July 8, 2021

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.

Slate produced an interesting story that goes way beyond Florida and the horrific condo collapse in Surfside. The story focuses on a birthday of sorts, for the creation of condos, an event that changed the way millions of Americans live:

The idea arrived in the states via the 1961 National Housing Act to encourage affordable homeownership in multifamily buildings, and every state quickly approved the concept. By the ’70s and ’80s, the country was routinely building (or converting) more than 100,000 condos or co-op units every year. More than 10 million Americans live in condos or co-ops, run by more than 120,000 associations.

In addition, a stunning one in five Americans live in a community governed by a homeowners’ association, which make decisions about infrastructure improvements.

As those first-generation condos come of age and move past their prime, they are governed mostly by people who are not building experts. They are people like you and me who bought a unit and now serve on volunteer boards that oversee everything from mundane disputes to multi-million-dollar renovations.

The Atlantic puts it this way:

Geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists have argued for decades that the condo system is fundamentally unworkable, little more than a scheme cooked up by developers to seduce property buyers with good locations, luxury amenities, and hollow promises of community. Others saw condominium arrangements as an inevitable fiasco, worrying that an amateur group of owners couldn’t possibly run a building competently.

In addition, condos are fiercely difficult to sell. In Florida, for example, a sale requires 80% approval from owners.

With all of that, Slate makes the point that two things are happening. First, a whole generation of condos is coming due for major repairs. And when a condo needs repairs, it is like a whole city that ages all at once:

But the most significant difference between these homeowner polities and old-fashioned cities, right now, may be that everything is synchronized: Everything built together falls apart together, and expensive repairs all arrive at the same time.

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn has written persuasively about this phenomenon in the suburbs, whose low-tax model only works until the end of the infrastructure life cycle, at which point sprawl becomes very expensive to maintain. In the king-size homeowners association known as California, it’s become common for even the richest jurisdictions to be unable to afford basic repairs to roads and bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

New pressures on anti-vaxxers

People are reflected on a puddle as they walk in an empty St.Peter’s Square, as Pope Francis is reciting the Angelus noon prayer in his studio in the Apostolic palace, seen on the right, at the Vatican, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Around the globe, countries are starting to impose vaccine requirements. In some cases, those requirements affect everyone. In others, they only apply to people working in certain positions.

  • Tajikistan and the Vatican now require vaccinations for all adults.
  • Italy requires doctors and health care workers to be vaccinated.
  • Britain requires home health care workers to be vaccinated.
  • San Francisco plans to require all municipal employees to be vaccinated.
  • France is considering requiring government workers to be vaccinated but has not passed such rules yet.
  • Saudi Arabia is not officially requiring vaccines, but people cannot enter public or private workplaces without vaccinations.

In the U.S., tech companies sent signals early on that they would urge but not require workers to be vaccinated. That is changing. Protocol, which focuses on the people, power and politics of tech, reports:

Adobe, VMware, Twilio and Asana are all mandating vaccines for those who come in this summer, the four companies said in June. That’s a departure from a norm that industry leaders like Google and Facebook set earlier this year.

“A few months ago, it was very much like, ‘We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to require vaccinations,’” said Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a partner in the employment practices and litigation groups of the Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West.

That’s still the norm: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are among the big names that are not imposing vaccine mandates.

Some companies are doing what they call “soft openings” for fully vaccinated workers. Even the companies that say they will require vaccines are reluctant to say they want proof of vaccinations before allowing an employee to come into the workplace. Protocol says:

In California, Facebook, Google and Amazon all require employees to prove their vaccine status before going mask-free at the office. Microsoft, Adobe and ServiceNow, on the other hand, are not requiring vaccine proof when it comes to masks.

For its part, Hewlett Packard Enterprise said it came down to trust: The Houston-based IT giant told Protocol in a statement that it was “counting on the integrity and professionalism of its team members to follow the rules if they are unvaccinated.”

People heading back to offices means business attire is selling again

The retail research company Coresight says a third of consumers are buying and planning to buy back-to-work clothes, sort of like we did when we were going back to elementary school. Sourcing Journal finds:

In the past few months, U.S. department store chain Nordstrom reports that there has been a 165 percent increase in customer searches for “work clothes” on its e-commerce site.

The retailer recently conducted a survey in the U.S. with 2,000 people to explore how Covid has affected their fashion choices as they begin to plan for life post-pandemic. The pressure that comes with returning to social settings is mounting for many consumers. While comfort and convenience played large roles in how people dressed during the pandemic, a cascade of other factors is posing new wardrobe challenges. …

In general, Nordstrom’s research found that most people feel like they have nothing to wear coming out of the pandemic and that they are looking for styling guidance when it comes to occasion dressing. Some consumers (35 percent) say they feel bored with the clothes they currently own and others (25 percent) say their clothes feel outdated. Meanwhile, 40 percent say they “feel stuck in their personal style.” …

Work wardrobes are certainly ripe for a refresh — 36 percent of people say they haven’t bought new work clothing since before the pandemic. For those planning to return to an office this fall, many are excited to get out of their “comfort” zone and say yes to dress pants (28 percent), dress shirts (28 percent) and dresses (26 percent).

It is not a pressure that resonates with me. What I wore before the pandemic and after the pandemic is exactly the same, as in, I will be wearing the same shirts, pants and shoes I wore a year and a half ago. They were not in style then and still are not. I am good with that. Friends, be easier on yourselves.

