Brace for a ‘rough two-week period’

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Indian Country Today

Updated 8:30 MST. Navajo Nation reports 26 new cases and two more deaths. Official launch of U.S. Census. April rent due? And new cases reported in Gila River, Wind River and Isleta communities

April the first. Now dismiss the fool’s part in this time of the pandemic because the day has so many other serious meanings.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday warned Americans to brace for a "rough two-week period" ahead as the White House released new projections that there could be 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus pandemic even if current social distancing guidelines are maintained.

Public health officials stressed that the number could be less if people change their behavior.

"We really believe we can do a lot better than that," said Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. That would require all Americans to take seriously their role in preventing the spread of disease, she said.

Trump called American efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus "a matter of life and death" and urged the public to heed his administration's guidelines. He predicted the country would soon see a "light at the end of the tunnel" in the pandemic that has killed more than 3,500 Americans and infected 170,000 more.

"I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead," Trump said. "We're going to go through a very tough two weeks."

2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Census time

April also officially begins the 2020 Census. The goal of the U.S. Census Bureau is to count everyone in America once and in one place. Americans can respond to the 2020 census online, by phone, or by mail today..

Every 10 years, the federal government counts each person in the country. It’s required by the Constitution and required by law for everyone to respond. The numbers are used for funding, political representation, and so much more.

The data is also used to budget for health care and emergency preparedness for tribal governments. Remember the two coronavirus relief bills that were passed? Well, Census data was considered for the allocation of those funds to tribes.

The novel coronavirus has changed a few things when it comes to answering the census.

College students, for one, have been told to move back home (if they could). The Census Bureau is telling students who are home due to the pandemic on Census Day to be counted at their college or university. The schools have been instructed by the bureau to remind students to respond to the census.

Shelters, soup kitchens, and mobile food vans are adapting to the bureau’s request to count the populations they help between March 30 and April 1.

For census takers knocking on your door, well, that knock will be delayed. The bureau delayed field operations for an additional two weeks -- until at least April 15. This is important for many tribal communities in rural areas with limited access to broadband. Tribal partnerships are working on creative solutions to overcome this obstacle.

Despite the changes, there are ways to respond to the census as indicated on an invite you may have received in the mail.

To answer online, people can go to my2020census.gov to complete the online questionnaire that takes approximately 10 minutes. It’ll ask for a census ID. This will be on a mail invite but you don’t need it to complete the questionnaire. It will be open until July 31, 2020.

If you answer by phone, you can call 844-330-2020 between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time. Here are the instructions.

By paper questionnaire, some areas will receive the census form. The packets will not be mailed to P.O. boxes. Here are what the letters and postcards look like. Here are guidelines if you respond by mail.

Rent or mortgage due?

For many people rent is due on the first of a new month. Now many are wondering, should it be paid?

The answer is “no” for residents of the Yurok Indian Housing Authority in California. “The Board of Commissioners took unanimous action to waive all rent and homeowner charges for the month of April 2020,” the housing authority reported. “Please be advised that any outstanding balances owed up to March 31, 2020 will remain on your account.”

Across the country many housing authorities are offering similar deals. We understand that our tenants may be experiencing a financial burden during this time,” says the Navajo Housing Authority. And so leadership has “authorized the waiver of public rental and home ownership payments for the months of April and May 2020.”

Private owners are not waiving rent, but many jurisdictions have made it impossible to evict tenants. So many people who are fresh out of work are wondering if they need to pay? The New York Times reports that in that city some 40 percent of its residents are expected to skip their April due.

There are several states without any rent waivers. One of those is North Dakota. State Rep. Ruth Buffalo wrote on her FB page: “The Governor (who is a landlord), failed to sign an Executive Order today for a temporary eviction moratorium. He prides himself in the technological advances done with school buildings and internet. What he fails to realize is the countless rural communities who do not have internet access outside of the school building.”

She said he ended his news conference with a “fake smile” and signed off “hashtag out of touch.”

Nationally, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or the CARES Act goes even further. It puts a 120-day eviction moratorium nationally for tenants in properties that are part of any government programs or that have a federally-backed mortgage loan

New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis are among many cities that have temporarily banned evictions, but advocates for a rent strike are demanding that rent payments be waived, not delayed, for those in need during the crisis. The rent strike idea has taken root in parts of North America and as far away as London.

White sheets are being hung in apartment windows to show solidarity with the movement that is gaining steam on Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. Fliers urging people to participate are being posted in several cities, including bus stops in St. Louis, where 27-year-old Kyle Kofron still has his job at an ice cream factory, but his three roommates have suddenly found themselves unemployed. Their property manager so far hasn't agreed to a payment plan, Kofron said.

"For me personally, with everyone losing their jobs and unable to pay, it's really the only thing we can do," Kofron said of the strike. "It's just like we the people have to do something. We just can't stand idly by while the system takes us for a ride."

