March 23, 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.

You might know that the winter cold snap that froze parts of Texas a few weeks ago is partly behind the jump in gas prices that you are now paying. Less known, however, is that the same winter weather is causing an interruption in plastic parts needed for everything from smartphones to medical face masks.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The power outages brought the world’s largest petrochemical complex to a standstill, forcing more plants in the Gulf of Mexico region to shut down than during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A month later, many remain offline, and analysts said it could be months more before all are fully back.

Prices for polyethylene, polypropylene and other chemical compounds used to make auto parts, computers and a vast array of plastic products have reached their highest levels in years in the U.S. as supplies tighten. For example, prices for polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, have more than doubled since last summer, according to S&P Global Platts.

That is expected to result in cost increases and delays for auto makers, home builders and countless other businesses, with impacts ultimately felt by consumers, according to companies and analysts. The shortages are part of a growing economic price tag of a storm that knocked out a third of natural-gas production in Texas and forced some chip makers to curtail output, exacerbating a semiconductor shortfall.

We have explored the computer chip shortage that began during the pandemic and caused headaches for everyone from car manufacturers to companies that build laptops and game consoles. The Biden administration hopes to begin changing America’s reliance on foreign suppliers for such a critical part of our manufacturing.

But wait, there’s more. Quartz reports:

Lumber is in such short supply in the US that its prices have skyrocketed to an all-time high — so much so that the expense of building the average single-family home has risen by $24,000 since last April to reflect the cost of wood.

The reason, in significant part, is the changing climate — and how it enabled a beetle species to infest forests in the Canadian province of British Columbia years ago.

In the US, since the spring of 2020, the price of lumber has risen by more than 180%, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Futures contracts in lumber now hover around $1,000 per thousand feet of board, nearly four times their April 2020 prices.

(Quartz)

Quartz explains there are many forces at work that are forcing lumber prices higher. One is just a sheer increase in demand. People stuck at home started renovating decks and building stuff. Then the pandemic closed sawmills for a while. As people realized the pandemic was going to allow them to work from home, they started thinking about moving out of the city, and homebuilding — which was already pretty hot — got hotter.

And then there is the problem with the mountain pine beetle that has been chewing away at Canada’s trees for years. Warmer weather is making the problem worse.

Quartz’s reporting says lumber prices could remain high for years.

Debt collectors prosper in a pandemic

Debt collectors say they are seeing a sign of the times. Their clients, who are trying to collect money, are themselves falling behind on payments. Creditors are becoming debtors. And with courts moving more slowly because of the pandemic, collections have slowed while lawsuits to try to force repayment pile up.

In one month last year, one of the biggest debt collection companies filed 1,000 collection lawsuits in the state of Indiana. That same month, the company filed 2,000 lawsuits just in Atlanta. 2020 was an unusually profitable year for debt collectors. ProPublica examines how the biggest debt collection companies were making a fortune in the pandemic.

The ABA Journal, the publication of the American Bar Association, reports:

Attorneys say two things are clear: Fewer people and businesses can pay their bills, and the judicial system’s ability to handle collections efforts may not be keeping pace with a surge in filings that has already begun and is only expected to worsen. Student debt and debt related to federally backed mortgages are the only ones covered by national emergency protections, and courts were already struggling to address a long-standing increase in debt claim cases. Pandemic policies have prevented widespread loan defaults, but experts warn they aren’t a long-term solution.

“We’re getting some of the best settlement offers that we’ve maybe ever received,” Gregory M. Fitzgerald, an attorney in Santa Clara, California says. “Problem is, even if we’re getting better offers, our clients are struggling and don’t have much money.”

Those struggles translate into more debt collection cases, assuming a creditor’s attorney can access a courthouse to file a case. Some debtors might be able to pay the increasingly favorable settlement offers, but attorneys for all types of debtors — from mom-and-pop shops and single household consumers owing tens of thousands of dollars to large companies and suppliers owing millions — are reporting problems.

“I think most consumers are going to be hit with the hard reality once all these protections are lifted,” says Tav Gomez of Morgan & Morgan in Tampa, Florida.

