May 19, 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.

Andrew Womble, the district attorney of Pasquotank County, North Carolina, said police were “justified” in shooting Andrew Brown Jr. The decision comes a week before the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which touched off a summer of protests for police reform. Organizers are planning a remembrance of Floyd in Minneapolis next week.

After a jury convicted Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death, President Joe Biden called for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The legislation is stuck and has not moved, even since the verdict.

In addition to banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds, the legislation “requires that deadly force be used only as a last resort and requires officers to employ de-escalation techniques first.” It also, “Changes the standard to evaluate whether law enforcement use of force was justified from whether the force was ‘reasonable’ to whether the force was ‘necessary.’ Condition grants on state and local law enforcement agencies’ establishing the same use of force standard.”

That section of the act might have made a difference in how prosecutors viewed this case.

The legal background justifying deadly force

Womble mentioned a 2014 Supreme Court ruling as a guide for when police can and should employ deadly force.

That case is Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. 765 (2014). It involved West Memphis police officer Vance Plumhoff shooting Donald Rickard in a high-speed chase. Rickard led police on a chase that ended in a parking lot where police fired 15 shots into Rickard’s car as he tried to flee.

The court unanimously ruled Rickard’s actions posed a “grave public safety risk” and that the officers “acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk.” The court also spoke to the issue of how many shots are justifiable and ruled “if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”

The court held that the evidence showed that Rickard was still attempting to flee when the officers opened fire and that the officers reasonably could have believed that, if the chase resumed, Rickard would once again pose a deadly threat to others on the road.

But the Brown case did not involve a high-speed chase.

Womble showed body camera footage that he said shows Brown driving toward an officer while police fired their weapons, first through the front window of the moving car and then through the rear window. But others who watched the video said it appears Brown was steering away from officers in front of the car.

Womble said there was no option for police to stand down and defuse the situation. “The law enforcement officers were duty-bound to stand their ground,” he said.

Cautious TV coverage of police video release

I want to spend a few moments to talk about how journalists covered the live news conference. Womble showed the graphic video from police body cameras, which Brown’s family has been asking for. CNN cut away from the news conference, saying that it had not seen the video and would not air it until it had time to assess the graphic content.

Later, CNN aired the video and posted it online while cautioning that we do not know the full context. They forewarned viewers that they would show it, explained that police were not going to release the video beyond playing it at the news conference and then played it.

MSNBC stayed on the live news conference but, at the moment of the shooting, inserted a still photo of Brown while keeping the audio rolling.

Both decisions were thoughtful ones. Without a doubt, this video is newsworthy in that it provides the clearest evidence of what occurred. Brown’s family has been asking for it to provide the shooting was, in their view, unjustified. At the same time, police and prosecutors would argue that the video showed that Brown resisted arrest and “posed an immediate threat to the safety” of the officers.

A handful of journalists around the country tell me that their stations have made similar decisions. Recently, for example, a local station in Knoxville, Tennessee, did something similar to MSNBC when police released body camera video there.

Both CNN and MSNBC’s decisions not to air the video live do not prevent them from making other decisions in the future, during which time they can surround the graphic video with warnings, context and a reason why showing the video — and not just describing what it shows — is necessary.

Was the COVID-19 restaurant apocalypse overstated?

A closed restaurant in New York City (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

Bloomberg is looking back at predictions from a year ago that up to 75% of the nation’s restaurants could close because of the pandemic. It turns out the real number of closures is more like 90,000 — 14% of all restaurants and a much lower figure than the 100,000 closures forecast by the National Restaurant Association in December. About 50,000 restaurants close in a typical year.

The Restaurant Association says, make no mistake, it has been a rough year:

About 90,000 eating and drinking place establishments remain completely closed either permanently or long-term, which reflects the return to operations for many temporarily closed restaurants.

Despite the recent gains, overall staffing levels remain well below the industry standard with 84% of operators saying their current staffing level is lower than it was in the absence of COVID-19.

For the vast majority of restaurant operators, profitability is down from pre-pandemic levels and costs are up. Additionally, 65% of restaurant operators say their total sales volume in March 2021 was lower than it was in the absence of COVID-19.

44% of operators expect their average sales April – June will be higher than in March 2021.

91% of limited-service operators and 90% of fullservice operators say they will continue offering customers expanded outdoor seating if their jurisdiction continues to allow it after the coronavirus crisis is over.

15 states reported zero COVID-19 deaths Monday

This is progress. Fifteen states — Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming — reported zero COVID-19 deaths on Monday.

And while death data may be delayed, even when you look at the wider view, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Wyoming all reported less than one COVID-19 death per day on average for the last seven days.

