April 6, 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.

When a bar in rural Illinois reopened in February, patrons gathered inside to celebrate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just published the details of how that gathering resulted in 46 cases of COVID-19.

The cases involved 26 patrons and bar workers; 12 members of bar patrons’ households, including children; people living in a long-term care facility; and school contacts, including members of a sports team. It resulted in one hospitalization and a school closure that affected 650 students. The CDC report does not name the county or the business.

“These findings show that SARS-CoV-transmission originating in a business such as a bar not only affects the patrons and employees of the bar but can also affect an entire community,” the CDC report says.

We do not know how many people were at the bar on the day of the event. It holds 100 people. Investigators know of at least one person who tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the event and, over the next couple of weeks, the health department linked dozens of cases to people who were at the bar.

One person at the bar worked at a long-term health care facility. The contact tracers believe that person carried the virus into that facility and infected residents.

Vaccine ‘cheat days’ can harm you and others

We seem to be increasingly willing to declare that we are “close enough” to being vaccinated if we are between our first and second vaccines or within the two-week window after getting a shot. That is not good news.

Brand new Gallup polling shows Americans admit they are easing up on social distancing. In fact, fewer people say they are socially distancing from people outside their household than any time since the pandemic began.

(Gallup)

Gallup’s new data also shows, as you might expect, that people who are fully vaccinated are socially distancing less. But even people who are not vaccinated are getting laxer.

While increased vaccination explains much of the decline in strict social distancing practices, all vaccination status groups show at least modest declines. This includes a steeper 12-point drop among Americans who plan to get vaccinated but have not yet received any doses. The yet-to-be vaccinated group remains the largest segment of the U.S. population, at 42%, although it has shrunk from an average of 59% in January and February.

Look at the chart below and you will see that among the people who do not intend to get vaccinated, only a fourth practiced social distancing last month. Even people who are fully vaccinated distanced themselves more than those who have no plans to take the shots.

(Gallup)

 

Katherine J. Wu at The Atlantic argues that the cumulative effect of shaving off some vaccine “cheat days” is like repeatedly opening an oven door while baking:

The harm is, frankly, mathematical. Over time, our vaccine cheat days start to add up. It might truly be innocuous for a few people to cut a couple of corners on occasion. But eventually, a series of flubs will allow exposures, which will in turn beget disease. Our shortcuts also signal to others that it’s okay to chill out when it is very much not.

Now is not the time to relax — quite the opposite. “We’re so close to the end that we should be extra careful right now,” Julie Downs, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. The problem is our lapses don’t just slow us down. They set us back, in the same way that repeatedly opening an oven door will prolong the time it takes to bake a cake (and, at worst, make your delicious dessert collapse). Having made so much progress, we risk a lot with our impatience. And right now, we’re in serious danger of botching our grand pandemic finale.

And, Wu says, when the CDC issues “wobbly” guidance like whether it is safe to travel if you are fully vaccinated, people tend to spin the guidance in favor of whatever they want it to mean. People who have taken great care to follow guidelines in the last year may feel justified to “cut themselves more slack” as if they deserve some special protection from the virus because of their careful behavior.

Even people who plan to get vaccinated but have not yet done so appear in the Gallup polling to be loosening up their behavior, as if good intentions provide some layer of protection. And as your friends start to get vaccinated and shed their masks around you, you may feel safer doing the same, even if you have not been vaccinated.

Why so many people are getting higher personal and property tax bills?

Homeowners around the country are being socked with significantly higher property taxes when the pandemic already has their finances on the rocks. The reason is that their properties are worth more as homes that sell near them bring higher prices. Their property assessments reflect that higher value.

In Polk County, Iowa, where Des Moines is, for example, some homeowners say the county has raised the assessed value on their homes by $20,000 in just the last two years. The Des Moines Register reports:

Residential assessments increased this year an average of 7.45%, according to the Polk County Assessor’s Office. That assessment is based on a variety of factors, including the home’s location, physical changes or improvements and the surrounding neighborhood’s overall home sales.

Last year, the Des Moines metro experienced a record-breaking year for home sales, even through the pandemic.

Never mind that during a pandemic-induced economic downturn, most Iowans aren’t getting raises anywhere near comparable to the tax increases that likely will follow the boost in their homes’ assessed value. Homes in several parts of the metro are selling the day they go on the market, and bidding wars are breaking out, so it’s hard to argue with the county’s logic.

I have seen similar stories around the country, including in Virginia, South Florida and Memphis, where assessments may rise 20% or more. It is the same in suburban Boston and San Antonio, where KSAT-TV reports:

Most Bexar County residential property owners will get a notice this week of their new valuations, and they are up an average of 6.9% despite lockdowns, shutdowns and vanishing paychecks. How can that happen?

“Pandemic or no pandemic, there’s a market that’s quite active,” said Chief Appraiser Mike Amezquita, with the Bexar County Appraisal District. “It’s our job to follow the market and try to reflect what values are doing in each and every neighborhood.”

