May 13, 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.

As sports fans return to stadiums, arenas and ballparks, those who have been vaccinated and those who have not may be seated in separate sections. Let me quote The Buffalo News:

When the first pitch is delivered June 1, Sahlen Field will allocate half of its seats for vaccinated fans, with the other half set aside for unvaccinated individuals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday at the downtown ballpark.

Unvaccinated sections also will require fans to adhere to social distancing requirements, Cuomo said, meaning fewer tickets will be available in this section. Everyone still must wear a mask.

Unvaccinated children will be allowed to attend a game and sit in the section for vaccinated fans if they attend with a vaccinated parent.

They did the same thing at a minor league game in Tacoma, Washington.  The News Tribune ran an editorial saying Tacoma Rainiers team president Aaron Artman is not trying to make a political statement or pass judgment about people who do or don’t get vaccines. Artman said, “Our job is to get people in the stadium and give them the benefits of the seats they paid for. I also think we’re being realistic. Clearly vaccination is the main metric and the key to getting the case count down. All we’re doing is playing within the rules.”

The editorial continues:

Some may complain that allowing special seating for vaccinated people creates a caste system. State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, spewed an offensive comparison to Jim Crow racial segregation.

But make no mistake: Separating vaccinated from unvaccinated people in large crowds is a reasonable step to move us closer to semi-normal life.

Anything that allows more people to attend a ball game ought to help democratize public gatherings and engender community spirit.

Mets and Yankees games also have different spacing requirements for people who are and are not vaccinated.

AZ Central asks:

Smokers self-identified the second they fired up an unfiltered Camel. Non-smokers could easily evacuate the infected area or, if they’d had a little too much to drink in the non-smoking section of the bar, grab the cigarette and stub it out in an overly exaggerated way.

But what are the vaccinated to do when, after restrictions are lifted, a person no more than 6 feet away sneezes, and into their hands rather than their elbow?

Or worse, they cough through a loosely held fist, propelling aerosolized droplets past 6 feet?

Stadiums and arenas may provide VIP-only entrances, allowing the vaccinated to pass safely to their “Vaccinated Only” seats down front. Theme parks could establish VIP lines, which will move three times faster than the other line because they can occupy each and every seat on the ride.

In places where it would be impossible to separate the vaccinated from the non-vaccinated (parks, national forests), officials could take a cue from the smoking era and designate unpopular, out-of-the-way areas from for coughing, sneezing and sniffling.

Oh yes, I see conflict on the horizon. If you thought the screaming guy trying to get into Walmart without a mask was something, wait until they start seating people in crummy seats at ball games because they are unvaccinated. It may not increase vaccinations, but it will generate some interesting videos.

Impatience about the CDC’s outdoor mask order is building

Capt. Trent Quinby wears a mask as he pilots the Isle Au Haut mailboat out of the harbor in Stonington, Maine, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if you are vaccinated, you can be outdoors in small gatherings without a mask and still be safe.

But if you work on a fishing boat or a crabbing vessel and follow the CDC’s guidelines (and order), you have to wear a mask. The order covering fishing boats is the same one that covers mass transit, including airplanes. And yet fishing boats and airplanes are very different environments.

At a Senate hearing this week, the CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky felt the wrath of senators from states where outdoor work is the norm.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Alaskan fishermen are being forced to wear masks even while at sea. “You’re out on a boat. The winds are howling. Your mask is soggy wet,” Murkowski said. “Tell me how anybody thinks that this is a sane and a sound policy.”

Walensky promised that the CDC is working on new guidance. But at the moment, the Coast Guard is enforcing the mask mandate.

Sen. Susan Collins said she has been hearing from summer camps, a big business in her state of Maine, about the CDC’s guidance that kids at camps wear masks outdoors. Walensky said now that younger teens can be safely vaccinated, the CDC may change that recommendation quickly for vaccinated kids. Even some medical experts say the CDC is overly cautious right now when it comes to telling vaccinated people to wear masks outdoors.

