COVID: ‘I’m Still Here’ – The Wrap (10/19/20)

This week: COVID cases are spiking, Trump and Biden held town halls, and the Census is put on ice.

Welcome to The Wrap! Each Monday, we’ll walk through some of the big news and policy headlines from last week so you know what to look for in the week ahead.

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Now to the thing.

As of Sunday night, we’ve seen 8.1 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Over 219,000 people have reportedly died.

A lot to unpack from last week: COVID cases are spiking, Trump and Biden both had town halls, and the Census concluded its on-the-ground work. After some additional headlines, read up on both presidential candidate’s records on organized labor. Plus: a look at manufactured homes as a solution to the housing crisis.

1. COVID-19 cases are spiking again in the U.S.

Newly reported COVID cases are spiking—we’re back to late-July levels in daily cases. It would appear the fall spike that some predicted is happening. Part of this is due to better testing capacity, but this doesn’t fully account for the dire stats we’re seeing across the U.S., specifically in the midwestern and southern states.

It’s no secret that the U.S. response to this crisis has been lackluster. We needed a unified, national strategy that streamlined testing, treatment, and tracing of the virus across the 50 states with practical mitigation standards like a national mask mandate. Instead, we have had inconsistent transparency from the CDC and a mix of strategies that haven’t properly stopped the spread of the virus and its economic toll.

Related: Leave it to a pandemic for the CDC to become the most politicized it has been since its creation. The AP shared how the Trump administration embedded two “political operatives” within to steer the CDC’s messaging. Additionally, ProPublica provided more context and explained why this can have adverse effects on the CDC’s reputation and efficacy for years.

Related: A coronavirus vaccine will not be ready for some time; Pfizer announced its own vaccine won’t be ready until after Election Day, and AstraZeneca recently halted its own vaccine trials. In the meantime, states have been putting together their respective vaccine distribution plans.

Related: Cases are also spiking in Europe. The Netherlands reimposed some of its lockdown restrictions; Paris has a curfew in effect; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been sounding the alarm for her constituents and neighboring European states.

2. Trump and Biden, via town halls, ‘debate’ in different worlds.

Both candidates for president had their own town halls at the same time on Thursday. (If you remember, President Trump opted not to do a second debate digitally. Former Vice President Biden announced a town hall with undecided voters for that date as a replacement, then Trump organized his own to compete directly.)

The split screen between the two was startling. On ABC, Biden was having a calm discussion with moderator George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia. On NBC, Trump butted heads frequently with moderator Savannah Guthrie over several of his comments. Here are some big takeaways (policy-related and otherwise):

  • Joe Biden said a crime bill he championed in 1994 was a “mistake.” The bill is widely agreed to have exacerbated existing inequities in policing and the criminal justice system. Biden did also note that individual states are also to blame for how they implemented the bill’s provisions. But this is still an important acknowledgement by Biden, as we currently live in a political world where this happens infrequently.
  • Donald Trump disavowed white supremacists but not QAnon. This differs from the first presidential debate, during which Trump did not condemn white supremacist groups. Still, refusing to do the same for QAnon, a collective delusion linked to violence, is equally concerning. Trump said he didn’t know much about this movement/conspiracy/online cult, just that he knew “they are very much against pedophilia.”
  • Biden said he would share his views on court packing before Election Day but after the Senate votes on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s SCOTUS nomination.
  • Trump got grilled for sharing baseless conspiracy theories on Twitter, suggested wearing masks does not help fight COVID-19, did not share when he last tested negative for the virus, and admitted he might be hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

All in all, the two separate events speak to how differently the candidates view the world and operate within it. Biden tried to fit in as much info on public policy as he could in each answer, undoubtedly to show he would be a competent president. (It’s also a positive spin on a big criticism of Biden, that he’s a career politician.) On the other hand, Trump was characteristically light on policy talk and very combative with Guthrie.

The real question at this point, one that also would be asked if the two had decided to debate, Does this change anything for the voters? Both town halls had questions from undecided voters, but most polls show that there are very few people who haven’t made up their minds.

