March 4, 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.

Congress has not yet approved a new stimulus bill, but the number of people who eventually might get a check dropped by 7 million yesterday.

The newest version of the stimulus plan cuts off payments to households that earn more than $160,000 a year in income and individuals who earn more than $80,000 a year. The House version of the stimulus set the limits at $200,000 for households and $80,000 for individuals. The Senate bill would send $1,400 to individuals earning less than $75,000 and couples earning less than $150,000.

One other change from the first two stimulus checks: The current version of the bill includes college students as eligible recipients.

NPR notes:

Some liberal House Democrats, particularly those representing larger cities with higher living costs, have argued in the past that lower phaseouts for the checks discriminate against single parents in those areas. So far, none has explicitly weighed in on the bill.

There are also concerns that the payments will be based on 2019 income unless taxpayers have already filed their 2020 tax returns and had them accepted by the IRS. That means people who lost jobs or income in 2020 but have not yet filed their taxes might miss out on the full value of the payment for weeks or, possibly, until tax time next year.

Senate Democrats and the White House also agreed to keep a provision that would increase federal unemployment benefits to $400 per week through the end of August.

Watch for Thursday updates on this one.

QAnon rumors alter Congress’ plans

Members of the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Capitol Police keep watch as heightened security remains in effect around the Capitol grounds since the Jan. 6 attacks by a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump, in Washington, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

I have mentioned this a couple of times but now the groundless rumor that Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president again today (March 4) and that Joe Biden will be tossed out of office has grown to become serious enough that the House changed its voting plans.

The House was supposed to be in session Thursday to work out a COVID-19 recovery bill, pass policing reform and consider a voting rights bill, but security concerns forced the House to scrap its Thursday sessions. The Senate will still meet Thursday.

Police in Washington, D.C., and the FBI are on alert in case there are violent protests. An internal memo sent by Timothy Blodgett, the acting House sergeant-at-arms, said his office “is working closely with the U.S. Capitol Police to monitor information related to March 4th and potential protests and demonstration activity surrounding what some have described as the ‘true Inauguration Day.’” The memo added that there has been “no indication that groups will travel to Washington D.C. to protest or commit acts of violence.”

NBC News explains the extremist noise behind all of this:

Many remain QAnon adherents, having adopted Thursday as the next day they believe Democrats will be arrested en masse or the day that Trump will be re-inaugurated as president. The “sovereign citizen” movement, a 50-year-old conspiracy movement composed largely of radical tax protesters, believes there has not been a legitimate president since Ulysses S. Grant, who was inaugurated March 4, 1869.

The federal government has kept a couple of thousand members of the National Guard in D.C. until this moment passes. Then there is the question of security for a State of the Union address.

Vox reached out to eight journalists who have covered QAnon to hear what they think the future might hold.

For a little insight on this sort of thing, look up the story of the Millerites, an end-of-the-world group back in the 1840s that predicted the return of Jesus. The group set some dates, moved the dates, sold off their belongings and went to the hills to await the big day. When it didn’t pan out, they formed their own church.

QAnon followers have swallowed so many unfulfilled predictions that it is hard to know whether one more failed prediction will be enough to choke the conspiracy group or whether the devotees will just circle another day on the calendar and keep wearing their T-shirts. Remember, conspiracies have to remain flexible.

Lawmakers in 21 states consider banning transgender athletes from sports

Let’s take a few steps off the COVID-19 beat to look at an issue arising in almost half of the states in the country.

In Wisconsin, Republican legislators have introduced a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing in school sports at every level including college. Tennessee’s senate just passed a similar bill pertaining to middle school and high school sports.

At least some of this effort is pushed by a political action group that supplies draft legislation to lawmakers, which is why so many of the bills sound so much alike.

The Tennessean reports:

The legislative push in Tennessee mirrors efforts spanning across at least 21 states, according to a Tennessean analysis. Bills in at least six states, including Tennessee, have now passed in at least one legislative chamber.

Bill sponsors share similar talking points and many of the bills include identical clauses linked to language drafted by outside interest groups such as the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, a well-funded politically active nonprofit that does not disclose its donors.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

The move — part of at least a dozen proposals across the country — drew a heavy rebuke from the state’s transgender community and its advocates, who say the effort pushes a harmful message to transgender children that they don’t deserve to live like everyone else.

Flanked by female athletes at the Capitol and Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair by video, bill author Rep. Barb Dittrich said at a press conference Tuesday that the legislation is needed to ensure female athletes aren’t competing against someone with insurmountable physical advantages.

The bills face an all but certain veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who opposes legislation that puts restrictions on gay and transgender children and adults.

“My message to Wisconsin’s transgender kids and students today is simple: I see you. You are welcome, you are wanted, and you belong,” Evers said in a statement and on Twitter.

The efforts by state lawmakers to enter this issue go against NCAA guidelines. A passage in the NCAA guidelines, written more than a decade ago, is worth reading, especially since this issue seems to be coming up in state legislatures around the country. (The section is a little longer than I would normally cite, but I wanted to get it in front of you.)

