February 17, 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.

There are some months when the electric bill shows up in my email and I just move it to another file for a bit. I don’t want to deal with it right then because I know it is going to be breathtaking. Here in Florida, the August electric bill is a stunner.

I can imagine that is how some of you are feeling right now with the knowledge that the February bill will be one for the ages — right when you do not need something else to worry about. Since so many of you are working at home, you cannot turn down the heat like you might when you are away all day in normal times.

Bloomberg reports:

When the pandemic hit in March, as millions lost jobs and struggled to pay their bills, 34 states ordered mandatory moratoriums on utility shutoffs — measures that were all more critical as families were asked to stay home. The lockdowns translated into higher utility bills: One economist estimated that residential electricity use spiked 10% on average between April and July 2020, leading to households spending nearly $6 billion on extra usage. Another home energy monitoring company reported that April demand increased 22% from 2019.

For now, cities have been trying to leverage federal stimulus money by establishing emergency funds for residents. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the city awarded grants of up to $750 for water bills, and up to $500 for power bills. In Henderson, Nevada, residents could apply for aid up to $1,000 for utilities, and up to $360 for internet.

Add to that spiking natural gas and propane prices. At first, the utility companies will absorb the higher costs, but some part of it eventually will end up on your bill.

Fox 4 in Kansas City reports:

“Those price spikes are very high, as much as 100, 150, 200 more than the normal wholesale price of gas, so that is obviously a concern,” said Andrew French, chair of the Kansas Corporation Commission.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall spoke to Kansas utility companies about the prices they’re having to pay to get the supply they need for customers. He’s trying to find out if there’s any price gouging going on and what it will ultimately mean for customers. He’s already seeking out possible federal aid.

The higher bills compound the problems that come with the pandemic. UtilityDive, a website that tracks utility company issues, reports:

Residential and small business customers could owe “$35 billion to $40 billion to their utilities by March 2021,” according to National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association Executive Director Mark Wolfe. “Our new arrearage data shows that by then, individual unpaid bills may be as high as $1,500 to $2,000, which is as much as some customers pay for electricity in a year.”

“The reality is that someone is going to pay,” said University of Florida Public Utility Research Center Director of Energy Studies Theodore J. Kury. Policymakers’ and regulators’ choices include requiring payment from indebted customers, shifting the debt to utilities and their ratepayers, imposing it on taxpayers, or some combination.

Without a doubt, the growing pile of unpaid bills is putting pressure on small municipal utility companies. Look at this story from Minnesota Public Radio as an example of what you might find. One town’s utility company says 15% of its customers are behind on their bills. Some customers have not paid an electric bill in a year. Some are up to $4,000 behind on their payments.

Now is the time to warn against carbon monoxide poisoning

The spike in electricity demand creates the need for rolling blackouts and, predictably, people will do what they have to do to stay warm. Some will die unnecessarily.

In Houston, a woman and an 8-year-old child were trying to stay warm by sleeping in a car when they died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In a separate case, fumes from a generator sickened a half dozen other people.

400 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, many because they’ve tried do-it-yourself fixes during power outages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people will sit in their running cars in the garage. Others will heat their homes with gas ovens. Both can be deadly.

Can you store food outside in the cold if you lose electricity?

It seems logical that when you lose electricity because of an ice storm that the whole world outside your door could be one big refrigerator. The experts say that is a bad idea. Let’s turn to an expert from North Dakota, where they know a thing or two about such matters.

Why heart attacks rise during snowstorms

A man clears fresh snow as temperatures drop below 0 degrees Fahrenheit Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. Temperatures were expected to drop to -9 degrees overnight as a winter storm passes through the region. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Shoveling snow is a known trigger for heart attacks. Harvard Health reminds us:

What’s the connection? Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart. Pushing a heavy snow blower can do the same thing. Cold weather is another contributor because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.

The BBC quotes cardiologist Barry Franklin, director of preventative cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan and an expert on the hazardous effects of snow removal. Franklin says:

“I believe we lose hundreds of people each year because of this activity.”

