February 10, 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.

You would have to go back nearly a year to find as many signs that we are about to enter a “reopening” season.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is dropping the state’s “mask or vax” indoor mandate for businesses starting today. It means today is the first day that New York businesses will not require customers to wear a mask or ask for proof of vaccination. Businesses can still impose those requirements if they want to, but it is optional.

Masks are still mandated in New York prisons, hospitals, schools, child care centers and nursing homes. Hochul said New York will reconsider school mask mandates in early March, after spring break.

Local mandates are still in effect in New York City, where restaurants and indoor facilities like sports venues and theaters require proof of vaccination.

In fact, tomorrow is the deadline for thousands of New York City employees to get vaccinated or be fired.

“At this time, we say that it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses to make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to masks or vaccination,” Hochul said.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker says that state’s school mask mandate will end Feb. 28.

Rhode Island will lift its indoor mask mandates and proof of vaccination protocols tomorrow, and the governor said the state would soon lift mask mandates for schools.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is hinting that he may lift mask rules on schools as early as Monday. State mask mandates for everyone else will end next week. Newsom also signed a bill into law that grants up to two weeks of sick pay for COVID-19-related absences retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022, and businesses can get grants to pay for the benefits. California health officials say COVID-19 cases have dropped 65% since the peak of the omicron surge.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is lifting that state’s indoor mask requirement on Feb. 28. Pritzker is not yet lifting the COVID-19 rules for schools.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that the state would probably ease travel rules for visitors by spring. Hawaii has some of the strictest COVID-19 rules in the country. Travelers must show proof of vaccination or a negative test or face a five-day quarantine. Hawaii’s tourism is about 40% below pre-pandemic levels.

There is growing tension this week to rush toward normalcy while not reopening the door of vulnerability to a new wave of the virus that could shut down the economy for a third year. While states are lifting mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “not so fast.” The CDC still recommends “universal indoor masking by students, staff members, faculty, and visitors” in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status and regardless of what states require.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday, “We are working on that guidance; we are working on following the trends for the moment.”

But once again, the CDC is moving slower than counties, meaning local and federal guidance is out of sync. Walensky explained why the CDC is moving slower, saying, “Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. So, as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

The Associated Press reports the Biden administration is actively considering revising federal guidelines:

Asked whether Biden appears to be out of touch with the country, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended his caution. “As a federal government we have the responsibility to rely on data on science, on the medical experts,” she said.

“That doesn’t move at the speed of politics, it moves at the speed of data,” she added. Asked whether Americans should follow less-restrictive state or local rules or the stricter federal guidance, she repeated the White House’s daily counsel: “We would advise any American to follow the CDC guidelines.”

The New York Times reports that states dropping mask mandates will likely spark a return-to-office movement:

Some business leaders said that the rule requiring masks in workplaces further delayed those plans, arguing that employees preferred to work remotely than be required to wear masks at their desks.

“People are operating fine remotely, and they just don’t want to come back to the office wearing masks,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of Partnership for New York City, an influential business group. “The feeling is they might as well be on Zoom. Assuming it’s safe, employers would be glad to get rid of the mask mandate and hope that it will encourage a broader return to the office.”

Officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have all announced that they would end mask requirements for students and school employees over the coming weeks, underscoring an intentional shift by officials to begin treating the virus as a part of daily life nearly two years into the pandemic.

Note that federal requirements have not changed. Masks are still required on planes, buses and trains, which fall under federal safety rules.

While new cases drop, COVID-19 deaths are still rising. The past two years have shown that there is a rhythm: cases rise, then hospitalizations rise, then deaths rise. The death rate, of course, is the last to rise and then the last to drop. The Washington Post notes:

The seven-day average of deaths during the omicron surge has reached 2,600 in recent days, the highest level the country has seen in a year.

Worldwide, coronavirus deaths rose for the fifth consecutive week, with the 68,000 fatalities reported last week representing a 7 percent jump from the previous week.

Last week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing that covid deaths are increasing in many parts of the world. He warned it would be “premature for any country either to surrender, or to declare victory” against the coronavirus.

