June 1, 2022

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.

Safety experts say a big national shortage of lifeguards could have deadly consequences this summer. The American Lifeguard Association says up to half of all pools in the country need lifeguards.

CNN reports:

Officials in Austin say the city will have fewer than of its pools open by early June. The city has been able to hire just over 30% of the 750 lifeguards required to operate all the pools, according to a news release.

Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County is keeping 10 pools closed for now, having hired about 56 lifeguards of the 300 they would need. Roughly half an hour away, Waukesha County leaders announced last week all of its park system beaches operate under Swim At Your Own Risk rules, and will not have lifeguards “due to the labor shortage.”

There are lots of reasons for the shortage. The pandemic shut down training classes for a couple of years. Young people are not as interested in lifeguarding as they used to be. Other jobs now pay more. CNN found that city after city has raised their lifeguards’ pay, and some added some sweeteners to attract applicants:

Phoenix, Arizona, officials announced earlier this year they’re offering a $2,500 bonus incentive for lifeguards, partly as a reimbursement for training costs. The base hourly wage there is roughly $14.02, officials said in a March news release. In Texas, Austin officials upped their pay to ranges of $16 to $19 an hour, and added roughly $1,250 in bonuses, along with paid sick leave and a free bus pass.

Austin had no trouble recruiting before Covid-19, hiring more lifeguards in 2019 than any other year, according to Jodi Jay, assistant director for the city’s Parks and Recreation department. But the pandemic “stopped us in our tracks,” forcing a training and hiring freeze which lasted for more than a year and the effects of which still linger, Jay said.

In Cincinnati, WXIX-TV reports:

Due to some staffing issues, Cincinnati’s Recreation Commission announced that only eight of the city’s 23 pools will open this season — which has some in the community unhappy.

“I feel pretty bad because it’s going to be a hot summer and these kids need something to do besides being in the house on these phones all the time,” Walnut Hills resident Kineshia Miles said.

The director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission said as of now only eight of the 23 pools across 52 communities will open due to a shortage of lifeguards.

“We started really recruiting aggressively six… seven months ago. This has to be in 2021 as early as October and November and we have just not seen the number of returning pool lifeguards first and foremost and we have not been able to pick up new lifeguards,” Daniel Betts said.

Chlorine shortage will delay other pool openings

If some pools stay closed because they can’t find enough lifeguards, perhaps it will ease the two-year shortage of chlorine. During the pandemic, more people used backyard pools. That, and a factory fire, hurt supply. WMAQ-TV reports:

After the worst chlorine shortage on record last year, many pool supply stores are still implementing quantity restrictions on customers to manage the ongoing crisis.

“It was a struggle to get chlorine last year,” said Bob Jones, president at American Sale. “We sold as much as we sell in the entire summer season in two weeks last year.”

Two major factors are leading to the shortage. High demand from a pandemic swimming pool boom and a major chemical plant fire in Louisiana that devastated production capacity.

“It will definitely last all through 2022, but by Jan. 2023, is when the plant is supposed to be back up and running,” said Jones.

Fox 59 in Indianapolis reports:

One of the reasons for the chlorine shortage is an increase in demand. Construction of new pools in 2020 went up nearly 25 percent.

There are reports of labor shortages for pool maintenance services, too.

Home prices rose 20.6% in March compared to a year ago

These figures lag a little bit so, by now, the market may have cooled some. But the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index shows, “Tampa, Phoenix, and Miami reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities in March. Tampa led the way with a 34.8% year-over-year price increase, followed by Phoenix with a 32.4% increase, and Miami with a 32.0% increase. Seventeen of the 20 cities reported higher price increases in the year ending March 2022 versus the year ending February 2022.”

(S&P Global)

Gasoline prices hurting Meals on Wheels food programs

Fred Delaurenti, a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels, prepares to make a delivery at an apartment building, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020 in Renton, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The average price for a gallon of gasoline rose to above $6.10 per gallon this week in California. AAA says the national average is $4.62. Meals on Wheels programs, which count on volunteer drivers who often supply their own gasoline, are seeing the crunch that gas prices are putting on people who want to do good deeds. Just to give you an idea of how many people depend on this service, Meals on Wheels feeds a thousand people a day just in Tampa.

What journalists should know about an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could relax gun laws further

Soon — probably very soon — the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case styled New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen that could change restrictions on people in New York who want to carry concealed handguns. Nobody will be surprised if the gun-friendly court overturns the 108-year-old restriction that says to get a concealed carry permit, a person must demonstrate that they have a “special or unique danger to life.”

The justices heard the case in November 2021. During the hearing, it was clear that the court was only considering New York’s concealed carry restrictions. That is important because carrying a gun outside the home is a legal right in 43 states.

This is the first major gun case to come before the court since 2008, when justices ruled in a pair of cases that upheld a person’s right to have a firearm in their home for personal protection. The rulings overturned gun bans nationwide. But in the “Heller decision,” the court warned that gun ownership rights were “not unlimited” and do not translate to a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

President Joe Biden has used that phrase, “not unlimited,” many times when arguing that there can be reasonable restrictions on gun ownership. The 2008 cases did not explain what kinds of restrictions might be constitutional and did not name what, if any, kinds of weapons might be legally restricted.