His team found that when healthy young men shoveled snow, their heart rate and blood pressure increased more than when they exercised on a treadmill. “Combine this with cold air, which causes arteries to constrict and decrease blood supply, you have a perfect storm for a heart attack,” he says.

Snow shoveling is particularly strenuous because it uses arm work, which is more taxing than leg work. Straining to move wet and heavy snow is particularly likely to cause a surge in heart rate and blood pressure, Franklin says.

Many people hold their breath during the hard work, which also puts a strain on the body. In addition, the prime time for snow clearance is between 6am and 10am which is when circadian fluctuations make us more vulnerable to heart attacks.

And while we are at it, frostbite is way more dangerous than you may realize.

Millions who face foreclosure get a reprieve

At some point, months of unpaid mortgages and rents will come due, but the Biden Administration just kicked the deadline down the calendar again for homeowners.

The COVID-19 mortgage forbearance and foreclosure protection program that was due to expire at the end of next month will be extended until June 2021. The government points people in mortgage trouble to this website to see if they qualify for other help. In the meantime, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package still pending in Congress includes $10 billion to assist homeowners with mortgage and utility costs.

Bloomberg reports:

A Moody’s Analytics report released in January estimated Americans’ back rent stood at $57 billion. Chief economist Mark Zandi said the average “delinquent renter” will owe $5,600, as they’ll be almost four months behind on monthly rent of $1,130 and utilities of $290.

For renters, there is still a moratorium in effect through March.

Free COVID-19 data journalist training starting today

Data journalist and science writer Betsy Ladyzhets has an awesome series of free webinars for journalists with the National Association of Science Writers. Ladyzhets sent me this info:

In a series of three sessions, experienced data journalists will talk about their work reporting on the pandemic and how other reporters might be able to build on their work. There will be ample time for questions.

Speakers include Drew Armstrong, who runs Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker; Liz Essley Whyte, who leaked White House COVID-19 reports to the public; and Tom Meagher, who has coordinated data collection on coronavirus spread in prisons for The Marshall Project.

Here’s the registration link. The first workshop is today from 1-2 PM ET; subsequent sessions will be on February 24 and March 3. The series is free to all attendees (thanks to a grant from the National Association of Science Writers)!

Let me add my encouragement for you to carve out some time for these. Liz Essley Whyte has been a champion of COVID-19 data and Tom Meagher has taught at one of our roving workshops at Poynter.

Thanks to the pandemic, is cheese the new chocolate?

French cheese seller Jean-Charles Ouvrat poses outside his Ville d’Avray cheese shop, outside Paris, Friday, March 27, 2020. In France, shops specializing in pastry, wine, and cheese were declared essential businesses early in the pandemic. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

In 2021, nothing says love like a block of Gouda.

Yahoo Finance has a story that says Valentine’s Day 2021 was big for cheese sales … and it comes at the expense of chocolate sales. The story quotes data from Signal Analytics that says there has been “a massive jump in cheese demand, with a 173% surge in consumer conversations surrounding cheese when compared to Valentine’s Day 2020. While chocolate (specifically chocolate hearts) typically wins the V-Day treat category, the company said. Yet cheese has now taken the number one spot.”

The pandemic may have changed other food preferences.

Food delivery giant Grubhub told Yahoo Finance that spicy and exotic eats — from jalapeno cheese taquitos to Tonkatsu spicy miso ramen — surged in search results during this year’s winter season when compared to summer 2020.

The most popular spicy foods on the platform included jalapeno bites (+232%) and sriracha chicken sandwiches (+161%), whereas the most-searched spicy foods ranged from Cajun Chicken Alfredo (+166%) to spicy beef noodle soup (+147%).

The way we work now

Can we all just send some love to the journalists who are out there documenting this weather? I have sure spent my time standing in the cold waiting for a live hit, wondering if the batteries are going to hold out, wondering if the IFB is going to frostbite my ear.

Here is a loving message from a TV photojournalist in Washington, D.C., saying to producers what reporters and photojournalists everywhere would love to say:

(Screenshot, Facebook)

(Screenshot, Facebook)

(Screenshot, Facebook)

Bless you all. Every one. Now if we could just get some electricity flowing so people can watch you!

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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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