September 29, 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 President Joe Biden announced he would seek Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that would force companies with 100 or more employees to require COVID-19 vaccines, it was unclear how strongly the government might enforce the rule.

Forbes reports:

Buried on page 168 of the House Democrats’ 2,465-page mega bill is a tenfold increase in fines for employers that “willfully,” “repeatedly,” or even seriously violate a section of labor law that deals with hazards, death, or serious physical harm to their employees.

The increased fines on employers could run as high as $70,000 for serious infractions, and $700,000 for willful or repeated violations — almost three-quarters of a million dollars for each fine. If enacted into law, vax enforcement could bankrupt non-compliant companies even more quickly than the $14,000 OSHA fine anticipated under Biden’s announced mandate.

That new fine schedule may come up for a vote this week as part of the president’s Build Back Better legislation, which I will discuss next.

With an Oct. 18 debt ceiling deadline, time is running out to keep the government running,

Here we are, once again, with hours to go before the federal government shuts down because Congress cannot pass a budget without creating a crisis. After all, passing a budget is one of Congress’ most important jobs. But I digress.

You probably need to help the public understand the multiple deadlines before us now.

Two of the deadlines are self-imposed and two are non-negotiable.

Hard deadlines that must be met:

  • Federal government shutdown: This must be met by the end of the day Thursday, which is the end of the fiscal year. An attempt to keep the government running into December failed in the Senate, so the standoff continues today. The last shutdown, from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, was a partial closure since Congress had already enacted five of the 12 appropriations bills. But this time, it would be a full shutdown. Legislation passed in January 2019 guarantees that furloughed employees who are not allowed to work and do not receive paychecks will get back pay due to them, but federal contractors have historically not received back pay.
  • Raising the debt ceiling: This must be met by Oct. 18, the day the U.S. government hits a credit limit to pay existing debts run up by this and previous administrations.

Democrats would like to tie the two above items together so Republicans can share the voters’ wrath for debts, but Republicans say these are different issues.

Scheduled Thursday deadlines that may take longer:

There are two other big votes likely on Thursday, but they won’t come up for a vote without a consensus to pass them, House leaders say.

  • The vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which House progressives say they will not approve unless they also get the social spending bill they want first. You often hear this bill referred to as “the reconciliation package,” and it includes almost all of President Biden’s biggest plans.
  • The vote on a $3.5 trillion social spending bill (called the Build Back Better Act), which would lay out a 10-year spending plan for a range of social programs. 13 congressional committees produced the 2,465-page measure. It includes subsidies that make health care under the Affordable Care Act more available. It would expand Medicare to add dental, vision and hearing coverage; provide universal free pre-K; allocate billions to climate change initiatives; and raise taxes on corporations and people who make more than $400,000 per year.

What is in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill?

This CNN graphic summarizes what is up for a vote Thursday:

(CNN)

This is an opportunity to get local on the infrastructure bill. Local governments are pushing for the passage of some version of this bill because it will rain concrete, asphalt and water pipes on local communities. Axios includes a short sample list of what you will find in the bill:

  • In Seattle, where the West Seattle Bridge was closed last year to avert disaster and a chunk of pier collapsed, the federal infrastructure infusion could jump-start projects that would avert such dramatic catastrophes.
  • In Austin, the money could boost Project Connect, a long-planned light rail system that would multiply car-free travel options.
  • In Oklahoma City, new funding for Amtrak could mean a rail connection to Kansas that would give residents life-altering new access to northern travel. (Right now, OKC-ers can only go south to Fort Worth on Amtrak.)
  • In Dayton, the long-delayed reconstruction of Salem Avenue — a major artery — could finally begin, as could the repair of antique water systems.

400 mayors signed a letter of support for the infrastructure bill.

One of the controversies about this bill, besides the enormous size, is how the money is allocated. CNBC gives an example:

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are expected to receive $15.2 billion for public transportation based on formula funding. That’s 24% of the total allocated to public transportation, though those states make up about 10% of the U.S. population, suggesting that the administration thinks the vast public transit infrastructure in those three states merits additional attention.

On the other hand, Louisiana, which is contending with potentially billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Ida, is expected to nab $1.01 billion for bridge replacement and repairs, seventh among all states and about 3.8% of the total dedicated to bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers said in a recent report that Louisiana, which relies heavily on bridges to transverse much of its low-lying countryside, is ranked fourth in the nation for total bridge area but second in the number of structurally deficient bridges based on square footage.

Here is a list of the proposed infrastructure spending by the top 15 states (you can see them all here):

(CNBC)

The National League of Cities generated an extensive list of what city leaders are hoping for, even though most mayors who are in office today won’t be around to cut the ribbons for the completed projects.

