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COVID brought us a year of epic uncertainty — but here’s what I know for sure

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How are you? It’s been quite a year.

It’s exactly one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus public-health emergency a “pandemic.” Looking back, we can see how far we have come, and how we have already begun the return to a kind of normality, a New Normal. In New York, at least. Restaurants can expand to 50% capacity by March 19. Offices are preparing plans for a phased return to work.

There is a vaccine. In fact, there are vaccines. Just over 10% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, in line with the national average. The prospect of one vaccine seemed like a lifetime away last March, and it came too late for more than 500,000 Americans. The isolation doesn’t seem quite so intense one year later. Perhaps we have normalized it, but we can be forgiven if our stoicism turns to fatigue.

America has a new administration. Sixty-two percent of people approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing handling the pandemic, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour poll, conducted by Marist, released Thursday. He got a lower 49% job approval rating. Still, Biden signed a $1.9-trillion stimulus package on Thursday, the third such rescue package since the pandemic began.


‘Always expect the unexpected.’

“There’s a sense of progress,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. That progress may come at a cost. Texas has abandoned its statewide mask mandate, a move decried by health professionals and scientific studies on the effectiveness of masks in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. Austin, the state’s fourth-largest city, will keep its mask mandate.

So what have we learned over the last 12 months? From a financial perspective, we have learned to always have an emergency fund, and to expect the unexpected. Stay on top of your taxes because you never know when the Internal Revenue Service will be enlisted to send out millions of stimulus checks. Don’t panic. Investment decisions made from fear rarely end up in a good place.

The pandemic exacerbated a lot of inequality in our society. Millions of Americans did not have the luxury of working from home. And many of those frontline workers who showed up for work every day — bus and train drivers, supermarket and health-care workers — also paid a heavy price both in terms of their physical and mental health. They put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

Helping others is helping yourself. “Thinking about others actually has several benefits in times of crisis,” according to Andy Reed, Fidelity Investment’s behavioral economics research lead and psychologist. “First, we tend to be less biased when making decisions on behalf of other people or taking others’ perspectives.” And, he said, it can help alleviate our own stress and anxiety.

‘Stay above the flood plain’

Fidelity offered tips for dealing with a public-health crisis such as this: “To prepare for the future, spend some time learning from the past. Those who learned a new skill, found strength they didn’t know they had, or built resilience as a result of the pandemic.” And, “Tackle obstacles by breaking challenges down into pieces and solving them one at a time.” Don’t wait until they pile up.

“Don’t be afraid to get by with a little help from others, in good times or bad,” it added. “This isn’t easy, as many survey respondents indicated they receive the greatest support during joyous rather than challenging events.” The survey suggested people hold back on “sharing the negative.” We can use Zoom
ZM,
+5.70%
,
Facebook
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+3.39%

 and FaceTime
AAPL,
+1.65%

 to counteract that.

In the meantime, make a will, even if you are young and especially if you have kids and encouraging others to do so. Stay above the flood plain, both in your life and at work. You never know when you may have to adapt and change, and the more experience and ways you can think of sharpening your skills, the better. Keep thinking ahead. How can I do this differently? What more can I offer?


‘Helping others is helping yourself.’

Unfortunately, there’s a gap between how the rich and poor fared during the coronavirus pandemic, just like they did 100 years ago. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, wealthier people had a better chance of survival: Individuals of moderate and higher economic status had a mortality rate of 0.38%, versus 0.52% for those of lower economic status and 1% for those who were very poor.

Economically, women were disproportionately harmed by both pandemics. The International Labour Organization said women were in greater danger of contracting COVID-19 and less likely to have Social Security, “as they make up the vast majority of domestic, health and social-care workers globally.” A man who lost his wife to the virus in 1918 fared better than a woman who lost her spouse.

Change can happen without us noticing. The health-care system survived the initial flood of patients, many of whom were struggling to breathe. New York City did not run out of ventilators, even though it was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. It has since been overtaken by California in the number of COVID-related deaths. But the regular fury of ambulance sirens slowly went away.

Some things are constant. The mysterious trumpet player in my neighborhood whose music appeared to beckon the clanging of pots and pans every evening at 7 p.m. continues, even if the neighborhood cheering for health-care workers and frontline staff has not. The music is soothing, and the player’s consistency is reassuring. But it is also a gentle reminder that it is not over yet.

Read more in the MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S. in March 2020. One year later, the city is slowly coming back to life.


Carrie Anne Tocci



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Is it ethical for cruise lines, venues, schools or Broadway to restrict entry to people not vaccinated against COVID-19?

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It has begun.

