The Economy Is Healthier. These 4 Things Will Determine What Happens Next – Houston Public Media

Travelers head to a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport on July 2. The economy likely surged in the April-June quarter as vaccine rollouts sparked a surge in pent-up activity. A slowdown is now seen as inevitable, although the pace of growth should remain strong.

The U.S. economy grew at a strong pace as the country emerged from the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic. The question now is what happens next, especially as the delta variant continues to spread.

On Thursday morning, the Commerce Department reported gross domestic product grew 6.5% in the period between April and June from a year earlier as the rollout of vaccines spurred a surge in economic activity. That was below forecasts of around 8% growth.

That would potentially be the second-fastest quarterly growth since 1983, after a 33.4% annualized surge in the July-September period of last year, when the pandemic led to intense volatility in the economy.

“Consumer spending was very strong in the second quarter,” says Jay Bryson, the chief economist at Wells Fargo. “In general, you’re looking at very, very strong growth.”

But GDP data is backward looking, and many analysts expect growth to have marked a peak. For the second half of the year, the pace of growth will inevitably slow down, even as it is likely to remain strong.

The question is how much the economy could slow. Here are four factors that could determine the path forward:

The delta variant and the here-we-go-again impact

The pandemic is clearly not over yet. The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling a surge in cases around the U.S., and multiple municipalities have reinstated indoor mask mandates, including Los Angeles County and St. Louis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week revised its guidance to recommend that some fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors if they live in areas with substantial or high transmission.

Although few people expect the type of economic impact we saw when the pandemic started last year, it remains a real concern, given that only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

Some small-business owners and their employees are worried about a repeat of last year, when many were forced to shut down their stores.

Ethnie Grazette, who works at Duman Home in Brooklyn, N.Y., says the spread of the virus could upend what has been a few very good months for the shop, which sells bedding and towels.

“These last few months have been pretty good,” Grazette says, smiling. “I got a lot of customers coming in. They’re spending money. It’s good for me and the people to get out.”

“I’m worried about what might happen,” she adds, however, remembering the anxiety and uncertainty during the first part of the pandemic. “If this new variant makes us shut down again, it’s going to put a lot of strain on the economy

High inflation: temporary or here to stay?

Another risk is inflation. Data this month showed consumer prices surged 5.4% in June from a year earlier, the highest increase in nearly 13 years.

On Wednesday, after the Federal Reserve’s two-day meeting, Chair Jerome Powell again maintained that these increases are a result of pandemic disruptions to the economy and will be short-lived or “transitory.”

Others are not so sure. Some economists worry that inflation could prove harder to reverse if Americans and businesses start to expect that prices will be high — and act accordingly.

A person wears a mask while walking at Grand Central Terminal on July 27 in New York City. Masks continue to be required at many places despite the rollout of vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week recommended that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high coronavirus transmission rates.

Stores could raise prices, and consumers could stop buying certain things, for example.

Even if it proves temporary, high inflation is already weighing on businesses and their customers.

“Just because it is transitory — that is, caused by some dislocation of the pandemic — that does not mean it is not disruptive and extremely impactful to certain segments of the economy,” says Constance Hunter, the chief economist at KPMG.

The big debate over workers in America

Perhaps no issue has split opinions more sharply than why some Americans have remained reluctant to return to work, hindering some sectors like leisure and hospitality.

Republicans have consistently blamed the enhanced unemployment benefits passed during the pandemic. They say the benefits are a disincentive to work, and about half of states — almost all led by Republican governors — are ending the benefits early.

The data so far has been inconclusive, and analysts cite a number of reasons that some Americans have stayed on the sidelines, including health concerns, difficulty finding child care and, yes, the financial cushion provided by expanded benefits.

Ralph Elia owns KC Arts in Brooklyn, and he says it has gotten harder for him to find workers.

“I feel like small business has been in competition to get employees with the benefits,” Elia says. “I agreed with it in the beginning. We really needed it. But at some point, they should have slowed it down or cut it off. Because we need to hire people. People need to get out and work.”

Chips and the supply chain chaos

It’s a problem that has bedeviled industries from carmakers to homebuilders since last year: A surge in demand from people cooped up at home has led to shortages of key materials, such as chips used in all kinds of electronics and cars, as suppliers struggle to keep up.

Pickup trucks and vans are seen in a parking lot outside a General Motors assembly plant on March 24 in Wentzville, Mo. Chip shortages have forced automakers to temporarily halt production through this year.

Though some of the supply chain constraints are starting to ease — in the lumber sector, for example — there’s no certainty of when global trade will approach normality.

So far the impact has been manageable overall, though much depends on how long the shortages of key materials last.

