Friday, May 01, 2020

Rural counties lost many jobs in Mar.; see county-level data

Job changes, Feb. to March 2020. Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version
Rural counties lost about 300,000 jobs from February to March, according to an analysis of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the first solid measure of the pandemic's effect on jobs.

"Rural employment declined from 20.3 million jobs in February to about 20 million in March, a 1.2 percent drop in employment, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Employment dropped 1.9% in metropolitan counties, a loss of 2.6 million jobs. About three-quarters of those losses came from cities with more than 1 million residents. Nationwide, employment dropped 1.8%.

Jobs grew in 20 percent of rural counties gained jobs in March, but that was true in only 6.5% of urban counties. "Rural counties were much slower to add jobs following the 2008 Great Recession. Now rural counties seem to be slower losing jobs in response to the pandemic, at least for now," Bishop and Marema report. They note that the social distancing and lockdowns that caused the job losses didn't really start until halfway into March.

Hard-hit Native American tribes waiting for promised aid, delayed by dispute with Alaska Native corporations

"Tribal governments were supposed to get $8 billion in direct emergency relief from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion covid-19 stimulus bill that became law on March 27. More than a month later, they haven’t gotten any of it," Jennifer Bendery reports for HuffPost. "Part of the reason is that the Treasury Department, which is charged with distributing that money, has been flailing in its dealings with tribes."

Aid was also slowed down because of a legal dispute over how the money was to be distributed. The Trump administration intended to give some of the money to for-profit Alaska Native corporations, but tribal governments filed suit, arguing that they could lose millions of dollars if they had to share the money with ANCs. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that ANCs don't qualify as tribal governments and can't get the aid money, Zoe Tillman reports for Buzzfeed News.

The pandemic has hit many rural Native American communities hard, often exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure, overcrowded housing, lack of access to health care, and underlying health conditions, Simon Romero reports for The New York Times.

The delay in distributing the funds violates the 30-day requirement in the CARES Act, as well as a deadline the Treasury imposed on itself: department representatives had told the court that they would begin distributing the money as soon as this past Tuesday, Acee Agoyo reports for Indianz, a news website operated by the Winnebago Tribe. The Trump administration has made no move to appeal the court decision.

Joe Biden ramps up his rural campaign

Much has been made of Hillary Clinton's failure to connect with rural and blue-collar America, and how that disconnect likely cost her the election. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seems to have taken the lesson to heart, and is ramping up his campaign efforts in rural areas with advisers who helped Obama win in many rural areas in 2008.

Biden's rural advisory committee "will be co-chaired by Phil Karsting, a former administrator of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service under Barack Obama. The second co-chair hasn’t been named yet, but it’s likely to be a female agriculture leader," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "Larry Strickling, who was the Commerce Department’s assistant secretary for communications and information and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during the Obama administration, is overseeing the selection of the rural committee and other advisory panels." Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will also likely play a role in the campaign's rural outreach.

Marshall Matz, a nutrition and agriculture policy lobbyist who chaired Obama's rural advisory committee in 2008, told Brasher that the Democratic Party knows it has to do a better job of reaching out to rural America: "It is not just on farm issues that Democrats need to show up, but on all issues, starting with health care. Most rural hospitals don't have even one ventilator, and that is a concern for rural Americans."

CNHI closes weeklies in NE Ky., will send subscribers daily once a week; university town 55 miles away has no paper

UPDATE, May 14: Kentucky News Group, which publishes weeklies in the three counties on Rowan County's western border, started publishing The Rowan County News today. (The county's name is pronounced "RAU-un.")


By Al Cross, director and professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

One of the largest chains of community newspapers, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., has undertaken an unusual consolidation of its northeastern Kentucky weeklies into a daily.

"Welcome to a change," read the April 29 headline in The Morehead News, over a message from Group Publisher Patty Bennett, informing readers that the paper "will merge with our sister newspaper, The Daily Independent in Ashland," because of lack of advertising during the pandemic. "The Daily Independent will undertake coverage of Morehead." In other words, Morehead, a university town of 7,000 in a county of 25,000, no longer has a local newspaper.