The CDC’s language applies to all sorts of ships and boats, including tour boats and cruise ships, which Sen. Collins said makes sense — but they are very different from working vessels. She said, “Many commercial fishing crews have gone out of their way to quarantine together or to work as a pod to reduce risk of infection or transmission of COVID-19. Requiring masks when interacting with the public, crews of other vessels (including tenders), or in port is not the same as requiring them onboard at all times.”

Fishermen say the Coast Guard rules require them to wear masks even while they are asleep or when they are cleaning fish, which is messy business even before debris from the fish they are cleaning gets caught in the mask material.

After the pandemic: Here comes the highest inflation in 13 years. Is that bad?

This week’s rise in the Consumer Price Index is more than wonky economic data. It is a canary in the proverbial coal mine that tells us that as the pandemic eases, inflation is rising — and the stuff you buy every day is growing more expensive.

Yesterday, the national average for a gallon of gasoline hit $3, which is the highest price in six years. Of course, that is being driven by panic buying because of the Colonial Pipeline interruption, but prices were already rising as people started driving more.

(AAA)

(AAA)

We are, so far this year, running at a 4.2% inflation rate. That means if you got a 3% raise this year, you have lost purchasing power. No raise? You are going backward fast.

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

What is behind the CPI’s increase? Many of the fastest rising categories have made news recently. The Hill digs into the data:

Prices for used cars and trucks soared 10 percent in April, the largest one-month increase since the Labor Department began tracking it in 1953, driving roughly a third of all April price increases.

Used cars and trucks have been in high demand as rental car companies attempt to rebuild fleets they sold off during the onset of the pandemic and repossessions decline.

The Labor Department said that price increases in shelter, airfares, recreation, motor vehicle insurance and household goods and services were also major drivers of April’s price increases.

I find the next chart more useful, partly because it points out the hazards of using “averages” in a pandemic economy.

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The price of vehicles blows out the overall figures. The number on the extreme right column allows you to see what has happened over a year. But you can see the month-to-month rolling increases, too. Remember that gasoline prices sank a year ago when we stopped driving so much.

Has COVID-19 ended buffets forever?

The pandemic shut down restaurant buffets. Fast Company says the days of sharing spoons and tongs to pile food onto plates may be gone:

Hotels are now experimenting with full-service options, bento boxes, conveyor belts, and more. Some of these initiatives sound promising, others less so. Either way, the sunsetting of buffets as we knew them before the pandemic means that an iconic part of travel may slide permanently off the brochure.

NBC’s “Today” show includes a report that says:

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the restaurant industry and our segment specifically,” Lance Trenary, President & CEO, Golden Corral Corporation told TODAY Food. “We will forever operate differently as a result, but I have no doubt that there is still a place for buffet dining, as evidenced by the enthusiasm and support from our loyal guests.”

Golden Corral currently has 312 restaurants open across the country, and has pivoted to focus on to-go and delivery during the pandemic. On their website, several safety options are outlined including “No Touch” buffet service which entails the restaurant changing all the utensils frequently and supplying napkins for handling utensils and “We Serve You” buffet service where staff serve guests from the buffet, avoiding the need for customers to touch serving utensils at all.

But as Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., professor and food safety specialist in the department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University pointed out, the main problem with buffets is not necessarily touching utensils as it is the close proximity of customers and shared air space.

Some buffet restaurants are keeping the choices but have workers serving the portions.

Grocery chains have to decide if they will reopen serve-yourself salad buffets. Hotels are also trying to figure out how to bring back some version of “serve yourself” breakfasts.

A few encouraging signs from England

Nurses from the nearby St Thomas hospital have a rest on the National Covid Memorial Wall in London, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

For the first time in 14 months, England was able to report that nobody died from COVID-19 on Sunday. Rarely is it news when something does not happen. But this time, it is news. Really good news.

If things keep going in the same direction, in a week, Brits will hear from their health authorities that it is once again safe for vaccinated people to hug each other. The Associated Press reports:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday that he has given the go-ahead for that much-missed human contact from May 17 as part of the next round of lockdown easing following a sharp fall in new coronavirus infections. Other easing measures included the reopening of pubs and restaurants indoors as well as cinemas and hotels, and allowing two households to meet up inside a home.

In case you need to know, here are the guidelines on how to hug a Brit. The Daily Mail warns that, generally, you should keep your hands off.

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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