Americans are skipping payments on mortgages, auto loans and other bills. Normally, that could mean massive foreclosures, evictions, cars repossessions and people’s credit getting destroyed.
But much of that’s been put on pause. Help from Congress and leniency from lenders have kept impending financial disaster at bay for millions of people. But that may not last for long.
The problem is, these efforts aim to create a financial bridge to the future for people who’ve lost their income in the pandemic — but the bridge is only half built. For one thing, the help still isn’t reaching many people who need it.
“My wife has filed, certified every week for her unemployment for 10 weeks now, and they have done nothing,” says Jonathan Baird of Bruceton, Tenn. “We’ve struggled.”
Baird is a disabled veteran who gets a small disability pension. But after the pandemic hit, his wife lost her job as a home health aide. That was most of their income. And like many other contract workers, she’s run into long delays trying to collect unemployment.
Meanwhile, Baird says his mortgage company told him he didn’t qualify for a federal program to postpone payments. Many homeowners have been given wrong or misleading information from lenders about that. And it appears that’s what happened in Baird’s case.
Baird also called Ford to try to get a break on the payments for his pickup truck. “When I contacted them, they told me that there was nothing they could do,” he says. “Just basically make your payment or suffer the late fees.”
He says a call center worker told him that he didn’t qualify for any help because he was late on a car payment last year. When NPR contacted Ford, the company said that is not its policy. And after reviewing the case, the company is now letting Baird skip his next car payment, which he says is a big help.
“We’re paycheck to paycheck like most people,” he says. “And when you take away that paycheck, especially for this length of time, we have to make the decision — a vehicle or food.”
Ford says the company is allowing many customers hurt financially during the pandemic-related shutdowns to skip payments.
And millions of people are getting help from all kinds of lenders. According to the latest available numbers from the credit bureau TransUnion, about 3 million auto loans and 15 million credit card accounts are in some kind of program to let people skip or make partial payments. Those are probably low estimates. According to the analytics company Black Knight, 4.75 million homeowners — or 9% of all mortgages — have entered into forbearance plans.
Lawmakers don’t want these delayed payments to hurt credit scores. Congress mandated that people who were current on their payments before the outbreak should still be reported as current on their payments while in a hardship program. And that appears to working for now.
“What we’re seeing consistently across the board is actually credit scores are moving upward,” says Matthew Komos, a vice president at TransUnion. He says that’s both on a month-to-month and year-over-year basis.
But looking ahead, advocates say people could run into big trouble because the terms of these hardship programs can be all over the map.
“Credit cards, auto loans, installment loans, there are no federal guidelines,” says Aracely Panameño, a director at the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending.
She says when it comes time to make up for all those skipped payments, there are federal rules for repayment plans for home mortgages but not for many other types of loans. So she says lawmakers need to protect people. Otherwise, she says, lenders could make demands beyond what people can afford. “You must have a capacity to catch up with your payments in an affordable way,” Panameño says.
Chi Chi Wu with the National Consumer Law Center agrees. Without better protections, when it comes time to make up for the missed payments, “there’s going to be a lot of people who could experience massive credit reporting harm,” says Wu, an attorney focusing on consumer credit issues.
Under the rules for mortgages, consumer advocates say the vast majority of people hurt financially during the outbreak who entered a forbearance plan should have their missed payments moved to the end of the loan term.
That keeps monthly payments the same as they were before and just extends the amount of time to pay the loan. Some other types of lenders are using this approach too. Ford tells NPR it is taking missed payments and moving them to the end of the auto loan term.
For their part, many lenders say that to keep helping people, they need a government conduit through which to borrow money themselves. Bill Himpler is president and CEO of the American Financial Services Association, which represents lenders who make car loans, personal loans, mortgages and offer credit cards.
“If we can’t keep the lights on because things have seized up it’s not good for anybody,” he says. “It’s not good for the customer, it’s not good for the company, it’s not good for the economy.”
One big thing lawmakers need to resolve is whether to extend the federal government’s expanded unemployment benefits. Getting that unemployment money is the biggest reason most people who’ve lost jobs are able to pay rent and keep a roof over their heads. And while some people are going back to work, many others are not.
