March 12, 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.

We have written about the stimulus checks that people hope will hit their bank accounts by the end of the month. But $1.9 trillion goes a long way, and this bill sets aside huge amounts of money for things that also deserve your attention.

Independently owned restaurants will get $28.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan. USA Today puts it this way:

The bill creates a new grant program — modeled off the Restaurants Act that stalled last year in the Senate — offering direct debt-free aid to independent restaurants with 20 or fewer locations.

A group called the Independent Restaurant Coalition, along with the much larger National Restaurant Association, has been at the forefront of lobbying for this help. The Small Business Administration plans to start taking grant applications within weeks. Restaurant Hospitality, an industry publication, reports:

Once the SBA opens up applications, restaurants and bars with under 20 locations that can demonstrate revenue loss over the past year will be able to apply on the SBA website.

For established restaurants that opened in 2018 or earlier, grants are calculated by subtracting a business’ 2020 revenue from their 2019 revenue, and also subtracting first- and second-draw PPP loans received in 2020.

For restaurants that opened in 2019, the average of 2019 monthly revenues is multiplied by 12 minus the average of 2020 monthly revenues multiplied by 12, and the first- and second-draw PPP loans received are also subtracted.

Restaurants that opened in 2020 are eligible to receive funding equal to the “eligible expenses incurred” minus their first- and second-draw PPP loans received last year. Restaurants that have not yet opened are also eligible and can receive “funding equal to eligible expenses incurred before the date of enactment.”

The bill includes $1.25 billion for the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant Program. That is a fraction of the $15 billion sent to this fund in December. This does not mean that concerts and festivals will reopen anytime soon, but the grants may help them hang on. The Small Business Administration explains who will be eligible:

Eligible entities include:

  • Live venue operators or promoters
  • Theatrical producers
  • Live performing arts organization operators
  • Relevant museum operators, zoos and aquariums who meet specific criteria
  • Motion picture theater operators
  • Talent representatives, and
  • Each business entity owned by an eligible entity that also meets the eligibility requirements

Eligible applicants may qualify for SVO Grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, with the maximum amount available for a single grant award of $10 million. $2 billion is reserved for eligible applications with up to 50 full-time employees.

As they say on those TV commercials, “But wait, there’s more.”

The plan includes $10.4 billion for agriculture-related businesses and people who work in agriculture.

The stimulus bill includes $5 billion aimed at socially disadvantaged farmers of color, including Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American farmers. The American Farm Bureau built a chart showing the ways the money is divided:

(American Farm Bureau Foundation)

Farm Bureau says:

It’s estimated that $4 billion will be used to provide direct payments of up to 120% of a socially disadvantaged, e.g., Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian American,  farmer’s or rancher’s outstanding debt as of Jan. 1, 2021. The loans include USDA Farm Service Agency direct farm loans, USDA guaranteed loans and Commodity Credit Corporation farm storage loans, among others. The additional 20% is intended to pay off the taxes associated with the amount of the direct payment related to the outstanding debt.

In addition to the debt forgiveness, the act appropriates $1.01 billion to provide outreach, training, education, technical assistance, grants and loans, and funding to educational institutions to help improve land access for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and address heir’s property issues, among other issues. In total, more than $5 billion is expected to fund provisions designed to provide assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers or provide debt relief for these farmers and ranchers.

The Washington Post has a deeper look at the grants and loan forgiveness program for farmers of color. The Post reports farmers of color have lost 90% of their land in the past century due to discrimination and a “cycle of debt.” The Post story says:

“This is the most significant piece of legislation with respect to the arc of Black land ownership in this country,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which provides legal representation to Black farmers.

Black farmers in America have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, mostly since the 1950s, a result of what agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say is a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy, and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.

The Food for Peace program, which sends food and vouchers for food to people in 59 countries, gets $800 million from the American Rescue Plan. This is the sort of thing that critics point to in order to say the plan goes far beyond just helping Americans. But it does help feed 76 million people around the world.

Rural health care will get $500 million to help develop telehealth connections, buy personal protective equipment supplies and deliver vaccines to hard-to-reach areas.

Students and colleges will see some of the benefits from the plan. Colleges and universities will receive about $36.9 billion from the government to help fund emergency tuition, food and housing help for students.

The schools will also use the money to pay for some of the money they have lost due to declining enrollment in the last year and to offset the cost of offering remote teaching and retrofitting classrooms to reopen safely. Over the past year, 22 states have cut a combined $1.9 billion in funding for higher education for the fiscal year that ends in June.

The Chronicle of Higher Education says public colleges and universities have already laid off 304,600 workers. In some communities, universities are key drivers for local economies.

Both four-year schools and community colleges have experienced a drop in enrollment. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports:

Six weeks into the new term, spring 2021 enrollment appears to be mirroring last fall’s trend. Undergraduate enrollment is down 4.5% while graduate enrollment is up 4.3%. Overall, college enrollment is running 2.9% below last spring’s level. Community colleges remain the worst-hit sector by COVID-19, down 9.5% from last spring.