“If there will be any drag on growth in the second quarter, it could be from inventory,” says Bryson, of Wells Fargo. “[There are] lots of supply constraints, businesses can’t produce as much and so, because of that, they may have been selling out of their inventory, and that could be a mild headwind to growth.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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After rocket ride of growth, Robinhood heads to the market

NEW YORK (AP) — After a rocket rise where it introduced millions of people to investing and reshaped the brokerage industry, all while racking up a long list of controversies in less than eight years, Robinhood is about to take the leap itself into the stock market.

Robinhood Markets and three of its executives are selling up to 60.5 million shares of its stock in an initial public offering, with trading expected to begin on the Nasdaq Thursday.

It’s a huge moment for the fast-growing company, which is sticking to its mantra of trying to “democratize finance” by reserving many of the shares for its own customers, rather than just big professional investors. Can Robinhood convince them to embrace its stock, just as it helped a generation of investors take on trading stocks, options and cryptocurrencies?

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Here are a few things to keep in mind ahead of what’s one of the most anticipated IPOs on Wall Street this year:

HOW DOES A FREE SERVICE MAKE MONEY?

Robinhood’s revenue soared 245% last year to $959 million. It then hit $522 million in the first three months of 2021 alone, more than quadrupling from the year-ago level.

Robinhood doesn’t charge trading commissions or require customers to carry big balances — one reason why it’s so popular. It makes the bulk of its money — 81% of revenue in the first quarter— by funneling investors’ orders to big trading firms, such as Citadel Securities, which take the other side of the trade. They also give a payment to Robinhood.

The practice, called “payment for order flow,” has drawn criticism from lawmakers and regulators. The head of the Securities and Exchange Commission has questioned whether it prevents investors from getting the best price possible for their trades and whether it impels brokerages to encourage customers to trade more frequently than they should.

But legal experts say tighter regulation may be difficult to bring about. Brokerages need to make money somehow, and if Robinhood can’t get it from payment for order flow, it could go back to charging trading commissions, said Joshua Mitts, a law professor at Columbia University. That could make politicians even less popular than they already are.

“I think investors in many ways are pricing that in,” Mitts said, “and there’s a pretty good sense that Robinhood is going to be OK.”

WHAT IF THE TRADING BOOM FIZZLES?

Even if payment for order flow sticks around, Robinhood’s dependence on the practice could be an issue. During normal times, Robinhood may get about 75% of its money from transaction-based revenue, roughly triple what some competitors get, said Tom Mason, senior research analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Robinhood earns an average of 2.5 cents for every $100 traded. That it means it stands to lose if users start trading a lot fewer $100 blocks on its app.

Robinhood says its revenue could fall in the July-September quarter when compared to the April-June period, when revenue rose an estimated 124% to 135%. Besides seasonality issues, Robinhood said it expects to see decreased levels of trading activity, particularly in cryptocurrencies, which accounted for 17% of revenue in the first three months of the year. Prices of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been generally falling since peaking in April.

Among other risks, Robinhood’s customers could spend less time on the app if a fading pandemic means they can go on with their lives and do other things with money.

Robinhood also hasn’t always kept customers happy: Its platform has had some high-profile outages, and early this year it temporarily barred investors from making trades in GameStop, when manic movements in its stock were the talk of the market. That may have played a role in the roughly 600,000 customers that emptied their accounts during the first three months of the year. The company has 18 million funded accounts.

Counterbalancing all that may be the strong brand Robinhood has created, which has allowed the company to attract new customers without spending much on marketing. And Robinhood’s advantage over competitors is an intense focus on customers, which pushes it to roll out in-demand products very quickly, said S&P’s Mason.

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TRUSTING CUSTOMERS AS INVESTORS

Robinhood is taking the unusual step of allowing users of its trading app to buy up to 35% of its IPO shares before they begin trading. That’s the largest portion by far of pre-IPO shares to be designated for retail investors in an underwritten offering, says Matt Kennedy, senior IPO market strategist at Renaissance Capital.

Typically, only institutional investors and company insiders can buy shares in companies before they go public, and ordinary investors miss out on any first day pop. Between 2001 and 2020 the average U.S. IPO returned 14.5% from the offer price on day one, according to Renaissance Capital. The return this year is an even-better 25% when looking at IPOs that raise at least $100 million.

The biggest risk, Kennedy says, is that retail investors are more likely than institutional traders to flip their shares for a quick profit, raising the possibility of increased volatility on the first day of trading. For its part, Robinhood has warned that users who sell IPO shares within 30 days of the IPO will be restricted from buying shares in IPOs on Robinhood’s platform for 60 days.