“When the $600-a-week unemployment insurance runs out at the end of July, most people expect tremendous displacement risk,” says Andrew Jakabovics with the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners. “Evictions are likely to go through the roof.”
And with eviction moratoriums expiring in parts of the country, he says action is needed right away to help people who can’t pay the rent as the pandemic drags on.
Meanwhile, as with many other aspects of the coronavirus outbreak, there are disparities along socioeconomic and racial lines. Panameño says her group did a national survey to see who was having trouble paying their bills after the pandemic struck.
“Twenty-five percent of Latinos had already fallen behind with their payments,” she says. “Twenty-eight percent of African Americans had fallen behind. That compares to 12% of whites that had fallen behind.”
Eiffel Tower Reopens In Paris, After A 3-Month Shutdown
The Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors Thursday morning, after being shut down for more than three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the Paris landmark’s longest closure since World War II.
The reopening is a dramatic sign of people finally reclaiming public spaces in France, after more than 100 days of restrictions. But the tower’s highest point is still not open – and for now, visitors will need to take the stairs.
The stairs-only rule is one of several restrictions at the site, which draws millions of tourists during a normal year. Face masks are compulsory for all visitors over the age of 11, and physical distancing markers are in place.
To keep people from crossing paths on the stairs, visitors will ascend on the Eiffel Tower’s East pillar and descent on the West pillar, the Eiffel Tower website states.
🇫🇷 Premiers visiteurs aux 1er et 2e étages 😃 10 mn de montée par étage seulement ! 💖
🇬🇧 Our first visitors arrive at the 1st and 2nd floors. 10 minutes only to climb each level 💪#tourEiffel #EiffelTower pic.twitter.com/GBf26ElSAD
— La tour Eiffel (@LaTourEiffel) June 25, 2020
The reopening took place on a sunny and clear morning, promising wide views of the city. The tower’s return was widely celebrated, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hailing the reopening. As the first visitors prepared to make their way up, a band of drummers performed in the plaza at the tower’s base.
Elevator service inside the monument is slated to return on July 1. For those who can’t wait, a ticket to walk up to the Eiffel Tower’s second floor – the wider area that cuts off just as the tower narrows toward its spire – costs 10.40 euros (about $11.65).
Tickets are being sold online, in 30-minute increments. Shortly after noon local time Thursday, spots were still open through the afternoon, although the evening tickets had all been claimed, presumably by people eager to see how the City of Lights comes to life in the night, even during a pandemic.
A French government official declared the coronavirus to be “under control” in early June. Days later, France joined the rest of the European Union in lifting many border restrictions within the bloc – part of a plan to salvage part of the summer tourism season.
There are signs that the virus is remaining under control. France’s positive test rate for the coronavirus is 1.5%, according to the most recent data from the national public health agency. Only two of its 104 departments are considered to be in a highly vulnerable situation – and those are in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.
France has confirmed 161,348 coronavirus cases, including 29,731 deaths, according to government data.
‘Gone With The Wind’ Returns To HBO Max With New Introduction
Gone With The Wind has returned to the streaming service HBO Max after it was removed earlier this month because of its benign portrayal of American slavery. The film now features a new introduction by film scholar and Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart.
In the introduction, Stewart addresses the film’s problematic depiction of the Antebellum South.
“Eighty years after its initial release, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a film of undeniable cultural significance,” she says. “It is not only a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past but also an enduring work of popular culture that speaks directly to the racial inequalities that persist in media and society today.”
Stewart adds that the film depicts a “world of grace and beauty, without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.”
The streaming service also added two companion videos along with the return of the film. One video features a panel discussion on the film’s controversial legacy and another provides more information about Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 became the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of the enslaved “Mammy.”
The 1939 film has long been the subject of criticism, with some saying it portrayed the Confederacy with sentimentality and fondness. Recent protests for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd renewed these concerns. Screenwriter, producer and director John Ridley wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times earlier this month calling on HBO Max to remove Gone With the Wind from its library.
