Hundreds of PPP loans accounting for millions of taxpayer dollars went to ‘fake farms’

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Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Millions of Paycheck Protection Program loan dollars went to fake companies, mostly farms. ProPublica is tracking these loans and found that an online lending platform called Kabbage sent 378 pandemic loans to businesses like “Ritter Wheat Club” and “Deely Nuts,” ostensibly a wheat farm and a tree nut farm. Each got $20,833, the maximum amount available for sole proprietorships.

But there are no such businesses. ProPublica reports:

“Tomato Cramber,” up the coast in Brielle, got $12,739, while “Seaweed Bleiman” in Manahawkin got $19,957.

None of these entities exist in New Jersey’s business records, and the owners of the homes at which they are purportedly located expressed surprise when contacted by ProPublica. One entity categorized as a cattle ranch, “Beefy King,” was registered in PPP records to the home address of Joe Mancini, the mayor of Long Beach Township.

“There’s no farming here: We’re a sandbar, for Christ’s sake,” said Mancini, reached by telephone. Mancini said that he had no cows at his home, just three dogs.

How big is this issue? ProPublica found examples around the country:

(Source: Small Business Administration. Graphic: Derek Willis/ProPublica)

Again, ProPublica reports:

In total, ProPublica found 378 small loans totaling $7 million to fake business entities, all of which were structured as single-person operations and received close to the largest loan for which such micro-businesses were eligible. The overwhelming majority of them are categorized as farms, even in the unlikeliest of locales, from potato fields in Palm Beach to orange groves in Minnesota.

The Small Business Administration’s inspector general estimated in January that the agency approved loans for 55,000 potentially ineligible businesses, and that 43,000 obtained more money than their reported payrolls would justify.

You can browse the Department of Justice’s cases against hundreds of individuals around the country who the feds accused of gaming pandemic response programs. Some of the cases involve thousands of dollars, while others reach tens of millions of dollars.

U.S. and Canadian flags fly atop the Peace Arch at Peace Arch Historical State Park on the border with Canada in Blaine, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Some international borders are reopening to vaccinated visitors. But one of the most important borders — the U.S.-Canada border — will be closed to nonessential crossings (those made for tourism and recreation) for at least another month.

27 European Union member states announced Wednesday that they will reopen borders to people from “safe countries.” The list of those countries should be available Friday.

The general threshold to be considered a “safe country” is one that has fewer than 75 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

The Guardian reports:

EU borders would be reopened by the start of June at the latest, the officials said, with agreement due to be sought from member states this month.

The requirement to undergo Covid testing before or after arrival or to quarantine could still be enforced by individual states, but an official said: “Hopefully with the situation improving and the vaccination rate immensely picking up, we will also see a gradual phasing out of these additional conditions.”

Meanwhile, the border between the United States and Canada is still closed for tourists. Canada has lagged far behind the U.S. in vaccinations. In Ontario, hospitals are just beginning to reopen non-emergency procedures. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week the border may not reopen until 75% of Canadians have been vaccinated. So far, about 38% of Canadians have gotten the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (compared to about 60% of Americans).

The (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune, like many northern news organizations, has been tracking the cost of the interruption:

As the U.S.-Canada border closure enters month 15, the Northwest Angle remains cut off, families remain separated and Americans with property in Canada are unable to visit to maintain it.

Border communities like International Falls also have suffered as Canadian customers — who in some cases represent 30% of dollars spent at area businesses — are kept away.

Canadians are allowed into the U.S. but, in most cases, must present a recent negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for two weeks upon their return, a major disincentive for nonessential travel.

“Ultimately we’re hoping to see our communities reunited,” said Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve always considered Fort Frances (Ontario) a sister city. There is so much cross-border commerce, and the closure really has been disruptive for our communities.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday that you will need a COVID-19 booster vaccination “within a year.” 

Fauci told Axios, “We know that the vaccine durability of the efficacy lasts at least six months, and likely considerably more, but I think we will almost certainly require a booster sometime within a year or so after getting the primary.”

The FDA would have to approve a booster vaccine just as it did the initial doses.

Pfizer said Wednesday that it is working on a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine that will not need the deep-cold storage that makes transporting the current vaccine so difficult. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla says new data shows even the current vaccine may stay useful in a normal refrigerator for up to two weeks but a new version of the vaccine that he said might be available “pretty soon” would last up to six months in a normal refrigerator.

Like pretty much everything else, the tattoo business has had a rough go of things for the last year. But ink shops around the country say they are seeing a comeback as people get vaccinated. It is hard to know if the increase in business is directly related to vaccines, people are burning stimulus cash that was in their pockets or if this is just an exaggerated spring/summer surge. USA Today reports:

Increased demand may not be related to the vaccine, they said. Instead, they pointed to multiple factors including stimulus checks, warmer weather and pandemic boredom.

The increase in business isn’t uncommon in the U.S. as spring hits, said Pat Sinatra, vice president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists Inc., a professional international business league of tattoo artists, studios and apprentices.