A similar message appeared in the Grayson Journal-Enquirer and the Olive Hill Times, essentially the same paper with slightly different content, in Carter County, between Morehead and Ashland. CHNI also killed off the Greenup County News-Times, a weekly in another county adjoining Ashland and Boyd County; it's in the metropolitan area of Ashland and Huntington, W.Va.; Carter County is not, though it is oriented to Ashland. Rowan County is neither; Morehead is 55 miles from Ashland, and 65 miles from downtown Lexington.

Many dailies have swallowed up sister weeklies, but it's unusual if not unprecedented for such a consolidation over such a distance. It dismayed people in Morehead, home to Morehead State University and some recent economic developments, including a huge complex of greenhouses intended to provide vegetables to the Eastern U.S.

"This county has been booming," said Keith Kappes, a former MSU spokesman who was publisher of the News for six years. He said a local economic developer told him, "I can't say to a prospect, we've got everything you want in a small town, except a newspaper."

"There's kind of a shock effect," Kappes told The Rural Blog. "How are we gonna follow our schools, our athletics? How are we gonna be informed about what's going on in the community, how are we gonna know the good things and the needs?... If you don't have a newspaper in your community, how backward are you?"

Kappes said that when he became the paper's publisher in 2010, it was making nearly $500,000 a year, a figure that gradually declined to $180,000 by the time he left three years ago. "Even at this low ebb, The Morehead News was still profitable," he said. "I know that from the people who work there." He said the other papers were not. Bennett didn't respond to an email seeking comment said she couldn't comment, but said she would pass along the request to company headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. CNHI is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

Bennett told subscribers that they would receive each Wednesday's Independent "and a special offer to subscribe. They will also be able to sample local, regional and state news about the covid-19 pandemic and other news and sports on The Daily Independent’s website, dailyindependent.com. We hope this experience will result in your subscribing to the merged newspaper and its robust website." She said subscribers who wanted refunds could ask for them by email, and invited readers to ask her questions "about our restructuring plan."

Kappes said he is talking to people in Morehead who want the town to have its own newspaper. "Its a source of pride," he said. "I think we're gonna end up with a 24/7 online newspaper that may publish once a week" in order to qualify for public-notice advertising, he said. Under Kentucky law, the newspaper with the largest bona fide circulation in a county gets the "legal ads," but if a county does not have a paper, only those in adjoining counties qualify, so the Daily Independent does not. The Kentucky Press Association explains the details and reports on newspaper frequency changes.

Quick hits: How to deal with conspiracy theories in the pandemic; a program to help rural sexual-assault survivors

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

How can local officials deal with conspiracy theories during the pandemic? Read it here.

Genetic engineering could bring back the American chestnut tree. Here's the latest update.

A Penn State program aims to better help rural sexual assault survivors through telehealth and more. Read about it here.

An energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists discusses what coal communities need to recover from the pandemic. Read it here.

Pandemic hurts rural mass transit agencies. Read more here.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Epicenter of pandemic has shifted to rural areas, especially those with meatpacking plants and prisons

Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Though major urban areas are seeing the most covid-19 cases, the infection rate is spiking in rural areas, which are less equipped to deal with it, Lous Parshley reports for Vox.

"The epicenter of this outbreak really has shifted into the smaller rural areas," Angela Hewlett, associate professor in infectious disease at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said in a recent Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing. Parshley writes, "Testing in many less-populous areas has lagged even further behind the already-low national average, obscuring the extent of transmission in more sparsely populated areas."

Rural residents are, on average, more vulnerable to the pandemic because of health-care and health inequalities, plus the prevalence of jobs where social distancing is all but impossible. Parshley notes that farmworkers and meatpacking workers, who are often undocumented immigrants, are particularly vulnerable since they don't have much access to personal protective equipment or paid sick leave, yet are often required to work in close quarters.

Rural counties with meatpacking plants or prisons are "major hotspots" for the pandemic in rural America. "Meanwhile, counties where farming or mining undergird the economy have the lowest rates of infection," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Rural editor writes: Journalists' search for truth is imperfect, but they protect us from an authoritarian future

Steven Doyle
The editor of a small-town daily newspaper makes an impassioned case for the importance of a free press in a recent editorial. The nation's basic principles "start with the freedom of the press, the right to hold people accountable for their bald-face lies, their little untruths, their obfuscations, their obstructions and their sleights-of-hand, Steven Doyle writes for the Martinsville Bulletin in Virginia.