  • New $5B “Safe Streets for All” program directly supports local governments “vision zero” plans and other improvements to reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for cyclists and pedestrians.
  • New $20B historic investment in both large bridges in poor condition as well as bridges that are in rural and tribal areas.
  • $2.5B in Electric Charging and Fueling Infrastructure competitive grants to strategically deploy publicly accessible charging infrastructure along designated alternative fuel corridors.
  • $25 billion for the Airport Improvement grant program and funding for a new Airport Terminal Improvement program.
  • $11.713 billion each for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) over five years (49% as principal forgiveness/grants, 51% as loans).
  • $15 billion over five years for lead pipe replacement

‘Schoolhouse Rock lied to us!’

Politico points out that “Schoolhouse Rock’s” “I’m just a bill” cartoon taught kids about the legislative process but left out the messy complications that bills must go through to become law these days. There was no stanza about reconciliation negotiations or government shutdowns. Perhaps this is an opportunity for journalists to explain how government actually works (or doesn’t). Perhaps this “Saturday Night Live” version is more realistic?

Pfizer seeks FDA vaccine approval for 5- to 12-year-olds

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech sent its first batch of data to the Food and Drug Administration that will lead to the company applying for emergency approval for a vaccine for children ages 5 to 12. The data is based on 10mg doses in a trial involving 2,268 participants.

Significantly, the company said it expects to have data to submit to the FDA before the end of the year that could lead to a vaccine for children as young as 2 years old. The timeline of this move suggests that the FDA could approve a vaccine for 5- to 12-year-olds later this year and for younger children early in 2022.

The Association of Health Care Journalists put together a list of experts who are journalist-friendly and can help.

Natural gas prices are up 180% from a year ago, but don’t freak out

CNN advises:

About half of US households use natural gas for home and water heating, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The American Gas Association, which represents natural gas utilities like Con Edison, noted that “natural gas utility customers are not paying the day-to-day prices for natural gas that we see in the headlines,” spokesperson Jake Rubin said in a statement.

That’s because, AGA stressed, its members buy gas through long-term contracts that lock in prices and shield customers from some of the volatility. Rubin added that utilities augment winter supplies with storage of gas purchased months earlier.

The central problem is that while economic activity bounced back, natural gas production did not. That means demand is coming back faster than supply, forcing prices to go higher.

After years of losing money, natural gas producers have been cautious about ramping up production. Storage levels in the Lower 48 US states are slightly below normal, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Brazil’s troubles will affect us all somehow

A man plays with snow at a farm in rural Sao Joaquim, Brazil, Thursday, July 29, 2021. A fierce cold snap on Wednesday night prompted snowfall in southern Brazil where such weather is a phenomenon. (AP Photo/Mycchel Legnaghi)

Today is National Coffee Day. International Coffee Day is Friday. And the world’s coffee crop and the people who grow it are under considerable pressure.

A drought followed by a deep cold spell devastated Brazil’s farming output this year. An area the size of Peru — 1.5 million square kilometers of crops — was damaged by extreme weather. Bloomberg says, “1.3 billion pounds of (coffee) beans destroyed, enough to brew every single cup that Americans drink over a four-month period.”

As Bloomberg points out, Brazil produces:

Four-fifths of the world’s orange juice exports, half of its sugar exports, a third of coffee exports and a third of the soy and corn used to feed egg-laying hens and other livestock.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Marcelo Seluchi, a meteorologist at Brazil’s Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alert Center. “There is no rain because there is no humidity, and there is no humidity because there is no rain.” Deforestation of the Amazon, which ranchers clear cut to raise cattle and plant crops, is playing a big role, he says. By his calculation, Brazil hasn’t had a normal rainy season since 2010.

“It’s been a very peculiar year,” he says. “Floods in Germany and China, and there’s a very serious drought problem in Brazil.”

The Brazilian coffee crop will decline by 25% this year. A severe frost not only killed vast farms of coffee, but the 2022-23 crops are likely lost, too, because farmers have to lop off the damaged limbs and hope the coffee trees revive.

This is a view of coffee futures prices. You can see the spike right after the July frost. Even after a drop that followed, the futures are rising again now.

(TradingEconomics.com)

The Los Angeles Times says coffee prices will rise, but by how much, we don’t know. They report:

People who buy coffee beans at the grocery store will likely see a more noticeable increase in prices because about half the cost of that bag on the shelf comes solely from the bean itself. However, in large coffee shops, Carlos Mera, who analyzes the coffee markets at Rabobank, added, the cost of the bean only represents about 5% of your cup of hot coffee, so roasters “may not need to carry over the increases right away.”

This being National Coffee Day, there are lots of coffee places running specials, giveaways and other freebies. Here is a quick list. Don’t forget the little guys, too.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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