, but, as of the end of June, they accounted for about half of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the state.

Brown University economics professor Emily Oster warned that if parents do turn to school pods rather than using public schools, the wealth gap that shows up in educational settings will widen:

It’s lost on no one, however, that the children who join home-schooling pods won’t be randomly selected. Home-schooling pods with teachers that are hired by parents will be the purview of the rich (or at least the richer). Hiring an experienced teacher to work full time for a year — if you pay all the required taxes and provide health insurance — could easily cost $100,000 or more. If you split this with five other families, that’s still $20,000 each — an expensive private school that’s simply out of the range of most parents. (Never mind if you have multiple kids and you need multiple teachers, or your pod has fewer families.)

Parents who can afford this solution, however, could reasonably argue that policymakers and schools have failed them — and just because the option isn’t available to everyone doesn’t mean they should forgo it. And to be sure, there are more homespun versions of pods that could be affordable: They’d be more like learning co-ops, with the parents taking turns teaching. This feels less objectionable in some ways, but it does require, first, educated parents and, second, parents who can take time away from work.

COVID-19 claimed 13 lives in a Michigan convent

I missed this story, until now. The Global Sisters Report, a newsletter for nuns, reported:

They were teachers. A librarian. A director of religious education. A secretary in the Vatican Secretariat of State. The author of a 586-page history of the congregation.

One was an organist. One helped her second-grade class write and perform a commercial for Campbell’s Soup. One was a nurse and led nursing students’ mission trips to Haiti.

All of them were members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice, or Felician Sisters. They lived together, prayed together and worked together.

And in one awful month — from Good Friday, April 10, to May 10 — 12 sisters died of COVID-19. Eighteen other Felician Sisters at the convent in Livonia, Michigan, had the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, as well.

The story said that the 13 nuns who died in Michigan “may be the worst loss of life to a community of women religious since the 1918 influenza pandemic.”

Other nuns have died from COVID-19, which points to the danger of living in communal groups these days:

News reports show that, as of July 16, in addition to the 13 Felicians in Livonia, at least 19 other sisters have died in the United States, including a Felician sister at the order’s convent in Lodi, New Jersey; six sisters from two communities at a shared convent outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and three Maryknoll Sisters in Ossining, New York.

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.

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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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  • The GOP narrative that $600 per week Federal UI is a disincentive to going back to work is false, specious and demonstrates a willful ignorance of how state unemployment insurance works. There is no generic unemployment benefits. Benefits are approved for individuals who are unemployed due to no fault of their own. To assert that millions of workers are merely choosing to stay home and collect an additional $600 per week is shameful.
    That virtually every reporter and op-ed writer refuses to challenge this narrative- is the more shameful.

    • So not true. I know at least a dozen people who refused to go back because the UI money is too good and when the employers turn them in the state either does nothing or you just have to say you are caring for a family member that’s sick.