Journalists are often criticized, though, and that smarts, Doyle acknowledges, though reporters aren't perfect. He uses an interesting analogy: "Journalists are phlebotomists of truth, tapping around with our questions until we find a hidden, plump vein. We are humans and make mistakes. Not every 'tap' is with perfect touch and sensitivity," he writes. "But those of us who work for conscientious and non-ideological news organizations tap with unrelenting purpose – all the while facing that fusillade of snide disrespect and ridicule."

Doyle asks readers to beware of biased parties' attempts to slander the news media with cries of "fake news," and asserts—using a vivid image from the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale—that the absence of a free press is the fastest route to an authoritarian future.

Reporters Committee offers guidance for journalists on dealing with HIPAA when reporting on covid-19 cases

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press chart; click the image to enlarge it.
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guarantees Americans the right to keep their medical records private. Reporters must be mindful of this when writing about covid-19 cases, but it is sometimes difficult to know the scope of the law. That gets even more confusing when public officials or private health-care providers incorrectly assert that HIPAA prevents them from releasing certain information.

"HIPAA’s applicability and scope are often misunderstood, resulting in the public being deprived of important information about the pandemic, including state and local governments’ preparedness and responses," Adam Marshall and Gunita Singh write for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Reporters, government agencies, and private entities should be aware of both the limited scope of the Privacy Rule and its exceptions that may allow — or require — information related to COVID-19 to be released."

Marshall and Singh have created a handy guide, including a flow chart, to help reporters better understand HIPAA. Read more here.

NC poultry plants sell chicken cheap out of the backs of trucks

Some North Carolina poultry processors are selling chicken directly to consumers; they say it's their way of being good corporate citizens during the pandemic, but it also helps them avoid packaging chicken for individual sale. "State agricultural officials say the chicken is safe, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no evidence that the coronavirus has affected poultry, pork or beef," Greg Barnes ;reports for North Carolina Health News.

Rob Handfield, a North Carolina State University professor who studies supply chain management, told Barnes that shifting processing plant supply chains from bulk sales to individual sales is time-consuming, and is probably part of the reason for the current shortage of meat in grocery stores.

Panic buying may also be to blame, since the nation has enough frozen meat stores to last a little while yet. But shortages could be coming. More and more meat processors have been obliged to close because of sickened employees, but even in plants that remain open, some employees have been reluctant to come back because they worry they'll get sick, Barnes reports.

Pandemic could cripple rural police agencies

"As the coronavirus pandemic depletes urban police departments in cities like New York and Detroit, little attention has been paid to their rural counterparts, where even a handful of positive cases could wallop an entire police force," Kristine Phillips reports for USA Today. "The impact on rural police – which made up more than two-thirds of all local police departments in the country in 2016 – could be critical."

Rural law enforcement agencies don't have a deep bench, and can't afford to have many employees out sick. Without police or sheriffs, rural areas would have to police themselves and might not follow social distancing guidelines, said Dwight Henninger, chief of police in Vail, Colorado, a rural skiing mecca with one of the nation's highest infection rates. "This virus is affecting all portions of our society. In a small, rural community, we all interact with each other. … We know the person whose business is closed. We know the kids who are out of school. We know the hospital folks who work long hours," Henninger told Phillips. "The police department is really the fabric of a small community in a lot of ways."

Rural law enforcement agencies must frequently interact with the public, but they're having a hard time finding and paying for enough disinfectant and personal protective equipment to stay safe, Phillips reports. Crime rates have mostly gone down during the pandemic, but some crimes like domestic violence seem to be increasing. Officers have tried to limit their contact with the public and only make arrests when necessary.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Program to train future community newspaper owners picks first five fellows for its new online master's degree program

Left to right: Andrew Weiler, Tony Baranowski, Miles Layton, Becky Pallack and Crystal Good.
NewStart, a program that aims to find, train and support buyers for community newspapers, has given fellowships to five journalists for a new one-year online master's degree program at West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, according to a WVU press release.

Jim Iovino, director



"Current events and economic conditions have created an environment conducive for learning and growing as a media entrepreneur," said NewStart director Jim Iovino. "There is still a great need for credible local news outlets in this country, and the coming year will likely see a lot of innovation in the media industry."

The degree is in media solutions and innovation. "This new online master’s program examines new business models during this time of forced innovation, and the NewStart fellows are diverse in geography and professional experience, allowing for a rich educational atmosphere," Iovino said.