Travel and entertainment could be limited for those who choose not to get vaccinated. Venues are left with a moral quandary: Should they refuse patrons? Some colleges have already introduced a mandatory vaccine policy for in-person classes, and public schools are closely watching their states’ lawmakers to see if similar policies will be introduced there. Is that fair?

Although airlines are not requiring passengers get vaccinated, many countries are asking travelers for proof of vaccination for entry. But there have been tests. This week, the first fully vaccinated flight took passengers from Florida to New York to reunite families. Those on board said they wanted to do everything within their power to reduce their risk of exposure.

Restaurant workers in New York are required to get a vaccine: A former employee at the Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn, N.Y., was fired for refusing to get vaccinated. But the people who eat in restaurants do not require a vaccine. Vaccinated workers are protecting themselves and the patrons, but who are unvaccinated patrons protecting?


‘Restaurant workers in New York must get a vaccine. But the people who eat there are not. Who is protecting whom?’

Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean
RCL,
-3.16%

and other lines all require adult passengers to be vaccinated before boarding. In fact, investors reacted positively to Norwegian Cruise Line’s
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-1.04%

 move to require vaccinations for passengers last month.

In the fall, private and public schools will also ask whether children aged 12 to 15 should be vaccinated. Public schools will follow state guidance; all 50 states have some kind of vaccine mandate, although no U.S. state has yet made the coronavirus vaccination mandatory; only 44 states and Washington D.C. grant religious exemptions, and even fewer colleges do.

While some institutions are restricting in-person college tuition to vaccinated students, there is no legal precedent to know how courts will view a dispute between an unvaccinated student and his or her college. As one attorney previously told MarketWatch: “If a student chooses to come to an institution, they agree to abide by the rules.”

Broadway audiences, like cruise-line passengers, tend to skew older. On Tuesday, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, the industry’s national trade association, told The Daily Beast no decision had been made on mandatory vaccination cards for audience members, “but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be considered.”

The bottom line: Passing on the vaccine goes against the advice of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and makes the goal of herd immunity all the more elusive. It’s hard to blame cruise lines, colleges and possibly even theaters for restricting access to the unvaccinated when governments implement the same policies at their borders.

Why should those who choose not to get vaccinated be denied access? Writing in the Miami Herald, Jacob M. Appel, director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, turns question around: Why should the vaccinated restrict their movements, and refrain from group activities, to protect those who refuse to get vaccinated?

Hardcore holdouts

The share of adults who want to “wait and see” before getting vaccinated — a category that has been gradually shrinking as the rollout continues — remained virtually unchanged last month (15%) compared to March (17%), according to Kaiser Family Foundation research. Republicans have been more reluctant to sign up for the vaccine, but that is slowly changing.

Perhaps talking openly about concerns, misinformation, resisting the urge to blame people for being hesitant, and refusing to toss around vaccine hesitancy as the latest political football has help, along with encouraging people to get their information from reliable, peer-reviewed journals. And, yes, perhaps the private sector has played a role too.

Vaccine rollout has not been a straight line. The 10-day federal pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson
JNJ,
-0.82%

 vaccine due to concerns over blood clots in a tiny percentage of the people who had received the one-dose vaccine only helped to harden the resolve of some people who were hesitant or unwilling to get vaccinated, health officials told the Wall Street Journal.


‘The ultimate goal is to crush the coronavirus as previous vaccines have wiped out smallpox, polio and measles.’

In the U.S., nearly 35% of the total population is fully vaccinated and over 46% have received at least one shot. On one side of the vaccine debate are health officials who decry the “pathologically narcissistic culture” in the U.S. and bemoan the luxury of declining a vaccine while millions of people around the world, particularly in hot spots like India and Ethiopia, are crying out for more vaccine doses.

On the other side are holdouts with ideological reasons, religious beliefs, medical conditions, concerns over side effects or who are just plain needle shy. Many will not be assuaged until the vaccines have 100% effectiveness or zero chance of side effects (as opposed to 0.00009%, in the case of the serious blood clots associated with the J&J vaccine).

Others who cry foul at being denied access to venues may cite a wrinkle in the moral and legal debate: That the vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership
PFE,
-1.28%

and Moderna
MRNA,
+0.28%

 are all issued under emergency-use authorization, a faster process that’s less rigorous than full Food and Drug Administration approval.

That is a red herring for hardcore vaccine holdouts. Emergency-use authorization is used exactly for circumstances such as this — a global pandemic like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS and, according to the FDA, “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats including infectious diseases.” The backdrop to this public-health crisis: At least 582,791 Americans are dead from this disease.


