General Interest

Tyler Perry’s ‘Bruh’ co-stars discuss new BET+ series

By Bre’onna Richardson
Medill Reports

Joining the list of Tyler Perry’s directorial projects currently airing on television and streaming services, “Bruh” premiered May 7 on BET+. The series, starring Barry Brewer, Mahdi Cocci, Phillip Mullings Jr. and Monti Washington, follows four friends as they navigate life and relationships through the strength of their brotherly bonds. According to the BET network, in a society where companionship between men of color is often misjudged and misrepresented, the show depicts a healthy image of black brotherhood.

I caught up with some of the stars of the show.

Photo at top: “Bruh” cast poses in front of the show’s title card. (Courtesy of Tyler Perry)

A perfect fit stays positive

By Evan Brooks
Medill Reports

COVID-19 is taking its toll on elderly people living in retirement homes. One Maryland senior residence is keeping members positive with a series of celebrations.

Photo at top: A Perfect Fit residence home in Maryland. (Christina Fitts/A Perfect Fit)

Suburban Airbnb pivots to long-term renting after coronavirus hit

By Henry Ren
Medill Reports

Panic crept in as Airbnb host Samuel Szobody lost $48,000 worth of guest bookings in the two weeks that followed Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announcing a statewide lockdown on March 20.

“From April through June, all my calendars just went completely empty,” he said.

Szobody manages nine Airbnb listings in the Chicago suburbs including Aurora, Schaumburg, St. Charles and Waukegan. Like many other Airbnb hosts, he rents houses from landlords, furnishes and sublets them on short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, Vrbo and Booking.com.

Instead of lowering the price to attract short-term renters, Szobody raised the price to up to $300 a night but offered a 15% monthly price discount for his five-bedroom Schaumburg house. He even encouraged travelers who booked before the pandemic to cancel their short-term stays by offering full refunds which allowed him to have guests seeking month-long stays, he said.

“We have a huge opportunity to host people for the long term,” Szobody said. “I’m doing long-term booking only.”

As short-term Airbnb renters curbed business and vacation trips after the pandemic hit, suburban Airbnb hosts like Szobody pivoted to long-term renting to make up for the loss. An average guest now stays for more than a month in his rentals compared to a previous average of 2.5 days.

While travelers tended to avoid Airbnbs in March in the city of Chicago, an early hot spot of coronavirus infection, suburban and rural Airbnbs in the greater Chicago area thrived. According to AirDNA LLC, a market-research firm that analyzes Airbnb bookings, Airbnb revenues in March doubled year-over-year in Michigan City, Indiana, and tripled in Waukegan, Illinois, while Chicago shrank 11%.

“Travelers [were] fleeing urban centers and heading towards homes just outside the city,” an AirDNA report on non-urban short-term rental markets wrote.

Junqing Qiao, a doctoral candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fled from his student apartment in Boston in late March, fearing the coronavirus might spread through the apartment’s central air conditioning system. He spent the last two months in a lakeside Airbnb chalet close to North River, New York.

“I don’t see any people from the three-story chalet,” Qiao said. “It’s happy though lonely to stay in a rural Airbnb.”

Szobody was prepared to host urban travelers like Qiao who sought shelters to hunker down in the midst of the pandemic. He stocked houses with six-month supplies of toilet paper and cleaning products.

Szobody purchased an ozone generator with UV light filtration for every one of his Airbnbs. Installed on a smart outlet, the ozone generators can be controlled remotely on Szobody’s electronic devices. High levels of ozone will be used for 12 hours to kill microorganisms after a guest checks out, he said.

“We did everything we could to make our homes into ‘safe havens,’” Szobody said.

With supplies stocked and ozone generators ready, Szobody’s nine houses are fully booked until July. The occupancy rate of his suburban Airbnb portfolio increased from 70% before to more than 85% in June, he said, which means his Airbnbs are empty three out of 20 nights versus three out of 10 nights prior to the pandemic.

Apart from shelter seekers, Szobody was called by house insurance adjusters who want to move clients into Airbnbs for months while fixing their homes.

Ousama Issa has stayed at Szobody’s Schaumburg house since April 19. The house is the third accommodation that Issa’s family of four has resided in since State Farm started investigating a leaking roof at Issa’s home in December 2019. As the pandemic prolonged the fixing process, the family extended the stay at Szobody’s Airbnb until July, Issa said.

Short-term rental marketplaces like Airbnb are winning new customers like insurance adjusters because most hotels are closed during the pandemic, Szobody said.

“When hotels come back online, insurance adjusters are going to stick with short-term rentals because they offer better amenities for customers at a lower price,” he said.

Although the long-term renting discounts dragged Szobody’s revenues down 20% in April from pre-pandemic predictions, Szobody profited about $10,000 in April because costs dropped 40%. Cleaning costs fell as Airbnbs do not need to be cleaned during longer guest stays, Szobody said.

Alex Khokhari, Szobody’s co-host and housekeeper, said he cleaned once or twice per house in April, compared with about 10 times per house before the pandemic.

To retain five part-time housekeepers, Szobody pays them for one housekeeping visit per week for bookings of more than 14 days.

“If my business is covering its costs, it’s not right for my housekeepers to be suffering,” he said.

Airbnb hosts’ pivot to long-term renting will continue if Americans remain uncomfortable about traveling, hospitality industry experts said.