Duffy Foster, owner of Spokane’s Tiger Tattoo, one of the oldest tattoo shops in Washington state, said the increased interest he’s seen since reopening in June is likely due to people being bored.

“With no one going to restaurants, bars, sporting events, or music venues, I believe that tattoos have become the new ‘feel good food,’” he said.

The Washington Post found that even with a surge in business, some things have changed:

Tattoo artists say they adapted easily to covid-era safety precautions because they already were diligent about cleaning surfaces and taking steps to prevent cross-contamination. Since reopening, many shops have also added temperature checks, required face coverings, reduced capacity and begun offering video consultations. And many artists say walk-in appointments — once a main source of business — are likely to be a thing of the past.

Keron McHugh, a tattoo artist in Mebane, North Carolina, told the Post “he’s been doing more memorial tattoos — in fact he’s done more in the past year than the past decade — all commemorating people lost to suicide or drug overdose. Current events have also influenced designs: During the summer, after the murder of George Floyd galvanized a national reckoning on racial justice, he began offering free coverups of tattoos with racist imagery, gang signs or scars. Dozens of inquiries poured in.”

A band-aid partially covers a tattoo depicting Jesus after Jorge Americano received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Getting vaccinated and tattooed around the same time is probably not a great idea. Mic spoke with Shobha Swaminathan, an associate professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and medical director of the infectious diseases practice at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey:

A tattoo is essentially a foreign body or ink that’s injected into the person’s skin,” Swaminathan explains. Because your body doesn’t want this foreign ink hanging around, she says, it initiates an immune response, dispatching specialized cells to the tattoo site to target the pigment. COVID-19 vaccines also trigger an immune response that leads your body to produce cells that “remember” how to fight the virus that causes the disease, according to the CDC.

All of this raises the question — if you get a tattoo at around the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine, will that alter the immune response prompted by the vaccine? Swaminathan says at this point, we just don’t know.

That’s why she suggests scheduling your tattoo appointment at least two weeks before or after your vaccine appointment, which can make it easier to tease apart whether any side effects you experience are due to the tattoo or the vaccine. She says this same rule of thumb applies to body piercings, which also elicit an immune response.

Swaminathan would personally opt for scheduling a tattoo appointment two weeks after a vaccine appointment.

Swaminathan suggests waiting a little longer if you want to get inked near your injection site — around four to six weeks, when the immune response to the vaccine has reached a more chill, steady state. If you do experience a reaction near your injection site, “you want to make sure it has nothing to do with the vaccine,” she says.

My doctor always grimaces when I start a sentence with, “I saw on Google …” Then he usually mocks me. So this won’t thrill him, but Google is working on a new artificial intelligence tool called the “dermatology assist tool” that may launch later this year. Google has been working on it for three years. Engadget reports:

The tool is actually a web-based application that you use along with your smartphone’s camera. After taking three photos of your skin, hair or nails from different angles, you’ll be asked to answer questions about your skin type, the issue you’re currently experiencing and any symptoms you may have. The AI model, which is built upon knowledge of 288 conditions, then analyzes the information you provided and gives you a list of possible matches.

The results will be built upon dermatologist-reviewed information, answers to frequently asked questions and similar images from search results. According to Google, the model already takes into account age, sex, race, skin types and other factors that could influence results.

The tool has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not yet available in the U.S.

From now until the end of May, some of the largest buildings in some of the largest U.S. cities are dimming their lights to help birds that are migrating.

In Philadelphia, for example, a group called “Bird Safe Philly” says 100 million birds pass over the city every year and they need the moon, stars and sun to navigate. From midnight to 6 a.m., buildings are turning down or turning off unneeded lights, especially on higher floors.

You may have heard about a day in October when hundreds of birds, maybe more than a thousand of them, crashed into tall buildings while migrating.

The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University says:

Philadelphia joins 33 other cities with Lights Out programs including New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., and Washington, D.C. The National Audubon Society, along with partners, established the first Lights Out program in 1999 in Chicago.

In the 1890s, the Academy of Natural Sciences started collecting birds that crashed into Philadelphia buildings. That’s when some of the earliest recorded “window kills” were noted by The Evening Bulletin following the lighting of City Hall tower in 1896.

The Audubon Society published a map of the cities that have signed up for the Lights Out effort:

(Audobon Society)

Audubon says:

While lights can throw birds off their migration paths, bird fatalities are more directly caused by the amount of energy the birds waste flying around and calling out in confusion. The exhaustion can then leave them vulnerable to other urban threats.

Dozens of species are affected, including priority species—those we have identified as most in need of and most likely to benefit from our help— such as the Allen’s Hummingbird, Wood Thrush, and Golden-winged Warbler. Just one building can cause major problems for birds in the area; within one week in 2017, nearly 400 passerines (warblers, grosbeaks, etc.) were caught in the floodlights of a 32-story Texas skyscraper and killed via window collisions.

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