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Rest of the Story, Pandemic Edition

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Rest of the Story, Pandemic Edition

Rest of the Story, Pandemic Edition

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

I remember the last normal day I had - March 12, 2020. And I remember it so vividly because I spent most of it in a studio recording this lighthearted episode with Sarah Gonzalez about the strange new coronavirus and how everyone was dealing with it. We never played the episode, but here's just a taste from four months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Like, not touching your face - turns out it's impossible to do.

SMITH: Or finding sanitizer or just going to work with your colleagues or public transportation.

GONZALEZ: Or even cleaning your hands properly. Most of us have been doing it wrong.

SMITH: You have never heard this episode because, by the time we finished recording it - by the end of the day even - it seemed like everything had changed. Cities shut down. The stock market plunged. Tom Hanks announced that he had the virus. The episode felt out of date by the time we left the studio, and we just put it on a shelf and forgot about it. But I think about that episode a lot because, at the very end, Sarah and I were talking about hand sanitizer, and I did something that I haven't done since.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: Maybe for the last time in my life, I feel confident to do a high-five (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Oh. No...

SMITH: All right, the last high-five.

GONZALEZ: I don't know. I don't know. All right, let's do it.

SMITH: We're finally sterilized.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SMACK)

SMITH: The last high-five. It was also the last day I rode the subway, the last day in the office, the last day recording in a studio with another human being. In the four months since that, so much has happened - so many deaths, the worst economic collapse of our lifetimes. And we're still in the middle of it. But we wanted to stop for a moment, as a show, and take a look at what we've been through and how much of our lives have changed in such a short period of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE FAT CLUB'S "IBIZA POOL PARTY")

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. Usually, we wait until the end of the year to do a special episode we call The Rest of the Story, where we check in on the people we met that year and find out how they're doing. We're going to do that show a little early this year because so much has happened so fast. Today on the show, we're going to go back over the episodes that we did about COVID and report the rest of the story. We'll track where the money went, who got it and who didn't, and we'll check in on some of the people we profiled over the last few months - the unemployed, the business owners, the nurses and the man who manufactured a tiny piston to save lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE FAT CLUB'S "IBIZA POOL PARTY")

SMITH: Some of the economic changes in the last four months have been staggering - tens of millions of people unemployed, bankruptcies skyrocketing. But just as extraordinary has been the response to this challenge.

Congress moved faster than anyone thought possible to provide $3 trillion in relief, money that went to states and hospitals and businesses but also to individuals - checks for $1,200, a $600 a week boost for unemployment checks across the country. So much money, in fact, that when you look at the charts, the total personal income in the United States went up. Income was higher than it was before the crisis, even with so many people not working. Those benefits are expiring in a week, and Congress is debating what to do next. A lot is on the line. So we wanted to take this moment to follow up with the people we profiled over the last four months and to see how they're doing.

First up, small businesses. Part of that $3 trillion package went straight to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. It was called the Paycheck Protection Program.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: PPP.

SMITH: The PPE. That is Nick Fountain who's with me now.

FOUNTAIN: It's true.

SMITH: Nick and I interviewed a bunch of business owners who were applying for these loans from the federal government. They would eventually be turned into grants if they kept their employees. And we traveled out to Queens to meet one person in particular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AUDRA FORDIN: My name is Audra Fordin. I am the fourth generation and first female to take ownership of my family's auto repair shop here in Flushing, Queens, N.Y. It's called Great Bear.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. And, Robert, just to remind people about Audra, we talked to her during the middle of New York's shutdown. And her business was pretty much devastated. She does car repair, but nobody was driving. So the amount of money her business was bringing in had gone down 75%. And she'd been talking with her employees about how she might have to lay them off or furlough them. She didn't really know what. But as a last-ditch effort, she applied for this PPP loan. And she asked for $25,000. And last we heard from her, she had been approved for the loan, but she hadn't gotten it yet.

SMITH: And there was a little bit of drama at the end of the episode because the rollout of this PPP plan by the federal government, it was an absolute mess. The computers were crashing. Nobody knew the rules. It was first-come, first-served, so there was a limited amount of money, and everyone was desperately, like, refreshing the site, refreshing the site, trying to get through to get these loans.