In Ohio, state law requires reappraisals every six years, so homeowners may be in for quite a jolt when they see what the value of their property looks like today. In Detroit, property values have increased by about 8% this year, but if you have not recently bought your house, you are protected by a 2% cap on increases. When the house is sold again, it gets reassessed, and the new value applies to the tax bill.

But you don’t have to be a homeowner to see higher tax bills. Half of states impose a personal property tax. You might see the tax on your car increase, for example, because, as the St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman warned taxpayers, “Many car values have actually gone up this year because used cars are selling for higher prices.”

Payday loans are under fire

In this Aug. 9, 2018, photo, a manager of a financial services store in Ballwin, Mo., counts cash being paid to a client as part of a payday loan. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be on the verge of tightening regulations on payday lenders a year after the Trump administration relaxed that oversight in the shadow of the pandemic.

Acting CFPB Director Dave Uejio stated in a blog post that the bureau’s new leadership supports the 2017 “ability-to-repay” standards that Trump reversed. Payday lenders dole out about $90 billion per year, mostly in small amounts to be paid back with high interest. When the borrower cannot pay, the loan gets rolled over and over, which can compound to more than 100% in some cases.

Uejio puts the issue into perspective:

Years of research by the CFPB found the vast majority of this industry’s revenue came from consumers who could not afford to repay their loans, with most short-term loans in reborrowing chains of 10 or more. One-in-five payday loans, and one-in-three vehicle title loans, ended in default, even including periods of reborrowing. And one-in-five vehicle title loan borrowers ended up having their car or truck seized by the lender. That is real harm to real people.

While the federal government considers reinstating tougher national regulations on payday lenders, local governments are not waiting. Illinois just passed new regulations. WTTW reports:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Illinois Predatory Lending Prevention Act, which caps annual interest rates on short-term loans at 36%.

The law, which took immediate effect, impacts payday loans — typically a two-week loan in which the money is taken from the borrower’s next paycheck. It also impacts auto title loans and other short-term lending products.

“Anything above 36% is predatory and usury,” said state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, who co-sponsored the measure. “So, we know that high-cost payday loans and auto loans have stripped communities of billions and billions of dollars, primarily the Black and Brown communities in the state of Illinois.”

WTTW tells the story of one borrower who could not find a bank to lend money to keep a small business running in the pandemic:

Kesha Warren knows about the high cost firsthand. When she needed a short-term cash infusion of $1,250 to make payroll costs for her small janitorial services company in 2019, she took out an auto title loan, a short-term loan that uses the borrower’s vehicle as collateral.

She says she was shut out from more traditional bank loans.

“No one wants to lend to someone that has $100,000 in student loans, so it was very hard for me to get a traditional loan,” Warren said.

The loan came with a yearly interest rate of 197%. That ballooned her initial $1,250 loan into a total payment of $3,400 that she paid off earlier this year. Had she not done that, it could have cost her another $2,000.

In Texas, both Dallas and Austin have payday lending laws. When Austin started enforcing rules that force lenders to disclose their interest rates, loans dropped 41%.

But while not many people defend predatory lending practices, it is also true that without these payday loan companies, there is no other place for some people to turn to for a loan. Steve Brubaker, the head of the Illinois Small Loan Association, which includes payday lenders, says, “We’re closing these stores, we’re firing the people, we’re not providing customers any options, and we’re taking a billion dollars out of the marketplace which was used to fix your car, buy a new refrigerator, spend it on kids clothes for school.”

Brubaker says opponents should keep in mind that when they talk about the interest rates of more than 100%, the figure assumes that the borrower will take a year or more to repay the loan. WTTW reports:

The average APR for an auto title loan in Illinois is 197%, according to statistics from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The average payday loan rate is 297%.

But Brubaker says the numbers are misleading. When measuring the typical two-week length of the loan, it comes out to about $15 on the hundred.

“When they see that giant number, they misunderstand what the customer has to pay back,” Brubaker said. “The average loan amount for a payday loan in 2019 was $340. And the average fee amount was $52.”

Banking as it is not supposed to be

One reason people turn to payday lenders is that banks are not interested in loaning them money. WFAA in Dallas has spent a lot of time investigating how banks avoid lending money to people who are not already wealthy. The station reports:

Banks aren’t supposed to just lend money to wealthy people. The law says banks also have to lend to lower-income people, who frequently are Black and Hispanic.

Despite the law, in our ongoing series, Banking Below 30, we found banks make relatively few loans to low-income borrowers.

Nonprofits are at the center of what’s next for vaccinations

Soon, everyone who wants to get a vaccine and can get to a vaccination site will have a shot. Then the really hard work begins to reach populations who do not have access to or have unfounded doubts about the vaccines. The work to reach those people will, in large part, fall on nonprofit groups who know these populations well.

Tomorrow, the National Council of Nonprofits will hold a free webinar that journalists might find to be a useful source of story ideas.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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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