Public four-year undergraduate enrollment is currently falling more precipitously (-3.3% this spring, -1.1% last spring and -1.9% last fall). Graduate enrollment, on the other hand, is growing at a higher rate (+4.3% this spring, +1.5% last spring, and +2.9% last fall).

The American Rescue Plan includes $21.5 billion for emergency rental assistance to states and cities. The last stimulus bill included about $25 billion, so it might be useful to explore how that money was used. The money is supposed to help renters and homeowners keep from being evicted. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is a place to start looking for a local contact.

(National Low Income Housing Coalition)

Eight European countries stop using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

A health worker shows the media AstraZeneca vaccine vials at a vaccination center set up in front of Rome’s Termini central station, Monday, March 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

With all of the promising news about COVID-19 vaccines, this story speaks volumes about the stringent U.S. procedures for approving vaccines to ensure they are safe and effective. Throughout Europe, governments have approved the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It has not been approved in the U.S. even though some of the AstraZeneca vaccines are produced in the U.S. and shipped internationally.

Denmark, Italy, Iceland, Norway, Austria, Estonia, Latvia and Luxembourg have stopped administering the shot, while Italy has banned the use of a batch of AstraZeneca doses as a precaution after an unconfirmed number of people developed blood clots. Denmark put a two-week hold on the vaccine’s use.

DW reports that there is no proven link between the vaccine and blood clots, but the researchers need time to be sure:

The Danish Health Authority on Thursday halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for 14 days.

It follows reports of “serious cases of blood clots among vaccinated people,” a statement read.

However, the authority stopped short of saying there was a direct link between the vaccine and the blood clots, “at the time being.”

“It is currently not possible to conclude whether there is a link. We are acting early, it needs to be thoroughly investigated,” Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said on Twitter.

Reuters reports:

Washington has told the European Union that it should not expect to receive AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in the United States any time soon, two EU sources said on Thursday, in a new blow to the bloc’s supplies.

And CNN says:

In a statement on Thursday, AstraZeneca said that patient safety was its “highest priority.”

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca. The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in Phase III clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine is generally well tolerated,” the company said in a statement.

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said Danish authorities had taken a “precautionary measure” and advised people to still take their vaccine when instructed to.

Spain’s health minister Carolina Darias called for calm on Thursday. “I want to send a message of calm and caution. In Spain we have not been notified of any case related to blood clots,” Darias told local TV station La Sexta. The Dutch health minister also said there was no reason to stop using the vaccine.

“Our experts say there is no cause for concern, we can simply continue vaccinating,” Hugo de Jonge said Thursday.

While this vaccine is not used in the U.S., you can imagine several immediate effects here. First, it is a setback for a vaccine that might someday be considered for use in America. Second, it is just one more reason for people to question whether vaccines are safe. Finally, it is a big interruption in the global vaccine efforts that are important to everyone everywhere. So far, about a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered to patients in 17 EU countries.

One in five Americans have lost somebody to the pandemic in the last year

The Associated Press reports on the results of a new poll:

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, 19% of Americans report having a close friend or relative that has died from the virus.  Sixty-seven percent are at least somewhat worried that they or a member of their household will contract COVID-19, and 65% always wear a mask around other people outside the home.

Two-thirds of the public think Americans have not taken the pandemic seriously enough. And there is strong support for requiring people to wear face masks.

More interesting to me is the data the AP collected on how people are feeling about various levels of government right now. A year after the pandemic stopped our collective clocks, the figures have barely changed for the better. Local and state governments get worse approval marks than a year ago, while more people are giving the federal government higher marks than a year ago.

(The Associated Press)

The polling shows the lower scores for local and state government have to do with the public’s frustration with the vaccine signup process and the way local governments are handling reopening public schools to in-person learning.

(The Associated Press)

Costco’s imported cheese, olive oil, gardening supplies shortage

Shoppers walk into a Costco store, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On the one-year anniversary of the pandemic that set us scrambling for toilet paper, this breaking news: Costco is running short of imported cheese.

Business Insider brings you the scoop:

Costco is running out of imported cheese due to port delays and a global scarcity of shipping containers.

On a conference call this month, CFO Richard Galanti said the retailer was seeing dwindling supplies for several household goods, including cheese, seafood, olive oil, furniture, sports equipment, and gardening supplies.

“Overseas freight has continued to be an issue in regard to container shortage and port delays,” he said. “This has caused timing delays on certain categories.”

Throughout the pandemic, shipping container shortages and port delays have upset key supply chains across the globe and caused shipping costs to skyrocket as brands compete for limited containers.

You know, Wisconsin cheese is nice. And that cheese with the red cow on it is produced in Leitchfield, Kentucky, which is not far from where I grew up. That brand started in France but came to Kentucky, so you can pretend it is imported cheese that was blessed by being allowed to claim to be from Kentucky. If you are lucky enough to be from Kentucky, you are lucky enough.

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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