One more thing to keep in mind: It’s not “Election Day” so much as “Election Season.” Over 20 million people have already voted, and there’s little signs that this turnout will dwindle over the next few weeks. NPR has more early voting coverage here.

3. The 2020 Census halts again. (For real this time.)

In what is likely the final twist in this story, the Supreme Court decided the Trump administration could end field work for the U.S. Census.

Quick recap: The Census Bureau had shared growing concerns about their data’s accuracy—the pandemic and the slew of court decisions on the 2020 Census’ questions have made this one of the most complicated decennial surveys in recent memory. With this in mind, a federal court authorized an extension through October to give the Bureau more time in collecting data.

The Trump admin argued to SCOTUS that the Bureau instead needed more time to make sense of their data (which takes months) and meet a December 31 deadline. SCOTUS agreed, so the Census stopped its work in the field. (This deadline is to ensure Congress can begin the apportionment process for congressional districts on time.)

With less time to actually count people across the U.S., a severe undercount is likely. “Hard-to-count” populations—those without internet or phone access, without homes, or with language barriers—will be disproportionately affected. That will impact how the apportionment process goes; an undercount in one state might mean it loses a seat in Congress.

An undercount will also mean less federal funding to states, which use that money for a wide range of programs in health care, education, human services, infrastructure, etc. Add a pandemic to this, and you can see why states, local governments (which use some of this money disbursed to their respective states), and community organizations have been sounding the alarm on the Census for the past two years.

Latest on States and Voting Access

  • In California, the state GOP was caught deploying illegal ballot drop boxes. After receiving a cease and desist from the California Secretary of State, they maintained that these boxes are legit.
  • Voter enthusiasm in Texas seems to be at an all time high. Nearly 17 million people are registered to vote in the state this year, an increase of 1.8 million voters (!!!). In Travis County, an unheard-of 97% of its 850,000 eligible voters registered. This has carried over into voting itself: Over 1 million Texans cast ballots on the first day of early voting, with Harris and Travis counties, two of the state’s most populous counties, smashing their own respective records. If you’re curious, check out this statewide voting tracker from the Texas Tribune.

What else?

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination wrapped up on Thursday. Barrett was not entirely forthcoming with her views on several issues (e.g., abortion, voting rights) although she did remind the committee and viewers that she interprets the Constitution through an originalist lens. It’s all but assured she will be confirmed by the Senate across party lines this week. NPR and Politico have key takeaways from the hearings.
  • ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting reported U.S. marshals may have shot and killed antifa activist Michael Reinoehl without identifying themselves or trying to arrest him first in Olympia, Washington. Reinoehl was on the run for shooting and killing Aaron Danielson at a pro-Trump rally in August. (Reinoehl said it was in self-defense.) This report and several others state there are significant differences in the accounts of federal officers and civilian witnesses. All the while, Trump has cited the incident at his rallies in his “law and order” strategy—and he has contradicted the marshals’ own account that they tried to arrest Reinoehl before opening fire.
  • The Trump administration has increased federal farm subsidies to historic levels—$46 billion this year alone. But there’s strong evidence that this might be politically motivated (paywall), as “the bulk of the money went to big farms in the Midwest and southern states, including [Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s] home state of Georgia.”
  • The New York Times reported on Wednesday that, back in February, President Trump’s advisors gave a private heads up to wealthy donors (paywall) on what the pandemic would do to U.S. stocks. That’s a stark contrast to how easy-going the administration was (and still is) regarding the virus.
  • The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a Russian intelligence operation centered on Rudy Guiliani, the President’s personal lawyer, as a bid to spread disinformation within the White House (paywall). U.S. intelligence agencies shared this with the WH last year. The following is a real thing that happened: When told this, Trump shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s Rudy.”
News from abroad:
  • The fall summit for the European Union has been plagued with fears of a COVID-19 outbreak. However, the summit did conclude as scheduled; its agenda included Brexit negotiations, E.U. budget talks, the union’s climate strategy, and E.U. relations with the African Union.
  • Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov decided to step down following disputed results for parliamentary elections and subsequent protests. NPR has a good explainer on the situation here.
Climate news:
  • Let’s start with the bad news. Since 1995, the Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral due to the warming ocean.