FOUNTAIN: And after we published the episode, things got a little smoother the computer system was worked out. Congress put more money into the program. But this other problem arose, which was that it turned out that people who had, you know, banking relationships, people who knew their banker and had them on speed dial, were the most likely to get those early loans. And some people without those relationships kind of just gave up. And so now when we look at the data - we actually have a lot of the data now - we can see that richer neighborhoods got more of these loans per capita than poor neighborhoods and Black and brown neighborhoods.

SMITH: Absolutely. And if you've followed Twitter any amount over the last few months, you know there's also been this backlash against businesses who took the loans.

FOUNTAIN: People have strong feelings on the Internet about who got PPP money. That is an understatement.

SMITH: Well, there was this whole, like, you shouldn't have taken the money; I deserved the money. And then other people would be like, no, you shouldn't take the money. And the thing that really typified this was the Ayn Rand Institute, named after, of course, the famous author and philosopher Ayn Rand, who talked about the power of the individual and who railed against government handouts. Well, the organization named after her asked for a government handout.

FOUNTAIN: And, Robert, you and I have been sort of sending these articles back-and-forth - like, ah, ha-ha, Ayn Rand Institute got it. But all these articles really missed the point of the program, which was to get as much money into business owners' hands as quickly as possible so that they could keep people on the payroll. And at least for Audra, when I talked to her this week, that seems to have happened.

SMITH: Yes. You called Audra back. Tell me everything.

FOUNTAIN: Well, we FaceTimed. And quick side note - she was wearing one of those masks - have you seen these? People send in a photo of them smiling, and it's printed...

SMITH: No.

FOUNTAIN: ...On the mask.

SMITH: No.

FOUNTAIN: And so it's just very weird.

Hey, Audra.

FORDIN: Hi there, Nick.

FOUNTAIN: You at the shop?

FORDIN: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: How you been?

FORDIN: We're doing OK. You know, as far as - I guess you're asking with the PPE...

FOUNTAIN: Not the PPE, but the PPP.

FORDIN: PPP.

FOUNTAIN: I see that you're set with the PPE. You've got the mask. You've got the gloves. How about the PPP?

FORDIN: The PPP came through great. I got the money. It was timely.

SMITH: She got the money.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. She asked for $25,000. She got all of it. And she says that it's been a huge help because business isn't actually at full strength yet, and despite that, she's been able to keep her whole team together.

FORDIN: There's a community that happened, and I can't make that up - the relationships.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. It seems like you have such an awesome team, and it would've been such - so heartbreaking to lose any of those guys. And you didn't have to.

FORDIN: Well, not that I didn't have to. I chose not to.

SMITH: This is one example of a team that was able to stay together, which is good, which is exactly what this program was meant for.

FOUNTAIN: Yes, totally.

Are people working in the - on the floor right now? You want to...

FORDIN: You want to say hi to Cedric?

FOUNTAIN: Sure.

Robert, you remember Cedric Kang (ph), her lead mechanic, the guy who showed us all those drills?

SMITH: Yeah. (Imitating drill) - yeah. We recorded drills for 10 minutes, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: So many drills.

FORDIN: I'm sure he'll be happy to hear from you, too.

FOUNTAIN: Anyways, I got to talk to him for a second.

CEDRIC KANG: Hi, Nick. How are you?

FOUNTAIN: Hey, Cedric. What's going on?

KANG: All right. Not much. I have very good news for - you know, with my wife. We got a quarantine baby.

FOUNTAIN: You're having a baby?

KANG: Yeah, yeah.

FORDIN: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: That's awesome.

SMITH: Such a happy ending. Thanks, Nick.

FOUNTAIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWRENCE WONG'S "EYES ON YOU")

SMITH: The last four months were obviously hard for businesses that shut down. But in some ways, it was worse for the employees of the businesses that had to stay open. Those workers were essential. They weren't going to get fired, so no unemployment checks. And they had to show up for work in the middle of a pandemic. Sarah Gonzalez profiled some of those workers. Hey, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: Hey, Robert.