Depending on where you live, you may have more or less protection from collections lawsuits. The ABA Journal points out:

Lenders, from major credit cards to smaller companies, have loosened payment requirements and interest accumulation, and some states such as New York continue to halt all debt collection proceedings on a month-to-month basis.

Other states enacted emergency legislation or executive orders that halted automobile repossessions, and Colorado, for example, has prohibited extraordinary debt collections such as garnishment and levies through June 1. Collectors are now required to notify their debtors of these protections as part of a push for transparency.

The ABA Journal says in Texas, debt-related lawsuits have grown 162% in the last five years.

By the way, stimulus checks are, in some places, off-limits for debt collectors. The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued a statement last week saying, “They will remain exempt after payment regardless of how the funds are deposited or thereafter held. Because economic impact payments are exempt under state law, any action or threat to take action or garnish, attach or otherwise seize, these funds to collect a debt, violates the attorney generals debt collection regulations.”

States can, however, raid the stimulus funds for overdue child support.

There is legislation working its way through Congress that would make stimulus checks off-limits for debt collectors nationwide.

Where can you travel?

Travelers walk through the Salt Lake City International Airport Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Countries are increasingly opening their borders to U.S. travelers who have a recent negative COVID-19 test. CNN keeps a constantly updated list of where you can go and what documents you will need when you get there.

The Canadian border is of course still closed except for commercial traffic. The best bet seems to be that the U.S.-Canadian borders might open to travel sometime in May. No doubt the pressure to open borders to pedestrian travel across both the Canadian and Mexican borders is increasing.

One group called Let Us Reunite allows people who have been separated from loved ones across the borders to tell their stories. There are some really compelling tales in there.

New college students are being wait-listed in huge numbers

High school seniors have endured so much this year and now they get to endure a firm “maybe” from a host of universities that are increasingly putting new students on waitlists while the schools try to recalculate how many people they can invite.

Colleges and universities used to have a pretty well-oiled calculator of how many invitations they could issue and knew about how many students would accept the invitations. But the pandemic has thrown all of those assumptions into chaos because so many students accept invitations and then back out when schools impose distance-learning or dorm restrictions.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the usual indicators (such as campus visits and essays about extracurricular activities) were largely removed.

And there is another complication. As the Journal points out:

One of the biggest changes was the cancellation of sessions to take standardized tests. More than 1,600 four-year colleges didn’t require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, which led to an increase in the number of students applying to selective colleges that are test optional. This year, there was a substantial decrease in the number of students who sent standardized test scores to colleges. Forty-six percent of students who used theCommon App to apply to college submitted standardized test scores this year compared with 77% last year.

The nation’s most-selective four-year colleges and universities saw a record-breaking 17% increase in applications this year, according to the Common App. This included both selective public and private schools.

Seafood fakes are widespread

In this April 27, 2011 file photo, Atlantic bluefin tuna are surrounded by fishing nets during the opening of the season for tuna fishing off the coast of southern Spain. An environmental group found that 95% of what was labeled Bluefin tuna that year was actually a less expensive species. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)

The Guardian took a global look at the world of seafood fraud by examining 44 studies of 9,000 seafood samples from all over the U.S., Canada and beyond. It found you are paying for stuff that is not what it seems.

Samples from fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants found that seafood is mislabeled more than a third of the time. And the mislabeling happens more often in the U.S. and Canada than in Asia or Europe.

In some cases, the fish were of the same family but different species. In other instances, the “fish” was actually pork.

The Guardian reports:

Fish fraud has long been a known problem worldwide. Because seafood is among the most internationally traded food commodities, often through complex and opaque supply chains, it is highly vulnerable to mislabeling. Much of the global catch is transported from fishing boats to huge transshipment vessels for processing, where mislabeling is relatively easy and profitable to carry out.

There are “so many opportunities along the seafood supply chain” to falsely label low-value fish as high-value species, or farmed fish as wild, says Beth Lowell, deputy vice-president for US campaigns at Oceana, an international organization focused on oceans. Study after study has found mislabeling is common everywhere, says Lowell.

The Guardian also gave people clues on how to spot a fish fake.

This whole project reminds me of a Tampa Bay Times investigation not long ago that looked at the trendy Farm to Table trend that also was fraught with false claims.

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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