In the 2021 arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts asked lawyers why citizens need to prove that they are entitled to — or have a special need to — exercise their constitutional right to carry guns outside the home for self-defense. He said, “It would be surprising to have it depend upon a permit system. You can say that the right is limited in a particular way, just as First Amendment rights are limited, but the idea that you need a license to exercise the right, I think, is unusual in the context of the Bill of Rights.”

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen was filed by two people who applied for concealed carry permits and were denied. A group of more than 100 members of Congress filed a brief in the case saying New York’s concealed carry laws were drafted with a particular motive:

When New York passed the Sullivan Law in 1911, it was motivated by animus against another marginalized group in society—recent immigrants from Europe. For many years New York has gotten away with barring all but a privileged few of its citizens from exercising their right to keep and bear arms outside the home, and this case presents a chance to right that Constitutional wrong. New York’s regulation of Second Amendment rights smacks of elitism. It transforms a fundamental right guaranteed to the people into a special privilege to be enjoyed by only an elite few deemed worthy by a government official exercising unbridled discretion. But that is the opposite of what the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment intended. It is rarely, if ever, the affluent and privileged members of society who need protection against overreach, but rather the disenfranchised, the poor, and the weakest. The New York statutory scheme challenged here frustrates that very purpose by limiting the right to bear arms to a privileged few.

Besides the predictable supporters and opponents of gun restrictions, one group that represents domestic abuse survivors warned that the court should be thoughtful about restricting gun ownership in ways that might make it difficult for abuse victims to protect themselves.

The Hill provides background on what to expect:

“It does seem relatively clear that the court is going to strike down New York’s law and make it harder for cities and states to restrict concealed carry of firearms,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law. “It remains to be seen exactly how broad the Supreme Court goes, but one thing is clear: as mass shootings become more of a political issue, the court is going to take options away from lawmakers on the basis of the Second Amendment.”

The justices are expected to hand down an opinion as soon as next week but no later than late June or early July.

Two former clerks for Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia wrote a guest essay for The New York Times saying that America is “getting Heller wrong,” meaning the 2008 ruling on gun rights is widely misunderstood. Kate Shaw is a professor of law at Cardozo Law School and John Bash is an attorney in private practice in Austin, Texas. They clerked for the justices who, respectively, wrote the lead dissenting opinion and the majority opinion in the Heller case. These two former clerks strongly disagree on matters of America’s gun policies, but they write forcefully that the Heller ruling does not stop Congress from enacting or prohibiting states from enforcing gun laws.

Here is a key passage from their essay. The passage is a bit hefty but, considering its importance, is worth the read:

Heller does not totally disable government from passing laws that seek to prevent the kind of atrocities we saw in Uvalde, Texas. And we believe that politicians on both sides of the aisle have (intentionally or not) misconstrued Heller. Some progressives, for example, have blamed the Second Amendment, Heller or the Supreme Court for atrocities like Uvalde. And some conservatives have justified contested policy positions merely by pointing to Heller, as if the opinion resolved the issues.

Neither is fair. Rather, we think it’s clear that every member of the court on which we clerked joined an opinion — either majority or dissent — that agreed that the Constitution leaves elected officials an array of policy options when it comes to gun regulation.

Justice Scalia — the foremost proponent of originalism, who throughout his tenure stressed the limited role of courts in difficult policy debates — could not have been clearer in the closing passage of Heller that “the problem of handgun violence in this country” is serious and that the Constitution leaves the government with “a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns.” Heller merely established the constitutional baseline that the government may not disarm citizens in their homes. The opinion expressly recognized “presumptively lawful” regulations such as “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” as well as bans on carrying weapons in “sensitive places,” like schools, and it noted with approval the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” Heller also recognized the immense public interest in “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”

SCOTUS will also rule on football field prayer case

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., poses for a photo March 9, 2022, at the school’s football field. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Between now and the end of July, the court will also rule on the abortion case that you know about, on whether public funds can be used in religious schools and whether the Environmental Protection Agency can require states to reduce carbon pollution.

And there is one other highly emotional case in the pipeline. It involves a high school football coach who prayed at the 50-yard line of a game. A number of prominent GOP politicians, evangelical leaders and sports figures have publicly supported the coach.

Oyez — a free law project from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Justia, and Chicago-Kent College of Law — summarizes the facts this way:

Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach, engaged in prayer with a number of students during and after school games. His employer, the Bremerton (WA) School District, asked that he discontinue the practice in order to protect the school from a lawsuit based on violation of the Engagement Clause. Kennedy refused and instead rallied local and national television, print media, and social media to support him.

Kennedy sued the school district for violating his rights under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court held that because the school district suspended him solely because of the risk of constitutional liability associated with his religious conduct, its actions were justified. Kennedy appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

When the justices heard the case in April, they seemed generally sympathetic to the argument that when Kennedy briefly kneels at midfield after games, his action is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free speech” and “free exercise thereof” clauses.

Lawyers for the school system said the coach “insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students,” because he said it would make them better people.

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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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