The inaugural NewStart fellows are:
  • Tony Baranowski, local media director for the daily Times Citizen in Iowa Falls, Iowa.
  • Crystal Good, founder and CEO of Mixxed Media in Charleston, W.Va.
  • Miles Layton, editor of the Perquimans Weekly in Hertford, N.C.
  • Becky Pallack, product manager at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
  • Andrew Weiler, an entrepreneur and digital media producer from Wahkiakum County, Washington.
NewStart is a partnership of WVU and the West Virginia Press Association, which was prompted by older members who want to sell their weekly newspapers but can't find buyers. The Knight Foundation funded the fellowships; applications are still open for the degree program.

Democrats, Republicans in Congress ask administration to help local news outlets with advertising during pandemic

Senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle sent the White House letters last week asking for direct government aid through advertising for local newspapers and broadcasters during the pandemic, Paul Boyle reports for the News Media Alliance, an industry lobbying group.

Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.; Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Bill Flores, R-Texas; and Marc Veasey, D-Texas, got more than 240 signatures for the House letter sent April 20. "To get America moving again and strengthen our communities in the midst of this evolving crisis, we must be creative and use all available tools," it said. "Advertising plays an incredible role in local economies, and its importance to the sustainability of local broadcast stations and newspapers cannot be overstated."

Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; and Gary Peters, D-Mich., organized the April 23 Senate letter, which garnered 74 signatures. "Local newspapers and broadcasters have been particularly hit hard financially due to decreased revenue typically derived from advertising sales," the letter noted. "This comes at a time when they have increased coverage of daily news, alerts and educational programs. As congress and the administration continue to work to keep small businesses operating and employees on the payroll through the Paycheck Protection Program, we believe there is an opportunity for the federal government to provide relief to our local newspapers and broadcasters.”

Pandemic coverage can take emotional toll on journalists; conflict-resolution expert has suggestions for coping

"Being a witness to history can be both a privilege and a burden," Cynthya Gluck writes for Navigator, the newsletter of The Groundtruth Project, which says it funds young journalists "in under-covered areas of the United States and the world."

"In their pursuit of a story, journalists often find themselves in stressful situations that take an emotional or mental toll," Gluck writes. "Typically, those who cover conflict and crime are the most affected, but with a story as universal as the covid-19 outbreak, which carries tangible risks for reporters and sources alike, many in the industry are feeling anxious or worried, affecting their mental health and their ability to do their work safely."

There are some things journalists and newsrooms can do to boost mental health during unpredictable times such as this, Gluck was told by conflict resolution expert Mike Niconchuk, director of research and development at Beyond Conflict, which pursues conflict resolution and social-change solutions informed by neuroscience, behavioral science, and real-world experience. Read more here.

Court orders Mo. meatpacking plant to better protect workers from coronavirus; more lawsuits could be coming

A federal judge has ordered Smithfield Foods "to comply with public-health guidelines at a meatpacking plant in Milan, Mo., after a whistleblower argued that workers are not being protected from the coronavirus," Liz Crampton reports for Politico. "The lawsuit, filed by a local nonprofit advocating for worker rights and an anonymous longtime plant employee, is the first of its kind seeking to use the courts to force companies to abide by federal guidelines to protect workers operating in dangerous conditions."

The lawsuit, filed by Public Justice, accuses Smithfield of not sufficiently protecting workers from coronavirus transmission by not providing personal protective equipment, allowing for social distancing, and discouraging workers from taking sick days, Crampton reports. The group said it will sue other meatpackers on the same grounds, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture" newsletter.

Many meatpacking plants have been forced to shutter in recent weeks after employees tested positive for covid-19, prompting fears of meat shortages for consumers and causing headaches for farmers who have nowhere to sell their livestock.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Small New England daily raises well over $100,000 for its covid-19 support fund, after setting a goal of $50,000

Valley News logo
The Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., reports tremendous success in its efforts to seek donations to subsidize the small daily paper during the pandemic: "The response to our Valley News Covid-19 Support Fund has been overwhelming. We hit our initial goal of raising $50,000 to support our operations, which have been drastically undermined by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, in less than five days. Almost 600 people donated."

