April 27, 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.

One day before he speaks to a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden may today announce new mask guidance for people who have been vaccinated.

The current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says that even fully vaccinated people should keep their distance and wear a mask if they are mingling with unvaccinated people. The new guidance may seek to offer a “carrot” to people to get vaccinated by saying that people with both doses of the vaccine don’t have to wear a mask when they are outdoors.

Whatever new guidance Biden announces, there will likely be caveats about when masks are necessary — even outdoors. It is also uncertain how the new guidelines might line up with federal guidelines for mask-wearing on mass transit and in federal buildings.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said the agency is looking into a potential revision of mask guidance. CNBC reports:

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said he supports the anticipated guidance from the CDC. He added that more research is showing that very few Covid-19 infections happen in outdoor settings.

But masks should still be mandated in indoor settings, he said, until most of the U.S. population is vaccinated and it is difficult for the virus to spread from one person to the next.

“It’s been over a year. We have a very good understanding of who gets infected and how they get infected,” he told CNBC in a phone interview. “I think it’s fair to say you don’t need to wear a mask outside unless you can’t maintain 2 meters or 6 feet of social distancing.”

“Masking outdoors likely doesn’t provide much added protection,” he added.

On Monday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC that he believes outdoor mask mandates are no longer necessary as the U.S. vaccinates more people.

The timeline on mask guidance is a roller coaster. Just look at the first four months of guidance last year, compiled by KSAT-TV.

Restaurants are pleading for workers

A window message at a Mexican fast-food restaurant advertises for job hiring Thursday, April 23, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Here in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I am, restaurants are offering signing bonuses for new employees. Some say they cannot fully reopen because they can’t find enough workers. Last week, my wife, who is a therapist, invited her stressed restaurant server to sit down for a masked-up tableside chat to decompress.

And it is unfolding nationwide.

The National Restaurant Association says:

On the state level, restaurant job growth was broad-based in March.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia added restaurant jobs between February and March, leaving Alabama as the only state seeing job losses.

Texas led the way with a net gain of 31,200 eating and drinking place jobs in March. California (27,100), New York (20,600), Illinois (19,300) and Florida (18,100) also expanded payrolls at a healthy pace in March.

The New York Times reports:

“I don’t think anything like this has ever happened,” said Katie Button, the chef and a co-owner of two restaurants in Asheville, N.C. “Everybody in the world is hiring at the same time.”

A staffing shortage seems counterintuitive in a business that has been devastated by the pandemic, with mass layoffs and an alarming number of permanent closings. It comes just as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion grant program for struggling small restaurants, bars and restaurant groups, is gearing up to take applications, and as diners who have eaten at home for a year feel increasingly liberated by vaccines.

The National Restaurant Association says that as people get vaccinated, business has boomed in 2021, with restaurant employment growing each month.

(National Restaurant Association)

(National Restaurant Association)

(National Restaurant Association)

Even with the strong growth, restaurant employment is still far behind pre-pandemic levels.

The Restaurant Association provides this data:

In percentage terms, employment in the cafeterias/grill buffets/buffets segment is still 62% below pre-pandemic levels — by far the largest deficit among the major restaurant categories. Staffing levels in the catering and mobile foodservice segment (-44%), foodservice contractor segment (-39%) and bars and taverns segment (-33%) are also significantly below pre-coronavirus readings.

8% are skipping second doses — so how protected are they?

The CDC says 5 million Americans have skipped getting the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine after taking the first shot. Some people say they are concerned about side effects. Others say the supplies were too tight for them to get a second shot. We do not know yet how long one dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will protect against the coronavirus. The double dose is estimated to offer protection for at least six months, probably longer.

New polling by ABC News and The Washington Post shows that just less than half of Americans consider the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be safe.

The US will share the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries

Even though the United States has not approved AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in America, it will export 60 million doses to other countries.

The Associated Press reports:

About 10 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine have been produced but have yet to pass review by the FDA to “meet its expectations for product quality,” Zients said, noting the U.S. regulator is recognized as the “gold standard” for safety around the world. That process could be completed in the next several weeks. About 50 million more doses are in various stages of production and could be available to ship in May and June pending FDA sign-off.