SMITH: Sarah, you visited a grocery store because you had to 'cause you were doing a story about grocery workers.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, essential workers.

SMITH: Tell us what the story was.

GONZALEZ: So about three months ago, I spent a morning at a grocery store in North Carolina with essential workers. And just to, like, remind listeners, this was a grocery store where everyone was a person of color, and mostly the people working there were women. I don't know if you guys remember this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FATIMA PAVON: Oh, no white people work here. No. We do have, you know, a little bit of everything except white people, yeah.

GONZALEZ: That was Fatima Pavon (ph). She works at Compare Foods supermarket. And when we spoke in April, she was trying to bring herself to ask for a raise because her job had gotten a lot riskier than she signed up for with the virus.

SMITH: And that was one of those interesting things about this story, is normally when a job is riskier, you get paid more for it. But in this case, no one had gotten a raise yet.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, no hazard pay. And Fatima made $9.20 an hour, which came out to about $300 a week.

SMITH: Which, we should say, is a lot less than she would've made if she had been fired and put on unemployment. Sarah, you called her back. What did she say?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, we checked in this week.

Hey, Fatima.

PAVON: Hey. How are you?

GONZALEZ: Hey. I'm good. How are you?

PAVON: Good.

GONZALEZ: So I was just curious what's going on with you.

PAVON: Nothing. I'm still at the - at my job. Only thing new is - so I got a raise.

GONZALEZ: You got a raise?

PAVON: Yeah. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: What - like, a good raise?

PAVON: Just a dollar raise. But it's - you know?

GONZALEZ: So Fatima got a raise. She got a $1 an hour raise. But it was kind of - she didn't actually ask for the raise, though. So the whole point of the episode was about how it's, like, a really bad time to ask for a raise because workers don't have a ton of power right now. Employers are not really worried that they're going to lose their employees to other companies 'cause not too many...

SMITH: Sure.

PAVON: ...Are hiring.

SMITH: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: But the way that Fatima kind of got her raise - so Fatima actually recently started a little side job. Like, she's selling women's clothes online through, like, a social media thing mainly. And she told her bosses that she was planning to leave the grocery store by the end of the year. And then, like, a $1 pay increase just kind of appeared on her pay stub.

SMITH: (Laughter) That's the way you do it.

GONZALEZ: That's the way, man. This is what happens when workers have options. A couple other little updates - everyone at Fatima's grocery store has since received a one-time $400 bonus, so...

SMITH: Excellent.

GONZALEZ: ...That's great. So, like, a little bit of good news there. But as for, like, a nationwide hazard pay for essential workers - yeah, we still have not done that yet as a country.

SMITH: Thank you so much, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS JONES' "MAKEOVER NATION")

SMITH: Right now, hospitals are overwhelmed in Arizona, Texas and Florida. And when that was first happening here in New York City, we did a piece about Bellevue Hospital and how they were preparing for what looked like a surge of patients that they might not be able to handle. Hosting that episode was Amanda Aronczyk. Hey, Amanda.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Hey there, Robert.

SMITH: So take us now four months out. How did Bellevue do?

ARONCZYK: Right. So the person that we spoke with back in - I think it was actually April 1 - was a woman who ran sort of nursing operations for Bellevue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIA SCARAMUZZINO: So my name is Maria Scaramuzzino. They call me Mia.

ARONCZYK: Remember, Bellevue Hospital is the oldest public hospital in the country. They don't turn patients away, which is partly why they were so worried about the surge of patients showing up at their doorstep. And back when we first spoke with Mia, she was right in the middle of the chaos.

SCARAMUZZINO: Yeah. So that week, Amanda, was - that was the week where we really surged. We had the peak of COVID patients.

ARONCZYK: And at peak, roughly how many would you have?

SCARAMUZZINO: Probably about 400 with 110 in the critical care areas.

SMITH: The main economic focus of this episode, I remember, was about hospital beds. Economists have long argued that keeping extra hospital beds just lying around increases health care costs, which is fine until there's a pandemic. And we were worried that Bellevue Hospital would run out of places to put patients. So did that ever happen?