“The movie had the very best talents in Hollywood at that time working together to sentimentalize a history that never was,” Ridley wrote. “And it continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’ “
A spokesperson for the streaming service told NPR in a statement at the time of the film’s removal that the “racist depictions” in the film were “wrong then and wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”
The spokesperson added that aside from the new introduction, the movie itself would not be altered once it returned, “because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
Stewart reiterated those sentiments in her introduction, acknowledging that while watching Gone With The Wind and other classic films could be uncomfortable or painful, the films should be available in their original form to “invite viewers to reflect on their own beliefs when watching them now.”
Both Chambers Of Congress Back For First Time During Pandemic Amid Questions On Tests
On Thursday, the House and Senate will be in session at the same time, for the first time, since the pandemic began more than three months ago.
While the 100-member Senate resumed its regular floor business in May, the much larger House of Representatives has met sparingly. With more than 430 members, the lower chamber faces higher risks for an outbreak.
And like many other workplaces around the country, Congress has had to ration tests for the coronavirus. Much of the work by employees, aides and lawmakers is being done remotely. Last month, the House approved new rules allowing proxy voting and hearings by video conference.
“Rationing tests for members of Congress … to me, it’s maddening,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Like, this is no way to run a country.”
But there have been some improvements. The attending physician to Congress can now test asymptomatic members, a senior Democratic aide told NPR. Previously, only some sick members could access tests.
Meanwhile, the Capitol remains closed to the general public for tours and visits. And those still meeting there largely adhere to the attending physician’s guidance to maintain social distancing and wear masks.
“Everyone should just wear a damn mask, like you guys are, like I am right now,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Wednesday.
Members of Congress saw a spike in cases at the start of the pandemic but have largely flattened their curve, with a total of nine cases.
But Capitol workers — which include staff members, Capitol Police officers and those who maintain operations — have seen a larger influx of cases, with more than 60 by mid-June, according to a congressional aide.
“Those are the ones that we should be concerned about developing some long-term testing protocols for, because it’s not just about the members,” Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., ranking member on the House Administration Committee, told NPR recently.
Davis has been on the hunt for a new testing program for Congress. This month, he wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for the attending physician to partner with the military or a private vendor to test 2,000 people or more a week.
But so far Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said Congress shouldn’t get prioritized testing ahead of essential workers.
The chair of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., agrees with that plan — for now.
“I think until the country is in better shape, we’re not going to be in a position to test everybody who comes into the Capitol,” Lofgren said.
Experts such as Jha say national testing still hasn’t reached recommended levels. Among those showing little interest in boosting it is President Trump, who told a rally last weekend in Tulsa, Okla., that he asked for testing to be slowed.
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters he wasn’t kidding when he made the comments.
“Testing is a double-edged sword,” he said.
On The COVID-19 Campaign Trail, Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock May Be Getting A Boost
At a free, mass testing site on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, hundreds of people are queued up in idling cars. They’re waiting an hour or more for the irritating nose swab test for COVID-19, but most like Francine Van Maanen are just grateful to finally get one.
“We enjoyed the fact that they had this testing available to us so why not get checked,” she says, while waiting in line with her husband.
Nurses wearing face shields put the swabs in plastic tubes while busily scribbling notes on clipboards. This “mass surveillance” testing event was part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent goal to do community surveillance testing of 60,000 Montanans a month — the state has yet to come close to hitting that.
“This is big, this is overwhelming,” Bullock told tribal and county health officials working the recent Flathead event. “Now let’s start talking about when we’re going to do it again.”
Under Bullock’s watch, Montana now has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the nation, and among its lowest hospitalizations and deaths. Daily new case numbers have been going up for the last two weeks, but only by single or double digits. The pandemic — and Bullock’s handling of it as the state’s top leader — is fast becoming a central issue in his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
The race is one of a few around the country that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. It’s also expected to be one of the most expensive in the nation, and likely the most expensive in Montana’s history.
Bullock, citing advice from local public health officials, implemented a statewide stay-at-home order and closed most schools down earlier than some neighboring states on March 28. Montana also began a phased reopening earlier than most, around the middle of last month. By June 1, citing the low number of cases, Bullock lifted a 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers, saying there is ample contact tracing now.