The U.S. has yet to finalize where the AstraZeneca doses will go, Zients said. Neighbors Mexico and Canada have asked the Biden administration to share more doses, while dozens of other countries are looking to access supplies of the vaccine.

Hospitals will require employees to be vaccinated

Houston Methodist Hospital offered $500 to workers to entice them to get vaccinated. Now it says all 26,000 employees will be vaccinated, period — it is a new requirement.

Employees have until June 7 to get their shots.

Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist’s president and CEO, told employees in an emailed message:

“Mandating the vaccine was not a decision we made lightly, but science has proven that the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and very effective. Like I say to everyone who asks — whether they are reporters, the public, patients or our employees, it is our sacred obligation to do everything possible to keep our patients safe. By choosing to be vaccinated, you are leaders — showing our colleagues in health care what must be done to protect our patients, ourselves, our families and our communities.”

CBS reports:

Other hospitals will soon follow suit, with plans already in the works at two other medical centers in Texas: Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, the physician noted. “I have spoken to countless hospital leaders across the country who plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination soon,” he added in the email, which was shared with CBS MoneyWatch.

Employer offers $200 to entice workers to take vaccine

Cigna, a huge insurance company, is offering $200 and up to 10 days of paid time off to employees who get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Other companies are raising their cash rewards for vaccinations. Kroger is offering workers $100 to get vaccinated. The grocery chain says upwards to 75% of the workers have taken them up on the offer.

What you need to know about the Supreme Court’s new gun rights case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear what could be a significant gun rights case. The case involves a New York law that prohibits law-abiding people from carrying a handgun outside the home without a “proper cause.”

In 2008, the court ruled that the Second Amendment provides the right to have a gun in your home. This case could determine if you also have a right to a handgun outside the home for self-defense.

As the court filings state, New York bans the open carry of handguns entirely. But the lawsuit says:

And while New York permits concealed carry of a handgun with a license, the state makes it virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license. A New York licensing officer enjoys the discretion to grant a concealed carry license to members of select professions, such as state court judges, but a license to carry a handgun “without regard to employment or place of possession” may only be granted “when proper cause exists for the issuance thereof.”

The case was brought by petitioners Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, both of whom said they wanted to be able to carry a gun for self-protection. Nash “cited a string of recent robberies in his neighborhood and the fact that he had recently completed an advanced firearm safety training course.” Koch said he was told that he “failed to show ‘proper cause’ to carry a firearm in public for the purpose of self-defense, because he did not demonstrate a special need for self-defense that distinguished him from the general public.”

The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association is also a petitioner in the case.

Making sense of the Census

The best guess is America was home to 331,449,281 people on April 1, 2020. That is 7% more than 10 years before, but the growth rate is the slowest since the 1930s.

You probably have started to explore the Census Bureau’s brand new first-look data from the 2020 Census. It is the foundation for everything from how many votes your state has in Congress to how much money the federal government provides your community for all sorts of projects.

As for Congressional representation:

In all, six states gained congressional seats, including Texas, which gained two, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, Oregon, and North Carolina.

Seven states lost a seat, including California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, New York, Michigan and West Virginia.

You can explore the data on this interactive map.

I am sure you know that this reapportionment has political importance because the number of votes a state has in the Electoral College is based on congressional representation. So the states that gained a seat got more important to presidential candidates.

(U.S. Census Bureau)

The reason is the population shift underway right now.

(U.S. Census Bureau)

Growing states including warm-weather states Arizona, Texas, Nevada and North Carolina.

Most New York and Illinois counties lost population.

You can dig into this first release on a state-by-state basis. Here are some highlights.

The most populous state was California (39,538,223); the least populous was Wyoming (576,851).

The state that gained the most numerically since the 2010 Census was Texas (up 3,999,944 to 29,145,505).

The fastest-growing state since the 2010 Census was Utah (up 18.4% to 3,271,616).

Puerto Rico’s resident population was 3,285,874, down 11.8% from 3,725,789 in the 2010 Census.

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.

Correction: It’s the National Restaurant Association, not the American Restaurant Association. 

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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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