“Domestic travel is not really likely to bounce back for at least the next three to six months,” said Makarand Mody, an assistant professor of hospitality marketing at Boston University. “While travelers are away, the only way that Airbnb hosts can still make money on their properties is by putting them on the medium- and long-term rental market.”

To win customers during and after the coronavirus lockdown, Chris Anderson, a Cornell professor of service operations management, said Airbnb hosts need to have facilities that make social distancing easy.

“What’s going to do well for Airbnb [guests] is a mix that provides safety, security, comfort, distancing and sanitation,” he said.

Anderson’s comments were echoed by Szobody, who is looking for property owners in the Chicago suburbs to fill all the long-term renting inquires.

“If short-term rental businesses are able to pivot, and if they are able to create safe, sanitized and stocked spaces for people to stay in and offer big discounts for [stays of] 30 days or more, they will be profitable again,” he said.

Photo at top: The five-bedroom Schaumburg house that Samuel Szobody rent to the family of Ousama Issa. After the pandemic hit, Szobody raised the price per night but offered large monthly discounts to attract long-term renters. (Courtesy of Samuel Szobody)

Special ed students face challenges with distance learning

By Michael Thomas
Medill Reports

COVID-19 distance learning is putting a strain on special education students. Middle school teacher Tera Lambert says it can be almost impossible at times. “They like that interaction. That one on one is what keeps them going,” Lambert said.

The California Department of Education has posted helpful guidelines for families online but not all parents have access to the internet.

Photo at top: Tera Lambert teaches her students through her laptop. (Michael Thomas/MEDILL)

Chicago heads to local essential business BottlesUp! for a safe and friendly wine fix

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

Ella Raymont’s first wine pickup of the pandemic involved leaving an envelope containing $100 in cash on a table in exchange for a box of thoroughly sanitized wines and beers.

Raymont, a part-time wine sommelier at local wine store BottlesUp! in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, had texted BottlesUp! owner Melissa Zeman earlier that day asking for a contactless wine order. It was March, the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun, and Raymont was unsure if it was safe to go into the store.

Now, these contactless pickups and wine orders are an everyday occurrence at BottlesUp! as Zeman and her customers adapt to the new realities of the pandemic.

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Stimulus recipients consider spending or saving their checks

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

As stimulus checks hit bank accounts around the country, some financially secure recipients want to use their portion to support struggling local businesses, but financial advisors are urging caution.

Congress’s initial $2 trillion economic stimulus package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, was passed in late March as the cases of COVID-19 reached nearly 200,000 in the United States and fears over the health of the economy grew. Under the stimulus, those who made less than $75,000 in their most recent tax year qualified for a one-time $1,200 stipend.

Makai-Lynn Randall, a 23-year-old operations manager in Bozeman, Montana, and her husband received a combined $2,400 stimulus check on May 12. In 2019, the couple reported a household income of around $55,000, and they are both still employed. Though neither have a financial advisor, they adhere to a strict budget, and without any pressing bills to pay, Randall said they’d like to use some of the money to support local restaurants in Bozeman.

“We don’t get to eat out a lot,” Randall said. “We’re going to take this money and have a couple at-home date nights and just try to put it back into the community as much as we can. I know how much just going in and filling my growler can help (struggling businesses).”

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It’s common to become allergic to a food item as an adult

By Anne Snabes
Medill Reports

Nearly 11% of adults in the U.S. are allergic to at least one type of food, according to Northwestern University research published last year. The researchers found that almost half of adults with food allergies acquired at least one allergy during adulthood.

Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research at Northwestern, said that among those who acquired allergies during adulthood, half already had an allergy from childhood and developed an additional one as adults. The other half developed an allergy for the first time as adults.

“Which is really interesting — like, never having anything and then developing their first one as an adult,” she said.
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Naples faces challenges with re-opening beach

By Samone Blair
Medill Reports

The City of Naples re-opened its beach for the second time Wednesday after an emergency closure due to large crowds of beachgoers, many of whom were presumed to be from other areas of Florida. Naples City Council voted Monday to re-open the beach again but with new restrictions aimed to discourage visitors from Florida’s east coast.

The restrictions include closing the beach from 11 am to 5 pm on weekends and Memorial Day. Coolers and tents are not permitted on the beach at any time. Chairs and umbrellas are allowed on weekdays and chairs can be brought on the beach for weekend evenings to watch the sunset. In terms of parking, any car in the beach lots that doesn’t display appropriate city permits will be fined $200.

Photo at top: Beachgoers walk and swim by the pier on Naples Beach on its first day of being re-opened again. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)

Travelers struggle to get refunds after canceling flights amid coronavirus pandemic

By Henry Ren
Medill Reports

Genie Schwartz canceled her late April flight from West Haven, Connecticut, to Wilmington, North Carolina, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Connecticut residents to eliminate non-essential travels in late March. She then called American Airlines to refund her $400 airfare, only to be offered a travel voucher valid until December 2021.

“I don’t know when it will be safe to travel again,” Schwartz said. “I would really like my money back.”

The 73-year-old had also scheduled a trip to London in mid-May through a local travel agent. The agent had canceled all of Schwartz’s trip reservations and the travel insurance, except for the flights with Delta because the agent was waiting for Delta to cancel the flight.

“If Delta doesn’t cancel, again, I’m stuck,” Schwartz said.

Like Schwartz, thousands of travelers are unable to get cash refunds from major U.S. airlines after proactively canceling their flights amid the coronavirus pandemic. For compensation, they are offered a full travel credit usable in one to two years, depending on the airline.

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