The most dangerous part of a storm begins when the winds die down

A jogger makes his way along Bayshore Blvd., in Tampa, Fla. as a wave breaks over a seawall, during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Elsa Wednesday, July 7, 2021. The Tampa Bay area was spared major damage as Elsa stayed off shore as it passed by. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

As the remnants of Elsa move up the East Coast, it’s a good time to remember that all of the early warnings in the world won’t save people from the most dangerous parts of storms — when they leave safe places and drive through standing water, climb up on rooftops or fire up chainsaws. Study after study finds that the debris cleanup period after storms is the most dangerous phase.

Weather.com reminds us:

Deaths from U.S. hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions are more likely from water, not wind, despite how they’re rated and classified, according to a study from the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Seven of eight fatalities from tropical cyclones in the U.S. from 1963 through 2012 were from either storm surge, rainfall flooding or high surf, or occurred offshore within 50 nautical miles of the coast, the study by Dr. Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the NHC, found.

This National Weather Service data also may surprise you. Heat claims far more lives every year than hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms.

(National Weather Service)

Why you may be paying 20 cents more per gallon for gasoline this summer

AAA says you can expect gasoline prices to rise up to another 20 cents per gallon by the end of August.

One of the reasons has to do with OPEC, an organization you may not have paid attention to in recent years as America became more energy independent. We still live in a global economy and OPEC and its allies have tried but failed to come to an agreement on how much oil they will produce in the near-term.

That uncertainty means oil prices are rising, even while businesses and travelers are using more fuel.

But don’t forget, the price of oil is only half of the price of a gallon of gasoline.

(Energy Information Administration)

Why are cereal boxes getting smaller? Blame ‘shrinkflation.’

In this Aug 8, 2018, file photo, boxes of General Mills Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal sit on display in a market in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Have you noticed that General Mills downsized “family size” cereal boxes from 19.3 ounces to 18.1 ounces? It is a trick to hold prices steady but give you less. Shrinkflation happens when companies try to slide smaller boxes, cans or bottles past you to battle inflation.

WBUR investigated and found that toilet paper rolls may come with more sheets, but the sheets are smaller.

The king of shrinkflation investigations may be Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who runs MousePrint, a website that looks at the small print on products that is hard to read. From Doritos to Wheat Thins, products are downsizing, he reports:

Paper towels is one of the products that has been downsized periodically over the years and that includes store brands. Costco’s own brand was recently downsized from 160 sheets on the roll to 140. So you basically lost a roll-and-a-half from each package.

Some manufacturers are changing their boxes to be taller but narrower so it is hard to spot a shrunken box. NPR reports:

Last week, General Mills announced the rising cost of ingredients, packaging, labor, and trucking was forcing it to revamp its business. It said that it was taking “pricing actions” and other steps to grapple with this inflation. We reached out to General Mills about reports that it’s downsizing its cereals as part of its strategy.

“General Mills has been working to create consistency and standardization across our cereal products, making it easier for shoppers to distinguish between sizes on shelf. For consumers seeking the best price per ounce, the most value is normally in our larger boxes of cereal,” says Kelsey Roemhildt, a General Mills spokesperson. “This change also allows more efficient truck loading leading to fewer trucks on the road and fewer gallons of fuel used, which is important in both reducing global emissions as well as offsetting increased costs associated with inflation.”

NPR says WBUR reporters found that is a fairly typical reaction from companies trying to pass off shrinkflation:

Companies often sell downsizing as a way to help the environment, offer consumers more choice, or improve the quality of their products. When a spokesperson for Charmin, for example, was confronted by reporters at WBUR about shrinking the size of their toilet sheet squares, she suggested it was the result of “innovations” that allow consumers to, basically, wipe their butts more efficiently.

But, MousePrint adds, Costco’s store brand of detergent kept the same size bottle but claimed it would wash more loads. It turns out the company reformulated the detergent and now you can use less. And Thomas’ English muffins recently grew a tad larger but not more costly.

Why are people more willing to serve on juries now?

Axios reports an interesting story that could play out locally for you. The story says:

Jury consultant Jason Bloom tells Axios that, historically, as many as one in four U.S. adults who are called for jury duty seek to be excused, citing hardships. But now, that number has shrunk to around only 5%-10%, he says.

Experts tell Axios that some of the change seems to be tied to people’s interest in social justice. But that brings some new concerns for lawyers who want to be sure the jurors do not come to a case with an agenda to convict or acquit.

Katrina Dewey, the founder of the legal publication Lawdragon, said some people have concluded that if they want more racial justice, jury service may be one of the most profound and impactful ways to achieve that: “I do think that we are entering an era of maybe participatory populism.”

“A lot more people want to participate in their community and in society,” Bloom said. “And there’s not much you can do about that, besides vote, or sit on a jury.”

It is a good thing that people seem to be more willing to serve on juries. King County, Washington (home of Seattle) will be sending out twice as many jury summonses compared to 2019 because it expects to have a ton more cases to try to clear pandemic-era backlogs.

The surest sign that the pandemic is waning

Costco just announced it is ending senior shopping hours at the close of July. The special store hours began during the pandemic when seniors could shop while avoiding others. No word of when the free food samples will return. Now would be a good time, if you are asking.

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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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