Vaccine incentives may be working

We might know today exactly how many people in Ohio got vaccinated over the weekend, but it appears so far that the state’s $5 million lottery for vaccinated residents is working. After days of vaccination declines, the number of people ages 30 and older taking shots increased by 6% as soon as Gov. Mike DeWine announced the lottery.

NBC News explains:

Under the program, Ohioans 18 and older who have already received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine can enter to win one of five $1 million prizes, state officials said.

Ohioans ages 12 to 17 who have had at least one shot can enter to win one of five four-year, full-ride scholarships to state colleges or universities or possibly private institutions, state officials said.

A winner will be announced on five consecutive Wednesdays, starting May 26, state officials said.

Federal offices lift mask requirements

It seems as if Labor Day is the target for many offices to reopen — if they reopen to pre-pandemic levels at all, having teleworked successfully for a year. I have been tracking how the federal government itself is instructing workers to return to the office. The change is slow.

The Office of Management and Budget did tell workers and visitors in federal offices that masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated people. But, the OMB said, “For now, this change related to masking is the only change to federal workplace COVID-19 safety guidance — maximum telework and workplace occupancy limits remain in place — but we will continue to update based on public health guidance.”

Carnival hopes to be cruising in July

In this April 4, 2020 photo, workers perform maintenance on the Carnival cruise line ship Carnival Magic while it is docked at Port Canaveral, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Carnival Cruise Line’s president says her company is talking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about hopes to set sail in July.

Christine Duffy says the CDC is requiring open-water sailing ships to have at least 98% of crew members and 95% of passengers fully vaccinated. Cruise lines are trying to figure out how to achieve that when there are no approved vaccines for small children and families account for such a large percentage of business.

“We certainly are encouraging everyone to get a vaccine, and our crew members that have … are very grateful to have that opportunity,” Duffy said. But, she told NBC News, “No vaccine has been authorized for children under 12, so they would not be allowed on board. Family tickets make up a large chunk of cruise industry bookings. Children under 12 are a big part of the cruise experience in a family vacation in the summer, and as it stands right now, we wouldn’t be able to have kids under 12 on board.”

Threats against members of Congress have doubled

Capitol police said this week that threats against members of Congress have doubled since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The Associated Press reports:

Members are upgrading their personal security. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., says he’s started using his house alarm more often and has been more cautious in recent months. “I’ve definitely felt less secure since Jan. 6 than I did before,” says Himes, who sits on the House intelligence committee.

Some say it’s easier not to know what’s going on. Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, said he’s generally adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his staff on security matters since the insurrection, and he doesn’t ask why when a police car sometimes shows up in front of his house to guard it.

“I don’t necessarily want to know the full story,” says Krishnamoorthi, who has young children. “I just trust that law enforcement is doing their job.”

Cryptocurrency scams up

Cryptocurrency scams have soared 1,000% since October. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

The Federal Trade Commission said this week that cryptocurrency scams are way up:

Since October 2020, reports have skyrocketed, with nearly 7,000 people reporting losses of more than $80 million on these scams. Their reported median loss? $1,900.

Compared to the same period a year earlier, that’s about twelve times the number of reports and nearly 1,000% more in reported losses.

  • For example, people have reported sending more than $2 million in cryptocurrency to Elon Musk impersonators over just the past six months
  • Since October 2020, people ages 20 to 49 were over five times more likely to report losing money on cryptocurrency investment scams than older age groups.
  • The numbers are especially striking for people in their 20s and 30s: this group reported losing far more money on investment scams than on any other type of fraud, and more than half of their reported investment scam losses were in cryptocurrency.
  • In contrast, people 50 and older were far less likely to report losing money on cryptocurrency investment scams. But when this group did lose money on these scams, their reported individual losses were higher, with a median reported loss of $3,250.


A $25 per hour minimum wage?

Bank of America says by 2025, its minimum wage will be $25 per hour. CEO Brian Moynihan says the pay will encourage workers to stay longer and the bank will be able to recruit the best front-line workers.

Bank of America has been out front in raising pay before. In 2019, the bank announced it would hike minim pay to $20 per hour by this year. It reached that goal ahead of schedule. In 2019, the bank raised pay from $15 per hour to $17 per hour.

In addition to paying its own workers more, Bank of America says it is requiring anybody it does business with to pay at least $15 per hour. A news release said, “Bank of America announced that all its U.S. vendors are now required to pay their employees dedicated to the bank, at or above $15 per hour.”

The times in which we live

This tweet from Lulu Garcia-Navarro (NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” host) caught my interest. I bet there is a heck of a story in this idea.

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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