‘Who would want an elderly relative to take a cruise unless everyone, staff and passengers, were vaxxed?’

But it’s understandable that people would have questions. “The first time the FDA issued an EUA was in 2005 for an anthrax vaccine, but just for military personnel. In 2009, the FDA issued the first EUA for civilians, so that Tamiflu could be given to infants during the H1N1 pandemic,” professors Christopher Robertson and Jeremy Greene wrote in a recent piece for The Conversation.

During the early years of the AIDS pandemic, protesters called on the FDA to speed the rollout of medication. Remember, AIDS effectively had a nearly 100% fatality rate. Very few people survived those early days before the arrival of antiretroviral therapy. Today, COVID-19 vaccines have a mountain of data, and strict safety guidelines for emergency-use authorization.

The ultimate aim is to crush the coronavirus as previous vaccines wiped out smallpox, polio and measles. But it requires participation. If you don’t want a vaccine, know that you put yourself and others at risk of contracting the virus. Brief flu-like side effects may be off-putting for some, but what is that compared to a patient struggling to breathe with the help of a ventilator?

If there were a fully vaccinated-only restaurant in my neighborhood? People would line to book a table, and likely marvel at their bold stance and, yes, the financial risk they would be taking. Who would want an elderly relative to take a cruise unless everyone, staff and passengers, were vaxxed? In 2021, one person’s conviction — however well meaning — could be another’s death sentence.



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I bought my parents’ house at below-market rate — my sister wants me to give her $50K to build my mother an annex. Is that fair?

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My mother turns 81 this year. For years, she and my sister talked about building an annex onto my sister’s house so my mom could move in with her. My mom promised to pay for the addition.

Together, they hired an architect and decided to start construction. I was not consulted on any of this. As the pandemic set in, my sister’s contractor told her that lumber prices would rise, so she purchased lumber and kicked off the project.

Of course, when she went to my mom for the money to finance the addition, my mom didn’t have it. So now my sister has a bunch of lumber sitting on her lawn, and no money to pay the contractor.


‘To complicate matters, my stepfather decided he wanted to stay in their house, and not move to my sister’s house.’

It would have been easy to finance all of this by selling my parents’ fully paid-off house. But to complicate matters, my stepfather decided he wanted to stay in their house, and not move to my sister’s house.

So we came up with the idea of my getting a mortgage to purchase my parents’ house from them. My parents would split the money from the sale. My mom’s half would go to finance the addition to my sister’s house where my mom will live, and my stepdad’s half would be used to pay me market-rate rent so he could stay in their house for at least 15 years.

Unfortunately, I was unable to borrow as much as we needed. My parents lowered the price of the house below market value and gave me a gift of equity so that I could qualify for the loan.

When we set up trust accounts to manage the proceeds of the sale, my mom’s trust got $350,000 to pay for construction on the addition to my sister’s house, and my stepdad’s trust got $41,000 — not even enough to pay mortgage, taxes and insurance for 17 months, let alone 15 years.

COVID has, of course, sent construction costs skyrocketing. My sister has informed me that she now doesn’t have enough money to complete construction on the addition for our mom. In her mind, because my parents’ home was appraised at $800,000, my mom’s trust should get $400,000 from the sale.


‘My parents reduced the price of the house below market value and gave me a gift of equity so that I could qualify.’

In order to make up this balance, I would have to give her the remaining $41,000 from my stepdad’s trust (leaving him with nothing for rent), plus another $9,000 from my own pocket, and then I would have to come up with cash to make the mortgage payments on my own.

I get that my sister, through no fault of her own, doesn’t have the money to finish the addition — but I used every last scrap of my credit to finance the purchase of my parents’ home, and now I’m faced with there being no proceeds to finance the rent for my stepdad.

We are fighting about this pretty hard, and it’s bringing up a lot of resentments. My sister feels I’m being selfish because I got our parents’ house for a “song.” I feel resentful, because I never wanted the house and have constrained myself financially so the three of them could have what they wanted — and now I’m being asked to stretch myself even more.

There are arguments on both sides. My sister gets all the cash now to invest in the house she owns, which will go up in value. I get all the equity in our parents’ house, which is a great long-term investment, but one that leaves me cash poor and struggling in the short term.

Both parents have retirement funds, but my mom won’t contribute more to the building project, and I don’t have the heart to charge my stepdad additional money for rent when he’s already gifted me so much equity in the house.

How do we make this fair? Should I give my sister $50,000?

Signed,

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear No Good Deed,

There has been a lot of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul going on, but it looks like Peter and Paul’s resources have run dry, along with everyone else’s bank accounts. You all appear to have created a problem for yourselves and one another. In fact, this addition was a solution to a problem that did not exist. There are so many wrenches in the works, you are going to run out of wrenches.

