March 30, 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.

President Joe Biden appealed directly to governors Monday to keep or reinstate mask mandates. 33 states and Puerto Rico have such mandates. Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming have lifted their mandates. Several states are set to do so in the first half of April.

Some towns and cities in states without mask mandates have enforced their own mandates. A judge just ruled that a mandate in Austin, Texas, can stand, even though Texas lifted its statewide mandate.

President Biden says by April 19, 90% of the American adult population should qualify for a COVID-19 vaccination. It is a dramatic acceleration of the government’s plans.

He says he wants there to be a vaccine site within five miles of 90% of the population by that date. And he said the federal government is going to increase transportation to vaccine sites right away.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said Monday that a steady rise in new COVID-19 cases is a warning about what is ahead for the United States if Americans stop taking COVID-19 precautions. She said:

Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth, and I have to hope and trust you will listen. I’m going to pause here. I’m going to lose the script, and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.

We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I’m scared.

You can see the reasons for Dr. Walensky’s worry in this new data. Across the nation, new cases are rising.

(Johns Hopkins)

CDC extends eviction moratorium

The CDC extended its federal moratorium on evictions until the end of June. It was to have expired Thursday. The U.S. Census Bureau says around 4 million renters are not current on their payments.

The CDC order says:

This 90-day extension will allow the assessment of natural changes to COVID-19 incidence, the influences of new variants, and the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine coverage to determine if there is a continued need for a national eviction moratorium.

The order does not provide blanket protections. A renter or homeowner must:

Submit a signed declaration form to their landlords stating under penalty of perjury that they fit the eligibility criteria, including that they’ve used best efforts to obtain government assistance for rent costs

Earn less than $99,000

Have experienced a “substantial loss of household income” or had “extraordinary” out-of-pocket medical expenses

Swear that the eviction would either render them homeless or force them to live in close quarters with other people.

There are holes in the protection. For example, renters who have month-to-month agreements can be evicted when their contract ends.

CNBC says this extension will trigger changes in the rental market:

A federal ban on evictions is putting the squeeze on smaller landlords, who are unable to directly access Covid rental relief funds, and some are starting to sell properties to recoup losses.

This will likely reduce the much-needed, affordable rental stock in an already unaffordable housing market.

With so many still waiting for relief, however, about a third of landlords said they will be forced to tighten standards when evaluating future rental applications, and 11% said they have already been forced to sell at least one of their properties.

In the current housing market, which is seeing very high demand and a record low number of homes for sale, homes listed by landlords will likely sell to owner occupants and evaporate from the rental housing stock. The pandemic-induced run on housing in the past year has caused the amount of rental stock to decrease by over a quarter of a million units. Rental housing is generally more affordable than ownership.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is we had a housing affordability crisis going into Covid-19,” said Robert Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association. “If we lose that critical naturally occurring, affordable housing that is out there across this country, we’re going to have a catastrophe on the other side of this.”

Journalists, keep an eye on local eviction lawsuits. In Miami, for example, a number of groups filed lawsuits trying to overturn the federal eviction ban, citing cases where people were behind on their rent for reasons that had nothing to do with the pandemic.

Motel dwellers — the renters who are not protected by an eviction ban

A man passes a sign advertising a special rate at a motel, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Port Aransas, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In every city, there are substantial populations who rent motel rooms weekly or monthly. They often do not have the same protections as apartment dwellers.

ABC News points out:

Many states do not clearly define when hotel and motel guests become tenants — a designation held by traditional leaseholders that gives them the right to contest an eviction attempt before a judge. Hotel guests, in contrast, can be removed summarily.

The legal gap made motel living riskier than typical home renting even before the pandemic. Now it’s even less stable, the attorneys say. Job losses during the pandemic have made it harder for millions of Americans to make rent. But hotel guests are excluded from a federal moratorium on evictions for people facing financial hardship during the coronavirus outbreak.

Hotel and motel residents in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Virginia have reported being expelled or threatened with immediate eviction over the past year.

In many cases, people living in motels are even more vulnerable than apartment dwellers. The very reason they may be living in a motel is that they do not have the credit history or income to qualify for an apartment contract.

American military bases overseas don’t have vaccines

You would think that America would be sure to ship vaccines to people who serve in the military overseas. Shouldn’t they be a pretty high priority?

Roll Call says the problem is so great that military families are pleading with members of Congress to do something to help.