The latest total, as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, was $135,234, with 1,363 donors. The effort "was boosted by an outfit called Vital Communities of the Upper Valley, a non-profit that promotes local agriculture, conducts transportation studies and the like" in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner Steve Taylor tells The Rural Blog.

The paper's plea began, "The Valley News is asking for financial support from the Upper Valley community to continue producing trusted local journalism during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has wreaked an unprecedented economic crisis that threatens our ability to serve our readers and region. Our business depends on revenue from advertisers, but the coronavirus crisis has brought the local economy — and many of the advertisers who support our work — to a near standstill. We have rigorously reported on the local impacts of this worldwide pandemic in words and photos and made all of our local coronavirus coverage free online since early March."

Washington Post refutes Trump claim that Postal Service loses money on every e-commerce package it delivers

On April 24, President Trump told reporters that the U.S. Postal Service "is a joke because they’re handing out packages for Amazon and other internet companies. And every time they bring a package, they lose money on it."

That's not true, writes Glenn Kessler, editor of The Washington Post's Fact Checker column. Unlike most of the president's many inaccurate statements, it could matter, because "Trump is threatening to veto financial aid for the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service unless it hikes the price it charges for delivering packages — which he said should be quadrupled."

USPS is losing money overall, mostly because more people send emails than snail mail these days, and because Congress requires it to prepay pension and health benefits for its employees, Kessler writes. The service is also at a disadvantage because it can't charge extra postage for first-class mail sent to remote (and therefore more expensive to deliver) locations.

Package delivery has been an increasing share of USPS volume and revenue over the past three years. "Of course, revenue is not profit. And we do not know the details of the contracts between USPS and Internet retailers," Kessler reports. "But USPS says it has been raising prices." Amazon contracts with USPS instead of developing its own "last mile" delivery service, but USPS said in a 2019 report that Amazon and other big shippers are testing and implementing their own last-mile services.

The emergence of competitors is significant since, under a 2006 law, USPS is prohibited from losing money on competitive service deliveries. If USPS were losing money to Amazon or another carrier on package deliveries, it would essentially be required to raise its prices to cover costs. But its most recent revenue filing shows that first-class package service revenue was 148 percent of costs associated with such deliveries, while ground parcel post covered 189% of costs.

Kessler asked the Treasury Department for a clarification of Trump's remarks. "Essentially, Treasury’s answer is that USPS’s calculation methods are off-kilter and provide a misleading picture of profits and losses — even as it concedes that USPS is following the law," Kessler writes. He gives Trump four Pinocchios, the most that The Fact Checker hands out in a single case. The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, a fact to which Trump has alluded.

Volunteer fire departments struggle with lack of personal protective gear, inability to hold needed fundraisers

While the pandemic has complicated plans for fighting large wildfires, it has also hurt small-town fire departments' ability to function.

"Across the country, fire departments are adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic, changing protocols to try to reduce the risk of exposure among first responders, coping with a shortage of personal protective equipment and figuring out the potential budget challenges facing many local government agencies," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "For small departments, there are additional dilemmas, starting with fewer volunteers willing or able to work. Departments also have been forced to cancel fundraising events, a vital source of revenue for rural companies."

More than 80 percent of the nation's fire departments are all or mostly comprised of volunteers, Queram reports. Some have been able to adapt, including one in a small town in New York that operated its annual barbecue chicken dinner as a drive-through event, but other departments have had to cancel events, and told Queram they're not sure how they'll make up the deficit.

As Southern governors push to re-open businesses, pandemic is becoming a 'silent disaster' in the rural South

Covid-19 cases and deaths in rural vs. metropolitan (labeled "urban") counties as of April 26.
Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version.
The coronavirus pandemic "is becoming a silent disaster" in the rural South because of health-care and health inequalities and more, even as some governors push to reopen businesses, Ann Cafer and Meagan Rosenhal report for The Daily Yonder.

"As University of Mississippi sociologists who work with rural communities on a range of resilience issues, especially health, we are concerned about the economic and health consequences of returning to business before the region is prepared to protect its residents," Cafer and Rosenhal write.

A group of experts from the Infectious Diseases Society of America voiced much the same opinions in a recent online panel discussion, Christopher Cheney reports for HealthLeaders Media.