The original plan was flawed in that your sister — and now, ultimately, you — are faced with the task of housing your parents under two different roofs. You are bending over backwards to help your parents, but your stepfather is staying put, and your mother’s finances did not support this grand plan. The people you are trying to help are not participating fully in the process.

Before I give you one solution, I have a few observations: Your sister and your mother hatched this plan together. They both need to take responsibility for that. Your stepfather refuses to cooperate with the plan. He needs to cop to that. You were presented with an opportunity to help and, yes, hopefully make some money. You need to own that.

But you are not responsible for your sister’s hasty financial decisions. So where does that leave you? My solution, as far as there is one to all of this real-estate maneuvering, is to treat the $50,000 as a gift to both you and your sister, and to give her half ($25,000). You are taking the risk and the financial burden of owning this home, so any appreciation you have is fair game.

The Moneyist: My boyfriend talked me into depositing my paychecks into his bank account, and paying for a car in his name. What can I do?

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 group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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My wife’s brother, 60, lives with his mom. He thinks the house belongs to him. What should happen after my mother-in-law dies?

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Dear Quentin,

My wife’s mother is 90 and in poor health. She requires 24/7 assistance. Her husband passed away about 20 years ago. She is still a wonderfully positive person, but the reality is that time is catching up to her.

The oldest son, 60, still lives at home. He recently retired from his job as a physical trainer at a local community college and has limited income, which I surmise is a small pension supplemented with Social Security.

For years, this living arrangement seemed strange to the four other siblings, but it became a blessing in disguise when their mother had a stroke 15 months ago. He provides daily care for her with the assistance of daytime care assistants, as well as my wife, who helps out three days a week.


‘He recently retired from his job as a physical trainer at a local community college and has limited income.’


— Concerned Brother-in-Law

Of the other four siblings, three are well-educated, successful professionals in their last decade of working careers, and one is the housewife of a retired successful professional. I believe all, except the son who lives at home, have planned very well for their retirements.

That’s not to say they wouldn’t want their fair share. My wife and I do not need any inheritance to enhance our retirements, and I will respect my mother-in-law’s decision without question.

My father-in-law left investments that now exceed $1 million, while the home is estimated to be worth around $600,000. The will divides all assets equally among siblings. The son who lives at home has slipped into the mind set that the contents of the home are his.

You can imagine some of the questions swirling among some of the siblings.

I went through the loss of my own mother. I was the trustee of her estate, and there was significant inequality in distribution. I know it can be stressful and divisive among siblings to deal with this subject.

The questions on the minds of the siblings are: Should they let him have the house or rent it? Should they make him pay for the house? What’s the right thing to do?

Concerned Brother-in-Law

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Brother-in-Law,

I can imagine the questions circulating from house to house. But what they want, and what they think should happen, and what they think of their brother living at home is largely irrelevant.

Even if she were your mother rather than your mother-in-law, I would say the same thing: Of course, accept her decision. It’s her house, they are her possessions and it’s her money. No one — not even the son who lives at home — is entitled to it. Anything she decides to leave her family as an inheritance should be seen as a gift and, yes, the respective fortunes and living situations of her children may very likely be taken into account.


‘I suspect that there were many other times it was helpful for him to be there, at a time when none of his siblings had reason to notice.’


— The Moneyist

There is one area where she may need help: Making sure that she does not leave a mess behind where the siblings are forced to have a summit to decide what to do about their less-wealthy sibling who has lived in the family home all his life. He may or may not have the funds to buy his own home with his share of the inheritance. Alternatively, your mother-in-law could decide to leave him slightly more than his siblings to help him do this.

There are so many moving parts, and each family member will no doubt wonder how their mother’s will affects their own fortunes. They have, as you say, seen firsthand the advantage of having a sibling living at home in adulthood, and have watched him step up and help his mother after her stroke. But I suspect that there were many other times it was helpful for him to be there, at a time when none of his siblings had reason to notice.

There is no right or wrong answer. He appears to be the only financially vulnerable member of the family. All of this could and/or should be taken into account. Given that it has been his home and he has no other home, a life estate is one option. That way, the grandchildren can all benefit from the inheritance at a future date. Alternatively, assess the value of the entire estate and what it would take for him to have a smaller home.

The most important thing is to have a plan, and to not leave your brother-in-law homeless. Those two priorities should be mutually compatible.

The Moneyist: My boyfriend talked me into depositing my paychecks into his bank account, and paying for a car in his name. What can I do?

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook
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 group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.





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