ARONCZYK: No. Bellevue did not run out of hospital beds. They kept repurposing rooms, adding beds, repurposing rooms, adding beds. And they had enough. The surge plan worked. Then, slowly, around mid-May, things did start to slow down. They got better. And as of this week, Bellevue has just 30 people in the hospital who are COVID-positive.

SMITH: Fantastic. That's great.

ARONCZYK: And every time one of those patients recovers, empties that hospital bed, the staff does this little celebration.

SCARAMUZZINO: We had - you know, Alicia Keys' and Jay-Z's "New York" (ph) would play every time we discharged a patient.

(CHEERING)

SCARAMUZZINO: So, you know, it was - that was so uplifting to staff 'cause, you know, you would be just going through your day, either in patient care, organizing staffing.

(CHEERING)

SCARAMUZZINO: And all of a sudden, the music would start to play. And everybody knew what that meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMPIRE STATE OF MIND")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) These streets will make you feel brand-new. Big lights will inspire you. Hear it for New York.

ARONCZYK: And they have discharged 1,400 patients over the last few months who were COVID-positive.

SMITH: Wow.

ARONCZYK: You know, of course, Mia is sitting there watching all of these other states, and it's terrifying. And Bellevue is worrying about a surge for the fall, which I think many hospitals are worrying about. And so, you know, they're not adding more hospital beds in anticipation of that. They're just like, we have this surge plan, and if we have to, we will do it again.

SMITH: Thanks so much, Amanda.

ARONCZYK: Yeah, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: After the break, we'll check in with the car parts company that switched over to make ventilators in order to save lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: A lot of the very early episodes we did about COVID were about getting ready - getting ready hospital beds and getting ready for ventilators. Karen Duffin and Kenny Malone followed one company as they completely transformed their business from car parts to health care. And we wanted to find out how that worked out. Hey, Kenny.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SMITH: So for people who didn't hear this story on ventilators - and it was very, very emotional for a story that was fundamentally about a global supply chain...

MALONE: That's true.

SMITH: ...Tell us what the story was about.

MALONE: Well, this story happened towards the beginning of the pandemic, when it was starting to become clear that there was a massive shortage of ventilators. And so we followed an effort to ramp up supply very quickly within one company near Seattle called Ventec. And in order to make these complicated ventilators, they needed to suddenly ramp up production of, like, 300 different parts all around the world. And so General Motors had, in fact, come in to help them with their supply chain.

And so we went all the way down the supply chain and found this one company in Minneapolis that normally makes auto parts but was switching over to help make these ventilators. And one of the parts they were making was this, like, tiny, little handheld piston.

SMITH: And I remember really vividly this moment when the man who runs the company, Todd Olson, he sees this little, tiny piston that goes into the ventilator, his part of this whole supply chain - he sees it being made for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TODD OLSON: Those are the first piston parts for Project V.

MALONE: That's...

OLSON: That is...

MALONE: So that's it. That's one of the pistons right there.

OLSON: Here we go - a part of history right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

SMITH: That happened back in March. And when we finished...

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: ...The story, the company had still not finished its very first ventilator. The first ventilator hadn't gone out to a hospital anywhere.

MALONE: Yeah. That's right. That's right.

SMITH: Since then, what has happened to the company?

MALONE: Well, for Todd's company, it took a while to get this full ventilator effort up and running. And they're just one piece of it. They're ready. But because it took so long to get everything going, they actually ended up having to lay people off for a while, to furlough people until the ventilator thing was up and running, they hoped.

SMITH: And you did mention to us that Todd's company got one of those PPP loans we talked about - $3 million - and did end up hiring everyone back eventually, which is great.

MALONE: Yeah, that's right. That's right. The real benefit here is that medical devices was an area that Todd Olson was hoping to get into. And as the automotive industry has declined and as he has, you know, shown on a very large stage that his company can rise to this challenge, medical devices have become a huge part of his company and, in fact, are probably going to get him through this not just not losing money but actually maybe making money. The medical business overall is going up for him, and he's very happy.

Well, congratulations on not being the guy who ruined the company even though it had survived the Spanish Flu, World War II, the economic collapse. Congrats.

OLSON: Yeah, I think I'm only the fourth CEO that we've had - fifth - and in a hundred years, so I didn't want to be that guy.