Source: https://www.chron.com/business/article/After-rocket-ride-of-growth-Robinhood-heads-to-16346927.php

Houston Homeowners Accuse GLO Of Unequal Treatment In Harvey Home Rebuilding Program – Houston Public Media

In this Aug. 9, 2018 photo, recently removed flood-damaged debris sits outside a home in Houston.

The Texas General Land Office is providing inequitable relief to vulnerable communities with its Hurricane Harvey home rebuilding program, Houston homeowners say.

The GLO-led program aims to repair and rebuild homes that were damaged by the storm, as well as storm-proof and elevate the newly constructed homes to avoid future flooding, according to GLO’s website.

But some homeowners say the program has failed to provide families with a home comparable to the one they had before the storm.

“I got in to get my home repaired,” said Barbara Johnson Lark of Studewood Heights. “It was very demeaning for them to tell me I couldn’t have my three bedroom home, I only can get two.”

Johnson Lark was one of a handful of homeowners who joined Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday to call on the GLO to change their approach.

The affected families have received homes without a garage and a reduced the number of bedrooms, Turner said. He added that some of the new homes are being elevated using a pier and beam foundation, which leaves the bottom of the home vulnerable to infestations.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request that they get back at least what they had,” Turner said. “When they fail to do that, it diminishes the value of their home, and in return, it also diminishes the value of their community.”

For the homeowner in Kingwood with 4 bedrooms damaged by Harvey, State GLO later built a 7 bedroom home. For people in Studewood, Sagemont, Pleasantville with 3 plus bedrooms damaged by Harvey, GLO is offering them 2 bedrooms. This is wrong. st

— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) July 27, 2021

Many of the affected families are located within communities of color, such as Pleasantville — a historically black neighborhood that is protected by deed restrictions, Turner said. Those restrictions guarantee that a home will be built on solid concrete — not beams — and also guarantee that the home will include a garage.

The downgraded homes would be violating those protections, but homeowners who attempt to back out of the construction process may face legal repercussions, according to Pleasantville Civic League president Mary Fontenot.

“They’re saying ‘guess what? If you back out, we’re gonna sue you,’” Fontenot said. “You’re ripping apart our community.”

The Pleasantville Civic League has been in communication with the GLO, she added, but the agency claims the league does not have proper authority since it isn’t a homeowner association.

“I didn’t think that an entity could come in — that being the state, the GLO, whomever — and systemically take apart the fabric of a community’s deed restrictions,” Fontenot said.

Brittany Eck, a GLO spokesperson, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has jurisdiction over the GLO, bases the funds on family size and not on the home’s specifications.

“It unfortunately is not insurance, so it is not a replacement value program,” she said. “It is an optional program for those who are still in need.”

Eck added that the program adheres to local ordinance requirements, such as deed restrictions, as long as they are mandated by a documented homeowner association.

During the Monday press conference, Turner urged HUD to step in and ensure that Harvey-damaged homes are rebuilt to their previous size.

“The storm already hit them once,” Turner said. “The government shouldn’t have to hit them twice.”

Additional reporting by Florian Martin.

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Source: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/business/2021/07/27/404150/mayor-turner-accuses-glo-of-inequitable-treatment-in-harvey-home-rebuilding-program/?utm_source=rss-housing-article&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=hpm-rss-link

Inside Texas’ fight against a ransomware hack

DALLAS (AP) — It was the start of a steamy Friday two Augusts ago when Jason Whisler settled in for a working breakfast at the Coffee Ranch restaurant in the Texas Panhandle city of Borger. The most pressing agenda item for city officials that morning: planning for a country music concert and anniversary event.

Then Whisler’s phone rang. Borger’s computer system had been hacked.

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Workers were frozen out of files. Printers spewed out demands for money. Over the next several days, residents couldn’t pay water bills, the government couldn’t process payroll, police officers couldn’t retrieve certain records. Across Texas, similar scenes played out in nearly two dozen communities hit by a cyberattack officials ultimately tied to a Russia-based criminal syndicate.

In 2019, ransomware had yet to emerge as one of the top national security concerns confronting the United States, an issue that would become the focus of a presidential summit between Washington and Moscow this year. But the attacks in Texas were a harbinger of the now-exploding threat and offer a vivid case study in what happens behind the scenes when small-town America comes under attack.

Texas communities struggled for days with disruptions to core government services as workers in small cities and towns endured a cascade of frustrations brought on by the sophisticated cyberattack, according to thousands of pages of documents reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with people involved in the response. The AP also learned new details about the attack’s scope and victims, including an Air Force base where access to a law enforcement database was interrupted, and a city forced to operate its water-supply system manually.