“We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines, and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

COVID prison releases seemed to be effective

The Palm Beach County Main Detention Center is shown, Friday, June 4, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Today, New Jersey is releasing another 260 people from prison as part of that state’s plan to control COVID-19 in prisons. The Gothamist’s investigation shows that of the 5,300 people released early from prison during the pandemic were half as likely to return to prison on new violations compared to pre-pandemic reincarceration rates:

Gov. Phil Murphy signed landmark legislation that created the program in 2020 — allowing prisoners to shave up to eight months off their sentences — when the state’s prisons had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

The law allows prisoners within a year of their release date to accrue “public health credits,” similar to earned time off, but only during a public health emergency that affects facility operations. So when Murphy re-declared a public health emergency last month due to the omicron variant surge, corrections officials reinstated the program.

Corrections spokesperson Liz Velez said the department will ensure “a seamless reentry process” for those released, including arranging transportation for people with mobility issues.

“Balancing public health and public safety, individuals are COVID tested before release and provided a ‘COVID Kit’ with essentials such as sanitizer and masks,” Velez said in an email.

More than 5,300 incarcerated individuals were freed early between 2020-21, but those releases stopped last October after Murphy first lifted the public health emergency amid declining COVID case rates. The first 11 months of the program cut the prison population by 40% to about 10,800 incarcerated people — levels not seen since the 1980s.

A Gothamist analysis of public records show the first wave of people released in 2020 had a re-incarceration rate of 9% — significantly lower than New Jersey’s overall pre-pandemic, one-year recidivism rate of 16%, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice group based in New York.

Many states released people from jails and prisons to control COVID-19 but, like New Jersey, stopped the program last year and refilled cells only to see cases rise again among incarcerated people and prison workers.

To control inflation, control COVID-19

The Consumer Price Index figures today are focusing our attention once again on the growing fires of inflation that are being fed by global supply chain interruptions linked to COVID-19. There is no chance that inflation will cool until the pandemic is in our rearview mirror.

The notion that the pandemic is an underlying cause of inflation may seem confusing if you think back to two years ago when oil and gasoline prices dropped as we sheltered in place. But that was because there was a supply glut of oil. When production dropped and was followed by a resurgence of travel, the demand and prices followed upward. There also was a big increase in people buying stuff, from furniture to exercise equipment, again at just the time when factories were not pumping out as much. That led to further price increases. Add to that the big government stimulus checks and it was spend, spend, spend.

At the same time, the pandemic made imported goods more expensive —  and still does.

Wages are rising as lots of people — including seniors and 25- to 44-year-old women — dropped out of the workforce or cut back their work, pushing employers to step up their pay and benefits. Did you see, just as an example, what the Dollywood theme park in Tennessee announced yesterday? It is a remarkable benefit being offered even to seasonal and part-time workers from the first day of employment. Can you imagine the pressure ot will put on other employers in that community to compete in recruiting for the same workers?

Some used cars are selling for more than they cost new

Used cars for sale on a lot at a dealership in Doylestown, Pa., Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Car prices, for both new and used vehicles, are one of the fuels feeding the inflation rate. Again, once the pandemic stops interrupting computer chip and shipping supplies, prices will likely drop as assembly lines produce more vehicles to meet demand. Used car prices are cooling a little bit, but The Drive reports that some used cars are currently selling for more than they cost new off the lot:

Pulling data from 1.5 million used vehicle sales in January, iSeeCars observed lightly used late-model cars selling for an average of 1.3 percent more than what they sold for new, with the trend predictably favoring models whose demand outstripped supply by the greatest margins.

At the very top by a huge margin is the Mercedes-Benz G-class, or G-Wagen, lightly used examples of which are selling for 35.6 percent more than when new, for a premium averaging $62,705. (This makes sense, seeing we learned that their production stopped last year.) With Mercedes full up on G-Wagen orders until 2025, according to Motor Biscuit, buyers must either wait years for their SUVs or pay a premium now. But to most G-Wagen buyers, what is money but something to be seen spending?

(The Drive)

Mask study — if you care

I put this out there in case you have a need for it: The CDC recently issued new data showing mask-wearing people are less likely to get infected with COVID-19. I am sure this will convince unbelievers who were just waiting for data.

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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