MALONE: No, no.

SMITH: Even a few months later, Kenny, it's easy to forget how panicked we were about ventilators and the notion that there would be Americans who were sick and would have to go without them. And the question is, like, are there too many ventilators now?

MALONE: Well, you know, I asked Todd about this, and he says from his perspective, yes, like, there are markets where there are too many. But he is still seeing orders going up.

SMITH: And so there may be too many ventilators in the market, but, you know, it seems like that's a good thing to have, right? Of all the problems we have to worry about now, and there are a lot of problems, at least we're not worrying about whether everyone in the United States of America who gets sick who is in the ICU can get a ventilator or not because they can now.

MALONE: That's great.

SMITH: Thanks, Kenny.

MALONE: You are welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: You know, when we listened back to the episodes we've done over the last four months, it is sort of shocking how almost naive we were at first about the scale of what was happening. In fact, Karen Duffin and I - Karen joins me now. Hey, Karen.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SMITH: Karen and I did this episode about unemployment. This is in the first few weeks of the crisis. And at the time, 3 million people had applied for unemployment, and we were stunned.

DUFFIN: Back when we were innocent and we thought 3 million was a big number.

SMITH: And now we're at...

DUFFIN: Yeah, now we're at more than 30 million people have applied since March for unemployment. And, in fact, for the past 17 weeks in a row, 1 million people have applied every single week.

SMITH: I don't think anyone's really come to terms yet with the scale of that number or what it means, but I know that you've been following at least five of the people that we profiled in that very first show on unemployment and talked to them. How are they doing?

DUFFIN: That's right. I checked in with the five people that we spoke with in March just to see how they're doing. One of the people I checked back in with was Chelsea Spring (ph). She lives in Long Island City.

SMITH: She was the manager of the spa in Manhattan that had to close because of COVID.

DUFFIN: As I recall, you were pregnant when we spoke in March. And now I imagine you're very pregnant.

CHELSEA SPRING: I am. So due in 19 days.

DUFFIN: Wow.

SPRING: And I'm very round, very hot.

DUFFIN: It will be her first child - a boy - and she is still unemployed. But fortunately, her husband still has his job.

SPRING: It was not an easy road at first. I really, really went through some, like, deep struggles and, like, digging through my past and fretting about the future. And I don't know. I just feel like a completely different person. I just always used to feel like everything had to be a certain way before. I had to be on a certain path. I was like, I have to be making money. I have to have, like, a status. I have to have a job. And when it all got taken away, now I'm like, what I have is fine. Like, what I have is good.

DUFFIN: Probably the biggest change for all the people I spoke with came from Lori Winslow (ph) in Colorado. She and her husband made ice cream in bulk for restaurants, and restaurants are, of course, not putting in very many orders right now. And it cost Lori and her husband more than $4,000 a month just to have their equipment in a warehouse.

LORI WINSLOW: And so we had to decide how many months are we willing to lose, you know, $3,000 to $4,000. So long story short, we negotiated a sale of the equipment to another ice cream company, and this new company started a lease. It'll start August 1. And they gave me - you know, we just finalized that this week.

DUFFIN: Wow.

WINSLOW: And so...

DUFFIN: So August will be the first time in how many years that you guys are not making ice cream?

WINSLOW: So 15 years - 15 years.

DUFFIN: This is the world's dumbest question, but how, I mean, how does that feel? This has been your baby for 15 years.

WINSLOW: Well, so I don't - I mean, it stinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: We were going to do a long wrap-up for the show, but we couldn't come up with anything better than that. It stinks.

Thanks so much, Karen.

DUFFIN: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Hey, can you stick around and do the credits with me?

DUFFIN: Absolutely.

This is the part where we say we love to hear from you.

SMITH: And we do.

DUFFIN: We do. We read all your emails, we - and your tweets. So please send them. You can reach us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook - @planetmoney - and on TikTok now.

SMITH: You've got to watch the TikTok. Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, James Sneed. And special thanks to Darian Woods, who produced the episode that never aired. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark, and our editor is Bryant Urstadt. I'm Robert Smith.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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