In recent months, a ransomware attack led to gasoline shortages. Another, tied to the same hacking gang that attacked the Texas communities, threatened meat supplies. But the Texas attacks — which, unlike these prominent cases, were resolved without a ransom payment — make clear that ransomware need not hit vital infrastructure or major corporations to interrupt daily life.

“It was just a scary feeling,” Whisler, Borger’s emergency management coordinator, recounted in an interview.

_____

In the early morning of Aug. 16, as most Texans were still asleep, hackers half a world away were burrowing into networks. They encrypted files and left ransom notes.

That afternoon, with the attack’s impact becoming apparent, the city manager of Vernon emailed colleagues about a “ransom type” virus affecting the police department. The city near the Oklahoma state line could get back online by paying the $2.5 million the hackers were demanding, he wrote, but that was “obviously” not the plan.

“Holy moly!!!!!” replied city commissioner Pam Gosline, now the mayor.

The culprits were affiliated with REvil, the Russia-linked syndicate that last spring extorted $11 million from meat-processor JBS and more recently was behind a Fourth of July weekend attack that crippled businesses around the globe. In the Texas case, however, communities were ultimately able to recover most of their data and rebuild their systems without anyone paying ransom.

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The hackers gained their foothold through an attack on a Texas firm that provides technology services to local governments, branching through screen-sharing software and remote administration to seize control of the networks of some of the company’s clients.

An early hint of trouble came with a 2 a.m. phone call to the firm’s president, Richard Myers. His company, TSM Consulting Services Inc., provides data communications service for Texas communities, linking police agencies to a statewide law enforcement database.

One of his client’s servers was unresponsive, he was told. Upon inspection, Myers noticed that someone who wasn’t supposed to be in the computer system was trying to install something remotely. He rebooted the server. Things initially seemed fixed until the department called back: One of its laptops had a ransom note on it.

It soon became clear the problem wasn’t isolated to a single client.

“I don’t think you can begin to express the terror that goes through your mind when something like that starts to unfold,” he said.

Within hours, state officials were hunkered inside an underground operations center normally used for calamities like hurricanes and floods. Gov. Greg Abbott declared it a cyber disaster. Texas National Guard cyber specialists were activated.

“If you needed to build something — you needed an inspection, something like that — out of luck for a week,” said Andy Bennett, the state’s then-deputy chief information security officer. “Records look-ups? Couldn’t go look up records. Basically, if there’s a municipal function that you would go down to a city hall for, or that you would rely on the police department for, it wasn’t available.”

_____

In Borger, a city of fewer than 13,000, early indications were worrisome as the city raced to shut down its computers.

Gibberish ransom demands spat out of printers and displayed on some computer screens. Government files were encrypted, with titles like “Budget Document” replaced by nonsensical combinations of letters and symbols, said current city manager Garrett Spradling.

Vital records, like birth and death certificates, were offline. Payments couldn’t be processed, checks couldn’t be issued — though, blessedly for Borger, it was an off-week for payroll. Signs posted on a drive-up window outside City Hall told residents the city couldn’t process water bill payments but cutoffs would be delayed.

One update shared with city officials soon after the attack described how every server was infected, as were about 60% of the 85 computers inspected by that point. A city government email told council members that agendas for a meeting would be in paper format, “since your tablets won’t be able to connect.” An official told a judge it was unclear if computer systems would be operational in time for trials two days away.

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Because the city had paid for offsite remote backup, Borger had the capability to reformat servers, reinstall the operating system and bring data back over. A newly purchased server that had yet to be installed came in handy. The police department, however, retained its data locally and the attack hampered officers’ access to previous incident reports, Spradling said.

As they worked to resolve the problem, officials shared draft press releases that offered reassurances that critical emergency operations would continue and that the attacks weren’t a reflection of any misstep by the city.

One councilmember, a military veteran named Milton Ooley, cautioned against publicity for the hackers’ “form of terrorism.”

“This is consistent with my firsthand experience with how the U.S. handled terrorism in Europe when I was there in the late ’70s, some of which was directed at U.S. units including missile units I worked with/in during those days,” he wrote colleagues. In an interview, he said he believed the public was entitled to information but hackers didn’t deserve notoriety.

The day of the attack, Jeremy Sereno was working his civilian job at Dell when he was contacted by the state about the attack. A lieutenant colonel and senior cybersecurity officer with the Texas Military Department, Sereno began helping deploy Texas National Guard troops to hacked cities, where specialists over the next two weeks helped assess the damage, restore data from backed-up files and retake control of locked systems.

One of the first areas of concern was a small North Texas city where the attack locked the “human-machine interface” that workers used to control the water supply, forcing them to operate the system manually, Sereno said. Water purity was not endangered.

