October 16, 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.

July is the new January. This week, a bunch of companies added their names to the list of employers telling their workers they would not be coming back to the office until at least July 2021.

The New York Times reported:

In the past week, Microsoft, Target, Ford Motor and The New York Times said they, too, had postponed the return of in-person work to next summer and acknowledged the inevitable: The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Let’s just bite the bullet,” said Joan Burke, the chief people officer of DocuSign in San Francisco. In August, her company, which manages electronic document signatures, decided it would allow its 5,200 employees to work from home until June 2021.

While it is a sobering slap to see those words, “June 2021,” it may be stabilizing to at least know a half a year out where you will be working — if you are working. And who knows how many businesses will find that all of this working from home stuff is fine and that the company saves a lot of money by not having so much office space.

The Times said employees aren’t in a hurry to come back anyway:

Workers said they were in no rush to go back, with 73 percent of U.S. employees fearing that being in their workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety, according to a study by Wakefield Research.

Another new survey from Envoy, a workplace technology platform, finds 94% of workers say they “want to return to the office at least one day a week, but they want to do it on their terms.”

A survey of 400+ employers across Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia found that 72% do not expect to have employees back in the office before summer.

Yahoo Finance reports:

Companies including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase had workers return to the office recently, only to send them back home after some employees tested positive for coronavirus.

The CEO of Blackrock, which has 16,000 employees at 60 offices, says not only has the work from home movement not been as disruptive as imagined, it has produced some “efficiencies” that may last longer than the pandemic.

8 million — the stunning new number

The New York Times takes this moment to point us to a jaw-dropping new number:

As coronavirus cases across the United States climb toward a third peak, the country surpassed a total of eight million total known cases on Thursday afternoon, according to a New York Times database.

Epidemiologists warned of a new, worrisome phase as 17 states are seeing surges unlike anything they experienced earlier in the pandemic. States including Alaska, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin reported more new cases during the seven-day stretch that ended on Wednesday than in any other week since the virus arrived in the country.

Reports of new cases are trending upward in 41 states over the last two weeks, while nine states are holding case numbers roughly steady. No state in the country is seeing a sustained decline.

And, no wonder, Thursday the U.S. added 62,000 new coronavirus cases, which is the largest one-day rise since July 31.

New cases as of Oct. 16 (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

New cases by population as of Oct. 16 (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

New cases as of Oct. 14 (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

On Thursday, some experts said the increase in the Midwest foretells what is ahead for the rest of the country. We also know from experience that increased positive tests will, in a matter of weeks, produce more hospitalizations. Then, a week or so later, we will see more deaths.

Perhaps, the experts said, we are at a point of COVID-fatigue where we are saying “to heck with it” and we are gathering and partying and going to sporting events. And now, we are paying the price.

I suppose it was only a formality that Thursday, the country’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving.

What it is like to be a contact tracer

Joseph Ortiz, a contact tracer with New York City’s Health + Hospitals battling the coronavirus pandemic, uses his tablet to gather information as he heads to a potential patient’s home Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

ProPublica talked with some contact tracers and found out they are a bunch of people who are really interested in doing something about the pandemic. This passage with one of the tracers interested me:

I don’t know that this should have surprised me, but people have been a lot more cooperative than I thought they would be. I thought I’d be having to deal with a lot more people thinking coronavirus is a hoax. But the vast majority of people have been great and cooperative and have really shown a lot of care for the community as a whole. There’s this notion that young people running around right now don’t care that much about older people who might be more susceptible to the virus, but for the most part I’ve seen a ton of college-aged students who have gone out of their way to contact us.

I think the more you profile who tracers are and what they do, the more likely they are to get information from the public that will help control the virus’ spread.

How drug companies are showering campaign cash on state-level politicians

StatNews’ Lev Facher is tracking how a fourth of all state lawmakers (1,933 of them) all around America have taken campaign contributions from drug companies. Facher’s story reports:

In several states, taking drug industry cash was more the norm than the exception: In Illinois, more than 79% of the state’s 177 elected lawmakers have cashed such a check. In California, over 85% of lawmakers have taken pharma money. The data reveals the drug industry has poured over $5 million into state legislators’ campaigns in the past two years alone.

STAT’s analysis, conducted in partnership with the National Institute on Money in Politics, provides a first-of-its-kind study of the drug industry’s influence in state capitols. It follows a companion analysis of drug industry spending at the federal level, which revealed $11 million in industry giving as of July.

StatNews’ reporting includes an interactive map that includes every state lawmaker who has gotten campaign support from drug companies, along with the amount and the donor.


This kind of data might be especially interesting in the months ahead when lawmakers begin meeting in the next legislative session to see what pharmaceutical issues touch state policies.

As usual, when I write about campaign finance, I must add a reminder that as long as candidates comply with campaign finance laws, it is not necessarily unethical or even unusual to accept contributions from groups that have issues in front of lawmakers.

The college enrollment disaster

We knew it was going to be bad, but colleges and universities are tallying up the damage COVID-19 has done to enrollment. Freshman enrollment is down 16%.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports the latest data:

Roughly one month into the fall semester, undergraduate enrollment is running 4.0 percent below last year’s level, and the upward trend for graduate enrollment has slipped to 2.7 percent. Overall postsecondary enrollment is down 3.0 percent as of September 24.

Most strikingly, first-time students are by far the biggest decline of any student group from last year (-16.1% nationwide and -22.7% at community colleges).

Men were three times more likely than women to step away from their college plans this semester.

How the pandemic is affecting journalists and journalism

You probably did not need a study to tell you that journalists worldwide are deeply stressed right now. But this new data from the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center that comes from more than 1,400 journalists in 125 countries shows we are all in this together.

2021’s hottest paint colors are “subdued”

I guess I didn’t know that paint companies come up with their hottest paint trends every year, but they do. The 2021 paint colors are out, with color names like “Be Well.” As The Washington Post explains:

“With the world sheltering in place for the better half of the year, we have begun to crave human connection and embrace simple activities, including walking, hiking, baking and gardening,” Dee Schlotter, the senior color marketing manager for architectural and industrial coatings for PPG, said in a statement. “This organic and hopeful palette represents what we have been longing for after decades of over-stimulation and over-consumption — simplicity and restfulness.”

Transcend is described by PPG as a “mid-tone oatmeal-colored” hue, a warmer tone than the cool gray tones so prevalent now. Big Cypress is a “shaded ginger tone with persimmon undertones,” and Misty Aqua is a “watercolor cerulean blue.” The colors are meant to work well together and pair with a variety of greenery, fabrics and textures as well as blond or natural brown-toned woods.


The 2021 “Palette of the Year” (PPG Paints)

Behr paints have a 2021 color palette that includes “Almond Wisp,” “Jojoba” and “Voyage” to create a restorative space. It also includes colors that work indoors and outdoors, such as “Barnwood Gray” and “Cellini Gold,” to give you the feeling that you are not trapped in your house, I guess.

You can upload a photo of any room in your house and virtually paint it using this tool. You will spend more time than you should doing this.

Clarification: This article was updated to attribute the study on how the pandemic is affecting journalists to the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center instead of IJNet, which is an ICFJ project. 

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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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