These concerns are based on three assumptions: one, that transgender women are not “real” women and therefore not deserving of an equal competitive opportunity; two, that being born with a male body automatically gives a transgender woman an unfair advantage when competing against non-transgender women; and three, that men might be tempted to pretend to be transgender in order to compete in competition with women. These assumptions are not well founded.

First, the decision to transition from one gender to the other — to align one’s external gender presentation with one’s internal sense of gender identity — is a deeply significant and difficult choice that is made only after careful consideration and for the most compelling of reasons.

Gender identity is a core aspect of a person’s identity, and it is just as deep seated, authentic, and real for a transgender person as for others. Male-to-female transgender women fully identify and live their lives as women, and female-to-male transgender men fully identify and live their lives as men. Second, some people fear that transgender women will have an unfair advantage over non-transgender women. It is important to place that fear in context.

Transgender girls who medically transition at an early age do not go through a male puberty, and therefore their participation in athletics as girls does not raise the same equity concerns that arise when transgender women transition after puberty. Transgender women display a great deal of physical variation, just as there is a great deal of natural variation in physical size and ability among non-transgender women and men. Many people may have a stereotype that all transgender women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles. But that is not true. A male-to-female transgender woman may be small and slight, even if she is not on hormone blockers or taking estrogen. It is important not to overgeneralize. The assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.

The LGBT Sports Foundation also includes some suggested guidelines in a document titled “All 50.”

Back in Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel story included this passage:

Under Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association policies, transgender girls may participate on girls teams if they have had one year of testosterone suppression therapy.

Sheri Swokowski, a transgender woman who is a former board member of LGBT advocacy group Fair Wisconsin, also pointed out the International Olympic Committee has permitted transgender athletes to compete for two decades.

Journalists, this issue is rolling through legislatures. The Associated Press reports:

The Associated Press reached out to two dozen state lawmakers sponsoring such measures around the country as well as the conservative groups supporting them and found only a few times it’s been an issue among the hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who play high school sports.

In South Carolina, for example, Rep. Ashley Trantham said she knew of no transgender athletes competing in the state and was proposing a ban to prevent possible problems in the future. Otherwise, she said during a recent hearing, “the next generation of female athletes in South Carolina may not have a chance to excel.”

19 states allow full inclusion of trans athletes; 16 have no clear-cut statewide policy; seven emulate the NCAA’s rule by requiring hormone therapy for trans girls; and eight effectively ban trans girls from girls’ teams, according to attorney Asaf Orr of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Texas is among those with a ban, limiting transgender athletes to teams conforming with the gender on their birth certificate.

You really do have to ask yourself why legislatures faced with so much — a pandemic, an economic sinkhole, painful budget cuts, a housing crisis that will unfold when rents and mortgages come due, reopening schools — would spend the time and attention focused on a matter that has not surfaced as a real issue in their states? As Sheri Swokowski, who is battling the effort in Wisconsin, said this week, “Have you noticed a lot of trans athletes sweeping everything?” As the NCAA guidelines put it:

Fears that men will pretend to be female to compete on a women’s team are unwarranted given that in the entire 40-year history of “sex verification” procedures in international sport competitions, no instances of such “fraud” have been revealed. Instead, rather than identifying men who are trying to fraudulently compete as women, “sex verification” tests have been misused to humiliate and unfairly exclude women with intersex conditions. The apparent failure of such tests to serve their stated purpose of deterring fraud — and the terrible damage they have caused to individual women athletes — should be taken into account when developing policies for the inclusion of transgender athletes.

A record number of complaints against airlines and travel agencies

When you cannot get a satisfactory response by complaining to an airline, you can file a formal complaint with the federal Department of Transportation. And in 2020, people filed 102,550 such formal complaints which, by way of context, compares to 15,342 in 2019. USA Today says 90% of the complaints had something to do with refunds during the pandemic.

Foreign airlines drew the most complaints but, among domestic airlines, USA Today says:

United received 11,274 complaints, more than 10,000 of them about refunds. American had the second-highest number of complaints, but the volume of complaints was barely half of United’s, at 5,949 complaints.

Southwest Airlines had the fewest complaints among the big carriers.

Here is something interesting: Since the pandemic, people are increasingly turning to travel agents. The Washington Post says travelers are using travel agents to be certain they have all of the documents they need to travel. In some cases, agents even set up COVID-19 tests for travelers.

A COVID-19 recovery symptom: People are using Lyft again

Jeff Hodge, a standup comic, waits for ride-share passengers at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

This may mean more than it appears to say. Lyft says it just had its best week since the pandemic began. The news comes in the form of a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which the company notes that people are using the ridesharing service more these days. Even considering the rough winter weather across the country in February, ridership was still above January’s ridership. Uber changed its business model during the pandemic to focus more on food delivery, but Lyft stayed focused on ridesharing.

Climate change broke the Gulf Stream

In case this one got buried in your news feed this week, there is some evidence that climate change is changing the jet stream, which means one of the most powerful forces on weather patterns over four continents would be affected. The New York Times put it this way: The Gulf Stream carried 30 times more water than all of the world’s rivers combined. And if ocean currents change, so much else will change, including expected rainfall, hurricane strengths and sea levels.

All and all, not the cheeriest news you will read today, but some of the most important.

For some reason this story made me think of that Buggles song, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which now will be stuck in your mind, too. You are welcome.

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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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