Take Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where there are 60,000 people. Only people in the highest priority group there have been vaccinated and, even then, some of the second doses were canceled because they ran out of vaccine.

There are not a lot of options for servicemembers living abroad because vaccines, especially in Europe, are sparse. Roll Call reports:

For servicemembers and their families, there aren’t really any options other than to be vaccinated on base. Germany is struggling to vaccinate its own citizens as the country braces for a third wave of the pandemic.

Last week, new COVID-19 cases in Germany, tracked by the country’s Robert Koch Institute, a public health institute, are at their highest levels since late January, with a seven-day average of more than 13,000 cases per day.

Eileen Huck, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association, said the organization is concerned about the slow vaccine rollout in some overseas locations.

During a Facebook town hall last week, Col. E. Lee Bryan, commander of MEDDAC Bavaria, the Army’s regional health command that serves more than 45,000 people in the area, said they had not received any vaccine doses in the past month. Despite weekly updates from the Defense Logistics Agency, he said he does not know when they will receive the next batch.

The battle over whether to require military servicemembers to be vaccinated

Hickam 15th Medical Group host the first COVID-19 mass vaccination on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Feb. 9, 2021. Hawaii Military Medicine provides the COVID-19 vaccine to eligible personnel on a voluntary basis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.)

Military Times is tracking this story:

This week, seven Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden, imploring him to waive the federal law that prevents experimental vaccines from being mandatory, including for service members.

“Vaccinating every eligible servicemember will improve readiness and have an immediate and positive impact on the communities in which they serve,” Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., wrote. “Requiring DoD to obtain informed consent prior to vaccination is not only harmful to our national security, but contrary to the best interests of servicemembers, their families, communities and colleagues.”

Under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization, the three available COVID-19 vaccines are being administered before they reach full approval. That process is expected to take roughly two more years, at which time the military could add the COVID-19 vaccine to its standard battery of inoculations.

In the meantime, leaders at every level have been publicly encouraging their troops to get vaccinated. That could include some local incentives to do so, including the Navy’s move to loosen quarantine protocols for sailors.

Courts turn to ballrooms to hold pandemic-safe trials

People gather in a courtroom set up in a ballroom where a 74-year-old former police officer was set to plead guilty Monday, June 29, 2020, to being the elusive Golden State Killer in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Courthouses nationwide are still struggling to safely reopen courtrooms for trials. The Boston Globe gives you a glimpse into some of the ways court administrators are trying to find places that provide both space and security:

A year after the pandemic upended the state’s court system, creating a backlog of cases that could take years to address, jury trials will soon resume in some unconventional settings. An elegant wedding venue in Randolph, where a nightclub has been outfitted with portable cells. A former movie theater in Springfield, a Holiday Inn in Pittsfield. Function rooms at a Cape Cod resort that features a water park.

The story continues:

“We are going to be trying a case in a banquet hall,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, noting that the county’s first jury trial in more than a year is expected to be held in April at Lombardo’s in Randolph. “It’s going to take two or three years to get out from under the backlog. And it’s going to take longer if we don’t have alternative sites.”

Morrissey said his office has more than 20 murder cases awaiting trial, and about 250 second-offense drunk driving cases. Yet many of the county courthouses are old and deteriorating, with poor ventilation, and none have been cleared for jury trials. Lombardo’s will provide short-term relief, but more alternative sites are needed, he said. He has urged the court to consider outdoor sessions and lease space at the Sons of Italy hall in Quincy.

“It’s not only that defendants have their right to have their case heard, but victims deserve justice,” Morrissey said.

Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the public defender division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, a state agency that provides lawyers for indigent defendants, said he supported efforts to conduct jury trials at alternative sites “as long as the dignity of the courtroom is preserved.”

For the first time in 80 years, church membership in the U.S. drops below 50%

Gallup has been asking questions about Americans’ religious leanings for 80 years and the pandemic year set a new low for the percentage who say they belong to a church. You may be able to blame the pandemic — people have not been able to attend church in person for a year, in some places. But it has been a long, slow decline, starting even before the pandemic.

(Gallup)

Gallup says:

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

As many Americans celebrate Easter and Passover this week, Gallup updates a 2019 analysis that examined the decline in church membership over the past 20 years.

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.

Gallup says, as much as anything, the change in church membership is most closely affiliated with a change in the overall population of America.

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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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