Positives in bizarre and scary times

03 margaretLike millions of other Americans, I wake up every morning wondering what is going to happen today. How horrifying will the COVID-19 resurgence be? How and why has a protective health measure like covering one’s nose and mouth become a political statement? Will protesters be on our streets and will there be violence, damages and injuries?

It is a time unlike any other, at least in my lifetime.

The negatives of our collective situation are apparent to all Americans, and many of us are suffering financially and psychologically, individually and collectively. Each of us and our families approach this difficult time in our own ways, and none of us is certain we are doing it well. Every decision and every action seem — and are — a calculated risk.

It helps to think of silver linings, and there are some.

Since March, millions of us have been forced to slow down. Working remotely or not working at all has given us more time with our families, not all of it fairy tale perfect, of course, but opportunities to get to know each other in new ways. We are not side-by-side with our friends and coworkers, but we do “see” them through 21st century technology.

We are spending more time outdoors, because we have more time and fewer places, like gyms, to go. Walkers and bikers, both serious athletes and casual strollers and pedal pushers, populate our neighborhoods. We are listening to and watching for birds, with apps to identify birds by both sight and sound downloaded by the millions. Live-cam feeds of nesting birds have soared in popularity.

Cats and dogs are flying out shelter doors as Americans adopt them in record numbers.

Experts say we foster and adopt pets to help them, especially those who have been abandoned, but we wind up helping ourselves cope with stress and become more active as we care for our new charges.

We are learning that maybe, just maybe, we really do not need all the possessions and services we thought we did. This American did not have a haircut for more than three months, and while I was not thrilled by my shaggy tresses, I muddled through just like everyone else and was delighted when I finally did get a trim. Ditto for other personal services and impulse purchases not made because we are not out shopping as often as we were preCOVID-19.

And, glory be — Americans are cooking again. With restaurants closed or operating at reduced capacity, we have had to provide for ourselves, and many of us are getting creative. Sourdough starter is having a big moment, producing bread, pancakes, waffles and anything else bakers want to try. Many of us are cooking together, a first in some American households. The Dicksons’ summer obsession turns out to be finding the perfect tomato pie recipe, and we think we have it now.

More cooking means more groceries, some of them selected online and then picked up or delivered. No surprise then that grocery profits have spiked during the pandemic, as have those of other industries that make us more comfortable at home. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that also thriving are meal prep companies and prepared food outlets, cleaning and delivery services, liquor and wine stores, game makers and sellers, fitness equipment companies, landscaping and yard services, garden centers, and — guess who — mask producers.

Americans are also doing each other small kindnesses, and each of us has a story to tell about those. One that resonates with me comes from the Gallery X Art Collective in Murray, Kentucky. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the tattoo parlor is offering to cover up inked symbols of hate or gangs — free of charge. Says tattoo artist Ryun King, “Having anything hate related is completely unacceptable. A lot of people when they were younger just didn’t know any better and were left with mistakes on their bodies. We just want to make sure everybody has a chance to change.” Their phone is ringing regularly.

Such is the phenomenon that is 2020, which still has six months to go.

The Market House — a symbol of progression

I doubt that those calling for the eradication of Fayetteville’s historic Market House know much about its history.  

In 2020, Fayetteville’s biggest threat is perceived to be a 188-year-old structure steeped in North Carolina history and tradition, which remains mostly ignored — the Fayetteville Market House. Recently, there have been calls for it to be torn down because it offends the sensitivities of a particular faction of residents. I know what you may be thinking. Downtown establishments in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s offended the sensibilities of many local residents, and some were finally torn down. This is true. But in the years that followed, the people who were responsible for demolishing them had laser-focused plans for Fayetteville and Cumberland County’s future and the leadership skills to see it through. They knew exactly what they wanted Fayetteville’s future to be for all its citizens.
Local city and county government leadership had vision, tenacity and plenty of practical business experience. They had a well-thought-out and workable plan to improve and enhance the quality of life for all citizens — without regard to race, color or religious affiliation. Former mayors J. L. Dawkins and Bill Hurley, County Commissioner Thomas Bacote, city manager John Smith, city attorney Bob Cogswell, Democrat Sen. Tony Rand, Danny Fore of the  Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation and David Jamieson of the Chamber of Commerce are just a few of the respected names that come to mind when I think of prominent Fayetteville and Cumberland County leaders who contributed to our valuable, however brief, renaissance.