Rural industries tend to be deemed essential and don't typically allow for telecommuting (think mining, meatpacking, factory work, power plants, etc.). And since small towns are often close-knit, big community gatherings can be tempting, but can be a major transmittal space for the virus, Cheney reports. Poor, rural communities are particularly susceptible to the pandemic, owing to a greater incidence of underlying health problems and less access to health insurance.

The pandemic exposes rural-urban health care resource disparities, experts said in the webinar. Rural areas have smaller hospitals with fewer employees (including infectious-disease specialists), limited intensive-care capability and smaller supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators, Cheney reports. And, smaller local health departments don't always have the resources to carry out essential pandemic responses like contact tracing. Air-ambulance transport to larger hospitals is also a potential challenge, since flight crews could catch the virus during long flights in enclosed cabins.

The discussion comes in the wake of Georgia's move to reopen many businesses last week, even though rural African-Americans in the state worry it's too soon.

#GivingNewsday is next week; Poynter to give donation tips for publications in webinar at 3:30 p.m. ET today

The Poynter Institute will host a free webinar at 3:30 p.m. ET today to help news organizations maximize donations on May 5 for #GivingNewsday.

Giving Tuesday traditionally promotes charitable donations the week after Thanksgiving, but the organizers have announced an extra May 5 observance this year: #GivingTuesdayNow, meant to help those who have been economically impacted by covid-19.

Many in the news media have capitalized on that by calling it #GivingNewsday, in order to call attention to the pandemic's affect on advertising revenue and hopefully attract new subscribers, donors, and financial supporters of local news. Click here for more information about the webinar, and click here to register.

April 30 webinar, part of a series on future of democracy, to discuss 'flattening the curve' of pandemic misinformation

Vision, a new weekly webinar series from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, explores the "trends, ideas and disruptions affecting the future of our democracy." 

This Thursday, April 30, at 1 p.m. ET, Dr. Joan Donovan will discuss disinformation about the covid-19 pandemic. Donovan is the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, and is an authority on internet and technology studies, online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. Click here to register.

Donovan wrote in a recent thinkpiece for Nature: "The pandemic lays bare how tech companies’ reluctance to act recursively worsens our world. In times of uncertainty, the vicious cycle is more potent than ever. Scientific debates that are typically confined to a small community of experts become fodder for mountebanks of all kinds."

Click here for a recording of last week's webinar and information on upcoming episodes.

Monday, April 27, 2020

USDA dithered for a month before making big purchases of farm products for food banks, even as need soared

A Florida farmer plows under his cabbage crop.
(Politico photo by M. Scott Mahaskey)
"Tens of millions of pounds of American-grown produce is rotting in fields as food banks across the country scramble to meet a massive surge in demand, a two-pronged disaster that has deprived farmers of billions of dollars in revenue while millions of newly jobless Americans struggle to feed their families," Helen Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico: "While other federal agencies quickly adapted their programs to the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took more than a month to make its first significant move to buy up surplus fruits and vegetables — despite repeated entreaties."

Farmers and ranchers have been struggling for weeks as shifting supply chains often left them without a feasible way to sell their crops or livestock, while demand at food banks has increased an average of 70 percent. The USDA said in mid-April that it will spend $3 billion to buy fresh produce, meat and dairy to distribute to food banks. But purchasing has apparently not increased in the past six weeks, Evich reports. Federal officials predicted it would take about a month before the food could be bought, packed and shipped, but by then, it will be too late for product that needs to sell now.

"Images of farmers destroying tomatoes, piling up squash, burying onions and dumping milk shocked many Americans who remain fearful of supply shortages," Evich reports. "At the same time, people who recently lost their jobs lined up for miles outside some food banks, raising questions about why there has been no coordinated response at the federal level to get the surplus of perishable food to more people in need, even as commodity groups, state leaders and lawmakers repeatedly urged the Agriculture Department to step in."

Evich writes, "The Agriculture Department said it has moved expeditiously to respond to the crisis," but "Department officials declined requests to discuss the government’s approach to capturing the perishable food glut."
Today, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would make an effort to find users for milk that his state's dairy farmers are dumping, largely because the pandemic has lowered demand from restaurants and schools.

Anonymized county-level cellphone data shows a drop in social distancing in recent weeks

Screenshot from MTI database shows county-by-county social-
distancing index for April 24. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Using anonymized cellphone data, researchers in the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland have assembled a state- and county-level picture of the nation's social-distancing habits, and how those have changed over time. View the database here.