“We may see positive cases,” he says. “But we’ll also identify those positive cases before they start spreading.”
On the Flathead, the one-time presidential candidate was in his element, wearing jeans and cowboy boots, his Ray-Bans shielding against the glare from the sun hitting the late season snow high on the Mission Mountains.
Bullock is termed out as governor after this year. After months of insisting he wouldn’t run for Senate, just before the filing deadline, he changed his mind in March. Then a few days later, the pandemic hit.
“I think there’ll be a time for the campaigning side of that,” he says. “But that hasn’t been where I’ve really been putting the time.”
But the pandemic is in the news every day, which so far hasn’t exactly hurt Bullock who until recently had been seen as the underdog.
“He’s dominating the airwaves, you can’t turn around without seeing a story about the governor,” says Chris Mehl, the non-partisan mayor of Bozeman.
Bozeman is the state’s fastest growing city. It’s swung blue lately, in part due to a wave of newcomers attracted by the area’s outdoor and recreation amenities and the increased ability to telecommute. The university town near to ski resorts and Yellowstone National Park was also Montana’s initial hotspot for cases.
“It’s in a sense become what he’s tied to,” Mehl says. “The issue for him is the competency of handling the pandemic, both on a health side but also on an economic recovery side.”
‘Jobs and economy’ election
Bozeman is also the hometown of Republican Steve Daines. Lately Daines has struggled to get into the local news as much as Bullock even after he helped pass a sweeping public lands conservation bill. If these were normal times, that would have been big news considering the growing influence of the outdoor recreation economy in the state.
Nevertheless, in a phone interview, the senator says he doesn’t think the public health crisis itself will be much of a factor come Fall.
“I think by the time voters start to cast their ballots, this election is going to be a jobs and economy election,” Daines says.
Daines touted his experience helping small businesses, and he predicted unemployment claims will continue to mount if the pandemic continues to hamper economic recovery.
But in Montana right now, Daines’ reelection chances may depend mostly on President Trump remaining popular here.
Daines has positioned himself as one of the president’s staunch supporters. When Trump tweeted the so-called “squad” should go back where they came from, Daines doubled down in support. He was also one of the few Republican senators to publicly praise the president when peaceful protesters were cleared out from in front of the White House so Trump could pose holding a bible.
“Montanans are going to vote for President Trump, he’s going to win Montana,” Daines says. “They’re going to be glad that he’s coming here.”
Trump also came to Montana four times in 2018, failing to unseat the state’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester. While no dates have been set, his return on behalf of Daines is widely expected and that’s prompting the same public health concerns as at recent rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix.
“That bridge will be crossed when there is a decision made to have a rally,” Daines says.
Montana ticket splitting
Montana is famously all over the map politically. When Daines was elected in 2014, he took over a Senate seat that Democrats had held for 100 years. In 2016, when Trump won Montana by nearly 20 points, Steve Bullock was re-elected as governor.
Just like during his long-shot presidential bid, Bullock is touting his bipartisan record from COVID-19, to Medicaid expansion and showing support for the Keystone pipeline which crosses the state.
“Look, I stood up to President Obama multiple times,” Bullock says. “I’ll work with whoever it is when it’s in the best interest of Montana.
One place Bullock has taken some heat for his handling of the pandemic is in national park gateway towns like West Yellowstone. Montana’s entrance gates opened three weeks after Wyoming’s, as per Bullock’s order.
“I would have loved to have seen us open earlier,” says Travis Watt, general manager for a hotel and a couple other businesses in the tourist-dependent town. “I’m glad he didn’t wait till longer, I know there was a lot of pressure to push until later.”
Watt didn’t vote for Bullock for Governor but he says he likes how he’s managed the pandemic so far.
“It’s a unique situation and you look at some of the things going around in the country and I think Montana sits pretty good,” Watt says.
While Sen. Daines can probably win Montana with a big turnout from Trump’s base and rural voters, Bullock will need people like Watt to consider crossing over, just as he needs coronavirus cases to stay low and the economy to rebound.
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