02 market houseThis was an exciting time for our community. When downtown was cleaned up, it marked a rebirth of our community. People were excited and willing to engage. Cumberland County and downtown Fayetteville became vibrant and alive. Commerce returned to downtown, a new city hall and police station were built on Hay Street, the Prince Charles Hotel was salvaged, the Airborne & Special Operations Museum and Veterans Park came to be, Fayetteville Little Theater became Cape Fear Regional Theatre, the Crown Coliseum Complex was built, and the third Thursday Chamber Coffee Club was standing room only in anticipation of hearing updates on new local projects and programs. Everyone benefited from the community’s success, and the Market House solidified itself as the city’s symbolic icon of pride, perseverance and progress. And, as history has proven, the Market House has never been depicted as “the slave market house” or a place of human degradation.

I have lived here over 50 years and never once felt Fayetteville was a racially hostile community. And, saying it is does not make it so. Nor does destroying the Market House prove the point.

My closing message relates to 2020 as an election year. The things we are now experiencing — from protests and riots to toppling statutes to the Black Lives Matter movement — are staged political distractions. Dissension means votes. Across this country, politicians need the black vote desperately. Without it, they have no political careers or future. These leaders stoke racially charged issues then stand down in the comfort of affluent neighborhoods while racial conflict and disharmony consume and destroy the communities in major towns and cities. Blacks and other minorities should never be used as pawns for anyone’s personal gain. Politicians use race as their weapon of choice. In politics, the color of one’s skin makes no difference. In politics, the rich get richer. In politics, power is both the objective and an intoxicating drug. All humanity needs to take a closer look at the people and the purpose of things to which we are asked to support and pay allegiance.

The Market House is a historic symbol of pride that, as time passes, measures how far we have progressed in 188 plus years. We do not want to go backward.

Thank you for reading Up & Coming Weekly.


Cooper’s orders were strict

06 C0830100 1Should Gov. Roy Cooper continue his current approach to reopening North Carolina’s shattered economy, speeding up the pace to save more jobs and businesses, or slow it down in response to increases in hospitalized patients with COVID-19?

I bet you have a strong opinion about this question. Most North Carolinians do. I certainly do, and have expressed it repeatedly: I think Cooper’s initial shutdown orders were too sweeping and Draconian and ought to be lifted more quickly.

 There are two assumptions embedded in my answer that deserve further explanation. One is that Cooper’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis has been relatively stringent. The other is that state regulations have a significant effect on economic activity separate from the direct effect of the virus itself. After all, many North Carolinians would have stayed away from workplaces and businesses even if the state hadn’t ordered them to.

Let’s start with stringency. Comparing state COVID-19 responses is no easy task. You can’t just tally up how many states issued stay-at-home orders or closed “nonessential” businesses. Details matter. Some orders lasted only a couple of weeks. Others lasted a couple of months. Some contained lots of exceptions and defined “nonessential” broadly. And in places such as Florida, local responses came earlier and have been more burdensome than the statewide orders.

Taking all that into consideration, the only state in the Southeast that seems to rival North Carolina in the stringency of COVID-19 regulation is Virginia. Its stay-at-home order lasted longer. On the other hand, Virginia has allowed some categories of businesses such as bars and gyms to reopen, albeit under tight restrictions, while Cooper has refused to do so in North Carolina.

Another way of gauging the relative strictness of state regulations is to look at their effect on behavior. To do that, I used a mobility measure from the University of Washington’s COVID model that combines cellphone tracking from Google, Facebook, Safegraph and Descartes Labs. I also focused more specifically on the restaurant sector by using an tool that compares the average number of seated diners to pre-COVID levels in each state.

The results matched up closely with my assessment of state policies. After the initial wave of COVID regulations, followed by the current wave of phased reopening, mobility in the average Southeastern state is about 20% below pre-COVID levels. The three states where mobility remains significantly more limited are Virginia (still down 34%), Florida (down 31%), and North Carolina (down 27%).

 With regard to restaurant reservations, all Southeastern states show a substantial drop from pre-COVID levels. But there is a wide variance. The situation is noticeably worse for restaurants in Virginia (-82%) and North Carolina (-68%) than in Florida (-49%), South Carolina (-46%), and Alabama (-37%). The other states fall somewhere in-between.

 As you can plainly see, even the states with the lightest regulations have still experienced large declines in mobility and business activity. The same can be said for jobs and incomes. It would be silly to blame Roy Cooper in North Carolina, or any governor in any state, for all of the economic pain experienced since March.

 However, it would also be silly to assert that state policy has played no role. Don’t take my word for it. In a study posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a team of academic researchers from Indiana, Ohio and Georgia estimated that employment dropped by an average of 1.7 percentage points for every 10 days under a state stay-at-home order. “Our estimates imply that about 40% of the 12 percentage-point decline in employment rates between January and April 2020 was due to a nationwide shock,” they wrote, “while about 60% was driven by state social distancing policies.”