What Congress is up to: Stimulus talks are ongoing-ish, with the Senate set to vote on a skinny bill to the tune of $500 billion; Speaker Pelosi said a deal needs to be struck by Tuesday evening, or else it will likely be pushed to after Election Day.

Campaign Comparisons: Trump, Biden, and Organized Labor

After decades of declining membership and power, labor unions are once again growing widespread popularity in the U.S., making them a key policy issue for the 2020 election. The candidates for president are polling at about even among union members, but how would they actually work with/against organized labor? Let’s start with the President’s record on workers’ rights.

As a candidate in 2016 and again this year, President Trump has talked a lot about bringing back jobs that were sent abroad thanks to globalization and bad trade policy. But plainly, he has not been a friend to labor unions. Here are some big-picture reasons:

  • Trump has appointed federal judges with anti-union views, most notably Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
  • He has filled the National Labor Relations Board, which is meant to protect workers’ rights, with former corporate executives that have consistently weakened the very rights they’re meant to defend.
  • He signed off on the 2017 GOP tax bill, which incentivized companies to move more jobs overseas.
  • His administration has also more directly affected individual workers by changing regulations for overtime, health insurance, and workplace safety and he’s blasted pro-worker legislation.

On the flip side, Trump has raised the minimum wage for federal employees and has offered to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to supplement a raise to the federal minimum wage. Still, his record on labor is appallingly bad.

Former V.P. Joe Biden has always modeled himself as a friend to labor unions, and his campaign is further testament to this. He’s been endorsed by several national unions, including the AFL-CIO. He has also said he would enact the PRO Act, which would partially undo right-to-work laws, and has said he would set up a working group “that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining” within his administration. Union leaders seem hopeful for a Biden presidency.

But Biden does have some drawbacks when it comes to labor. The PRO Act, though endorsed by unions, would potentially hurt the gig economy and make it more difficult for freelancers to find work.

There’s also Biden’s record as a senator. He supported trade deals (NAFTA, TPP) that shifted jobs in many sectors overseas, and at times he’s been considered too close to the credit card industry. For instance, he championed an important bankruptcy bill in 2005 that significantly decreased financial resources for those struggling with debt.

If you remember, Biden was hit hard over this 2005 bill during the Democratic primary debates by fellow candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). However, Biden would go on to endorse Warren’s bankruptcy plan that would virtually undo all of that ’05 legislation.

One Last Thought: Manufactured Housing

On this blog, I have talked at length about the affordable housing crisis in the U.S. The most basic and effective solution is to simply build new housing to meet demand, but the cost of doing so can be high. One possible workaround involves manufactured homes. These include any kind of home or structure produced in a factory.

Source: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Mobile homes are the most commonly used example, lending a certain level of stigma when discussing this option. However, mobile homes (and manufactured homes in general) are of a much higher quality today than they have been in the past.

In any case, manufactured homes are a cheaper and faster alternative to conventional home construction; you can plop the home down on a foundation for a fraction of the cost. They’re also frequently more energy-efficient than existing homes. Most importantly, manufactured homes open the door to homeownership for low-income individuals and families that otherwise would never purchase a house.

A manufactured home’s location could prompt issues you normally wouldn’t need to address. For instance, some states recognize all manufactured homes—even those that aren’t mobile homes—as personal property, like cars. Home buyers can’t access mortgage loans if this is the case. There’s also the issue of the land on which you place the manufacture home, though there has been a gradually growing movement of community land cooperatives.

And don’t think this doesn’t apply to denser urban areas: The Chicago-based home building company Skender has been manufacturing three-flats.

___

That’s a wrap. Check out 101PC’s latest piece on state supreme courts here. Plus, we now have a 2020 Presidential Election Voter Guide so you can see how Trump and Biden compare on the big policy issues.

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