We are in the middle of a horrific pandemic — not the end. We don’t know enough about the short- and long-term consequences of the delta variant, nor what other variants are to come.
As I write this piece, I am visiting Canada, where mask mandates and social distancing guidelines are still in force, despite a higher vaccination rate than in the United States. It was difficult to adjust after nearly all masking and other COVID-19 restrictions had been dropped in most parts of the U.S. However, I believe that America stopped such restrictions too early and too abruptly, and we are now seeing increasing cases across the country. And the administration nearly made another serious public health mistake by letting the moratorium on evictions end without a renewal.
What is the eviction moratorium? The Centers Disease for Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered a national moratorium on evictions that took effect on Sept. 4, 2020. The order, under CDC’s authority under Section 261 of the Public Health Services Act (42 U.S.C 264), was extended many times but expired recently on July 31, 2021. It covered all rental properties in the U.S. and banned landlords from evicting tenants for non-payment of rent. Contrary to what many have claimed, the order does not stop rent from being owed, rather delays its payment until the order ends. Furthermore, justifiable reasons for eviction beyond payment of rent still exist, such as engaging in criminal activity.
The Federal CARES Act provided some funds to around 25 percent of the estimated 43 million renters, however, it was not enough, and many renters didn’t qualify for such assistance. More funds for renters and landlords were provided by the American Rescue Plan of 2021, and while the number of households receiving such funds is increasing each month, most of those funds have not yet been distributed. The CDC ordered a new moratorium on Aug. 3, three days after it expired and after much political debate and consternation within the Democratic Party. It is similar to the previous moratorium and applies to communities with “substantial and high levels of community transmission levels of SARS-CoV-2.”
Why is this moratorium so important from a public health point of view? COVID-19 has disproportionally been infecting and affecting minorities and those with lower incomes; often they are one and the same. It is these people who will disproportionally be evicted because they could not pay their rent during the pandemic. They would then have no choice but to move in with friends and family, go to homeless shelters or other congregate settings, or live on the street, where COVID-19 spreads more easily. These evictions will lead to more infections and more deaths. Clearly, from a public health point of view, now is not the time to end the moratorium and potentially evict millions of people from their homes, particularly with rising COVID-19 cases throughout much of the country and a stagnating vaccination rate.
The large amount of remaining funds that will be provided to renters and landlords from the America Rescue Plan needs to be distributed so that renters won’t be evicted, and landlords can receive much-needed money. The political and economic implications of the pandemic cannot and should not be ignored, but they are intricately intertwined with the public health implications of individuals, households and communities, particularly those that are vulnerable. This is not solely a human rights and equity issue. The effects of the delta variant — and possibly future variants — will, directly and indirectly, affect everyone, not just those who have not been vaccinated nor those who will be evicted.
This pandemic has highlighted social and political divisions in the U.S. and around the world. It’s not too late to act as individuals in a society, but rather a society of individuals who care for one another.
Paul B. Spiegel is a professor of practice at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for Humanitarian Health.