 To show that Roy Cooper’s shutdown orders were relatively onerous and very costly is not necessarily to show they were a bad idea, of course. We’ll keep debating that question for weeks and months to come. But now, at least, the question is more clearly framed.

Ensure you are properly insured

07 scott graham 5fNmWej4tAA unsplashThere’s certainly been plenty of volatility and uncertainty the past few months, but one aspect of your financial picture has probably remained stable: your need for insurance. And since National Insurance Awareness Day is observed on June 28, now is a good time to review your overall insurance coverage to determine if you and your loved ones are well-protected.

You might be surprised at the lack of protection among your fellow citizens. Less than 60% of Americans have life insurance, and just about half of those with insurance are underinsured, according to LIMRA, a research organization.

Of course, you might think the reason so many people don’t have insurance is because they don’t need it. But just about every age group can benefit from life insurance.

If you have a house and a family … Your insurance needs are obvious: If something happened to you, could your mortgage payments still be met? How about your car payments? Doctor’s bills? College for your children? Even if you have a spouse or partner who earns a decent income, your family could still have big trouble paying its bills if you weren’t around.

If you’re young and single with no family responsibilities … If you’re in this group, why would you need life insurance? For one thing, perhaps you owe money together with someone else — you might, for example, be a joint debtor on a mortgage. If you passed away, your codebtor would be responsible for the entire debt. And just because you don’t have family responsibilities now, it doesn’t mean you never will. If you have a family history of serious health issues, which may eventually affect you, you could have trouble getting life insurance later, or at least getting it without paying a lot. Now, when you’re young and healthy, the coverage is available and may be more affordable.

Your children are grown and you’re retired … If you retire with debt or have a spouse dependent on you, keeping your life insurance is a good idea, especially if you haven’t paid off your mortgage. Plus, life insurance can be used in various ways in your estate plans.

Even if you recognize the need for life insurance, though, you may be uncertain about how much you require. Your employer may offer insurance, but it might not be sufficient for your needs. And, perhaps just as important, if you leave your job, voluntarily or not, you’ll likely lose this coverage. If you purchase a private policy, what’s the right amount? You might have heard you need a death benefit that’s worth seven or eight times your annual salary, but that’s just a rough estimate. To determine the appropriate level of coverage, you’ll need to consider a variety of factors: your age, income, marital status, number of children and so on.

Still, even after you’ve got the right amount in place, it doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. You should review your coverage regularly, and especially when you change jobs, get married or remarried, have children or experience any other major life event.

Life insurance should be a key part of your overall financial strategy, along with your retirement accounts and other investments. Make sure you’re properly covered – for today and tomorrow.

The beauty of gratitude

05 N1903P69003CWhen we think about gratitude or thankfulness, we often table the thought until we get a little closer to that November holiday with the turkey, a four-day weekend and the conversation with our weird uncle. But genuine gratitude is more a way of life than an annual celebration.

I got a little miffed when I turned on the news the other day — which isn’t difficult anymore — because it seemed to be more opinion and editorial than a reporting of the facts. To make matters worse, the angle from which the news show presented each story seemed to be positioned in such a way that it was intentionally trying to rile people up.

I’m grateful to live in an era where communication and information technology have advanced and continue to advance beyond anything I dared to dream as a young child. Still, the more I see irresponsible use of the platforms technology provides, the easier it is to see that we humans suffer from a lack of gratitude and thankfulness in our lives.

Chances are you woke up this morning in a comfortable bed, in a house with a solid foundation and a roof with no leaks. You likely turned on a light, used indoor plumbing, and poured some coffee into a cup, settled into a chair and began to ponder what the day ahead held for you. You might have picked a book or turned on your computer to get your mind in gear before breakfast.

Every one of those things is worth being thankful for. Not everyone in the world has those things. A bed, a home, electricity and plumbing — those are all things most of us take for granted. But to a considerable percentage of the world’s population, they are only dreams.

The past few months have taught us something else about gratitude and privilege, too. We’ve learned the value we place on relationships. We’ve discovered we not only enjoy, but need interaction with other human beings to maintain some sort of mental stability. Our family, coworkers, church and social connections are vitally important to us, and we learned that the loss of freedom (another thing to be thankful for) to exercise those relationships freely was daunting, to say the very least.

What I hope you’ll see if you made it this far, is that there is much to be thankful for in our immediate surroundings. Because when we learn to sense those things and express gratitude for them, it begins to spill over into the rest of our lives. We begin to notice the beauty of the landscape instead of the length of the drive, and we see the diversity of the people in any crowd rather than notice how many people are “not like us.”

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