General Interest

Keeping the spirit: Religious groups adapt to COVID-19 but challenges persist

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Instead of preaching to a live crowd, replete with white-haired parishioners and toddlers wobbling up and down the nave, Pastor Ryan Kapple has found himself facing the empty pews, delivering sermons via livestream to no one in particular.

High-definition cameras track and record Kapple’s every move and turn of phrase, transmitting his services via Facebook Live to the 300 or so members who frequent Leawood Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City.

Like nearly every institution in American life, places of worship — churches, synagogues, mosques and the like — have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus and subsequent social distancing measures.

No longer are Christians able to physically gather as one, to sway to sweet hymnals and nod their heads when a verse speaks to them. No longer are Jews able to join together at the synagogue for weekly Shabbat dinners, and no longer are Muslims able to lay side by side in the mosque to pray.

But amidst the uncertainty and lack of physical meetings, religious leaders have turned to online platforms to practice their faith with community members. These measures are hardly a substitute for in-person worship, but they allow people of faith to find support from their community and their religion at a time when so much else remains up in the air.

“Gathering is essential to institutions of faith, and gathering is part of the human experience,” Kapple said. “It’s been a challenge, definitely, adjusting to our new normal.”

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Fort Myers NAACP Protest Calls for Unity

By Samone Blair
Medill Reports

Roughly 40 Floridians gathered Monday in downtown Fort Myers, Florida, for a protest organized by the NAACP of Lee County demanding justice after the police killing of George Floyd. A broad range of the community took to the stage to explain why they attended the protest.

Photo at top: A protestor encourages his mentee to carry the American flag while leading fellow protestors in a chant. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)

ASMR, Explained

By Justin Horowitz
Medill Reports

Autonomous sensory meridian response has taken over select corners of the Internet.

More commonly known as ASMR, the term was coined in 2010 as a way to describe the experience of brain tingles. Brain tingles are a sensation some people experience when exposed to triggers such as hearing whispers, tapping noises and receiving close personal attention.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have studied the physiological effects of ASMR. Their research found ASMR has a relaxing sensation on viewers while also creating a stimulating response. More research needs to be done to understand how ASMR interacts with the human brain on a deeper level.

The ASMR YouTube community has expanded rapidly over the past 10 years. Some ASMR content creators have garnered millions of subscribers and even brand endorsements.

Photo at top: Gibi ASMR creates sound triggers in one of her YouTube videos. (Courtesy of Gibi ASMR)

“There was no cool off period”: An update on Hong Kong

By Rikki Li
Medill Reports

Since June of last year, Hong Kong has remained in a seemingly constant state of unrest as police and pro-democracy protesters clashed over legislation.

What began as a mass procession in the streets against mainland China’s proposed extradition bill—which would allow for deportation of fugitives in Hong Kong to China for trial—devolved into frequent protests, strikes and alleged police brutality. Images of flying rubber bullets, uprooted bricks and billowing clouds of tear gas illustrated the growing animosity. Even after the bill was revoked in September, protesters responded that it was “too little, too late,” and the violent demonstrations persisted.

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The man in the skyscraper church

By Alyk Russell Kenlan
Medill Reports

“An unexpected raise! #blessed,” the Rev. Dr. Myron McCoy, 64, told his congregation during a recent service. “You don’t want one?” he teased.  From the tallest church in the world, he delivers messages of inclusivity and diversity every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

The pastor’s journey to the 23-story Chicago Temple started almost two centuries ago, when his ancestors founded a Methodist church in Maryland. He grew up in New Jersey and spent many of his boyhood summers around that church. “One part of my family, even in the 1800s, was free,” McCoy said. Influenced by his ancestral legacy, McCoy has wanted to be a preacher as long as he can remember.

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The giant of Michigan Avenue

By Alyk Russell Kenlan
Medill Reports

Imagine waking up on the 80th floor, going down to work on the 35th floor, grabbing lunch on the second floor, stopping by the grocery store or dry cleaner on the 44th floor and eating dinner on the 95th floor before going back home to the 80th floor. Residents of 875 N. Michigan Ave., formerly the John Hancock Center, don’t have to imagine. Their amenity-rich, mixed-use skyscraper epitomizes the idea of a city within a city.

On March 7, 1970, the dedication of the John Hancock Center marked the beginning of a new architectural movement and the renewal of Chicago’s urban life in the Gold Cost. Since then, lessons from the building’s construction have inspired other iconic structures like the Willis Tower and the Trump Tower.

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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

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)