The interactive database allows users to view results by an overall social distancing index, the percentage of people staying home, the number of trips per person (both work trips and non-work trips), the percentage of out-of-county trips, and the miles traveled per person.

Each variable can be viewed over time; that insulates the data from making rural residents appear less compliant with social distancing than they actually are simply because they often have to drive further away to access work or groceries. 

However, the data show that social distancing is decreasing in some states and counties over time, even as covid-19 cases increase. Some people are worried about the economy, and some are simply tired of staying home, Katherine Shaver reports for The Washington Post

"We saw something we hoped wasn’t happening, but it’s there," Lei Zhang, lead researcher and MTI director told Shaver. "It seems collectively we’re getting a little tired. It looks like people are loosening up on their own to travel more."

Business experts to discuss reopening economy, invite news-media questions in webinar at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday

Newswise, a site for news releases about research, will host an online panel discussion from 2 to 3:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, April 29, to discuss the pros and cons of reopening the economy amid the pandemic, from a business perspective. 

Experts from institutions including Stanford University, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School will debate the issue and invite questions from the news media. 

The discussion will take place on Zoom, and a recorded version will be made available afterwards. Click here to register.

Rural African-Americans in Ga. fear reopenings will leave them more vulnerable; pattern could show up in other states

Washington Post map; click on it to enlarge.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp allowed some businesses to reopen Friday, but African-Americans in hard-hit rural areas say it's too soon, and worry they will suffer the worst fallout, since they appear to be more susceptible to the coronavirus. "They fear the restart will spike new infections, particularly in the southwest region, with some of the highest death rates in the nation," report Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran and Vanessa Williams of The Washington Post. "In these small, interconnected towns, where everyone seems to know everyone else, each death reverberates."

Jeff Zeleny reports for CNN, "The reopening of some Georgia businesses, which started including restaurants on Monday, was at odds with White House Task Force guidance for states to first have a 14-day decline in coronavirus cases. After initially signaling his support for Kemp, Trump criticized the move after his medical advisers voiced strong concern."

Though African-Americans make up about 30 percent of Georgia's population, they account for more than half of its covid-19 deaths. The death rate is especially high in rural counties with majority-black populations, the Post reports. Part of that is because of systemic inequalities: Georgia did not expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so its low-income residents are less likely to have health insurance; African Americans are more likely to have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus, and ate more likely to work in industries with a greater risk of virus exposure, the Post reports.

Rural areas have less access to nearby hospital care, and rural health-care providers have a harder time accessing testing and personal protective equipment, the Post reports. Georgia, as a whole, ranks 40th in terms of how many tests are available per person.

Two funerals in Albany turned southwest Georgia into a pandemic hot spot in early March. City Commissioner Demetrius Young told the Post that residents will continue to die at disproportionate rates without better testing and virus tracking, and worries that reopening businesses will be disastrous. "To open up businesses where it’s impossible to practice social distancing — hair salons, nail salons, theaters — people are like, what? You want to put everybody in a closed room, and that’s supposed to be okay?" Young said. "For black folks, it’s like a setup: Are you trying to kill us?"

Andrew Pavia, head of the pediatric infectious diseases division at the University of Utah School of Medicine, told the Post that Georgia's rural death-rate disparity, especially among African-Americans, may be happening in other states: "It’s a perfect storm for risk of death when the virus lands in these poor, more rural communities."

Meat shortages feared 'dangerously close' as more meatpacking plants shut down amid outbreaks of covid-19

Meat shortages in the U.S. could be "dangerously close" as more meatpacking plants are forced to shutter during the pandemic, Michael Hitrtzer and Tatiana Freitas write for Bloomberg News.

U.S. pork capacity is down almost a third, big poultry plants have started to close, and Brazil and Canada—the other two biggest meat exporters—are also seeing plant closures, Keith Good reports in  a roundup of stories for Farm Policy News at the University of Illinois.

Meanwhile, wholesale beef and pork prices are soaring and milk prices have dropped to their lowest point in 12 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture promised Friday to help pork producers find new processors or dispose of the thousands of pigs clogging up their feedlots with nowhere to go.

An investigation published last week by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting (along with a frequently updated database) revealed that the scale of covid-19 cases among meatpacking plants was worse than had been publicly known.