Stay-at-home orders and strict limits on gathering sizes have forced shops, restaurants and bars to shut down indefinitely. Many service industry workers thrust into unemployment are living paycheck-to-paycheck in the best of times. Now, many say they don't have the money to pay rent.

Some politicians have expressed support, if not directly for a strike, then for a temporary rent moratorium, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

In New York, the state hit hardest so far by the pandemic, Democratic state Sen. Mike Gianaris of Queens introduced a bill that would forgive rent and mortgage payments for 90 days for people and small businesses struggling because of the coronavirus. It has 21 co-sponsors.

"Tenants can't pay rent if they can't earn a living. Let's #CancelRent for 90 days to keep people in their homes during the #coronavirus crisis," Gianaris said on Twitter.

Strike advocates aren't waiting for legislative approval. Activist organizations in many places are leading the push for a strike. A group called Rent Strike 2020 is organizing on the national level.

"Our demands to every Governor, in every state, are extremely simple: freeze rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection for 2 months, or face a rent strike," Rent Strike 2020's website states.

Others say a rent strike could further worsen the economy if landlords and property managers themselves are forced to default on loans. Some strike advocates have urged banks to suspend requiring payments from landlords and property management companies so that those groups can better absorb their own financial losses from a rent strike or moratorium.

Matthew Chase, an eviction attorney in St. Louis County, said property management companies and landlords have employees to pay, utility bills and other costs. A widespread rent strike could force them to lay off their own workers, cut back on property maintenance or even close apartment complexes. One of his clients, for example, relies on the income from renting a couple of homes. He said: “She's the big, bad landlord to these rent strike folks.”

Current cases in the Indian health system

There are now 230 cases and 12 deaths in the Indian health system as of March 31.

According to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center, the number of positive tests for COVID-19 has reached a total of 174 for the Navajo Nation as of Tuesday. 

“We are very sorry to hear of the loss of more lives due to the virus – we offer our prayers for the families of those who lost loved ones. In a few parts of the country, they are beginning to see a slight decline in new cases and it’s due to more and more residents staying home and practicing social distancing. Here on the Navajo Nation, we need everyone to fully grasp the importance of social distancing and the impact it has on fighting the spread of COVID-19. It’s completely up to us as individuals to do our part to beat the virus,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.President Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.

The Gila River Indian Community reported a total of six cases yesterday. Two are community members and one is in an ICU unit, said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of Gila River. He said that 222 have been tested, 155 have been negative, there are six pending results, and one has been canceled.

On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, a territory shared by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, there are now 10 positive COVID-19 cases, according to Michaela Sisneros, the director of nursing at the Wind River Family and Community Health Care.

The Pueblo of Isleta also has confirmed a case.

White House says it’s not too late

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said the numbers are "sobering" and called on Americans to "step on the accelerator" with their collective mitigation efforts.

"We are continue to see things go up," Fauci said. "We cannot be discouraged by that because the mitigation is actually working and will work."

Birx said pandemic forecasts initially predicted 1.5 million to 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. But that was a worst-case scenario, without efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus through social distancing.

Birx said states that have not yet seen a spike in cases as New York has could take action to flatten the curve of rising hospitalizations and deaths.

As for the projection of 100,000-240,000 deaths, Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said: "We don't accept that number, that that's what it's going to be. ... We want to do much better than that."

The comments came after Trump announced Sunday that he was extending to April 30 the social distancing guidelines that urged Americans to cease social gatherings, work from home, suspend onsite learning at schools and more in a nationwide effort to stem the spread of the virus.

It was an abrupt reversal for Trump, who spent much of last week targeting April 12 as the day he wanted to see Americans "pack the pews" for Easter Sunday services.

Trump called the data "very sobering" saying it was his understanding that the 100,000 deaths was a minimum that would be difficult to avoid. He also sought to rewrite his past minimization of the outbreak, saying he rejected those who compared the new coronavirus to the flu — when in fact he repeatedly did so publicly.

"This could be helluva bad two weeks,'" Trump said.

Many states and local governments already have stiffer controls in place on mobility and gatherings.

Birx said the experiences of Washington state and California give her hope that other states can keep the coronavirus under control through social distancing. That's because they moved quickly to contain the early clusters of coronavirus by closing schools, urging people to work from home, banning large gatherings and taking other measures now familiar to most Americans, she noted.

"I am reassured by looking at the Seattle line," she added. "California and Washington state reacted very early to this."

Trump spoke after another troubling day for the stock market, which has been in a free fall as the cononavirus ground the economy to a near-halt and left millions unemployed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 400 points, or roughly 1.9 percent, to seal the worst first-quarter finish of its 135-year history.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Mark Trahant, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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