“That was probably our biggest number one,” Sereno said. “That’s what’s considered critical infrastructure, when you talk about water.”

AP is not identifying the city at the urging of state officials, who said doing so could draw new attacks on its water system.

In Graham, a small city a couple of hours west of Dallas, the computer virus attacked a police server housing body-camera videos, causing hundreds of them to be lost, said Sgt. Chris Denney.

For days, officers had to use notebooks and pens to take reports. Instead of using mobile data terminals to run checks on people, officers had to rely on requests to dispatchers of a sheriff’s office that was unaffected by the attack, said Chief Brent Bullock.

“That’s been at these officers’ fingertips for years, and then all of a sudden, they don’t have that anymore,” Bullock said. Officers, he added, “kind of had to go back to old school.”

Other communities preemptively took potentially vulnerable systems offline. In the Austin suburb of Leander, the city shut off the program that police used to check license plates for 24 hours as IT staff worked to confirm that it hadn’t been exposed.

Emails reveal moments of exasperation as problems persisted.

Spradling complained to an outside technology company about “massive delays” in getting a response to a support request. Local technology managers griped about what they perceived as state and law enforcement secretiveness. Several in cities that were not hit complained in emails after the attack that they hadn’t been told what company the ransomware spread from and didn’t have enough information to ensure their systems were safe.

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The impact wasn’t limited to local governments. Sheppard Air Force Base confirmed to AP that its access to a statewide law enforcement database used for background checks on visitors was temporarily interrupted, causing delays for issuing passes. Operations were otherwise unaffected.

Officials at Joint Base San Antonio Randolph, which public records indicated was also affected, did not directly answer questions about the hack but said that it had no impact on “missions or network security” and the base “as a whole” was not a target.

One complication: TSM’s customer list was itself encrypted, though eventually a copy was procured, officials said. State officials didn’t immediately know which communities had been victimized. They called around asking, “Were you impacted? Were you impacted? Were you impacted?” said Nancy Rainosek, Texas’ chief information security officer.

“There was one place that we contacted and they said, ‘no, no, we’re not hit,’” Rainosek said. Then, days later, “they said, ‘yes, we were.’”

_____

State officials spent a full week inside their command post — built to withstand a nuclear blast — and used a map to chart the attack’s spread. All told, some 23 government entities were ultimately shaded to indicate they’d been hit.

“It’s a bit of a mind struggle because you’re trying to stay focused and present on the folks that you know about,” said Amanda Crawford, executive director of the Texas Information Resources Department. “But you’re continually worrying about, ‘Is there something you’re missing? Or are there others, that you’re going to get another call that somebody else has been hit?’”

By Wednesday evening, records show, most city services in Borger were restored, including utility payments, vital statistics and most employee computers. The situation had stabilized; the city ended up with about 80% of its data back and the concert Whisler was planning happened as scheduled.

Still, in a city with a roughly $31 million budget, Borger had overtime IT expenses to contend with and purchased $44,000 worth of new computers. It’s invested in additional cybersecurity protections, including some $30,000 in annual costs for additional remote backup.

Borger officials in the weeks before the hack had discussed upgrading the threat level from cyberattacks. Those considerations are now more than theoretical.

“When you complain about having to change your passwords, you complain a lot more when it’s never happened to you and you don’t have anything to relate it to,” Spradling said. “You tend to complain a little less after you’ve had to answer the phone and tell 300 people they couldn’t pay their water bill.”

But damage remains two years later.

Sometimes even now, Spradling said, officials will go to pull an old report or address record — only to find it isn’t there.

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

Source: https://www.chron.com/business/technology/article/Texas-ransomware-hack-16339743.php

Black A I = Artificial Inclusion – Houston Public Media

A young computer scientist who grew up in Mississippi is focusing her efforts on fairness and identifying biases in technology. Though she’s working in Atlanta as an artificial intelligence researcher for Amazon, she’s reinvesting much of her earnings towards the development of a multi-million dollar innovation center that’s set to transform her native downtown Jackson. Dr. Nashlie Sephus is also CEO of The Bean Path — a non-profit that works to bridge the “tech gap” in communities where access to technical expertise, computer coding and other resources are limited. She speaks candidly with host Eddie Robinson about her experiences in closing commercial real estate deals in the Deep South and how she’s worked in a field of study where there’s not many Black women with PhDs.

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Source: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/shows/i-see-u/2021/07/23/404034/i-see-u-episode-10-black-a-i-artificial-inclusion/?utm_source=rss-i-see-u-article&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=hpm-rss-link

Walmart to remove sales tax assessment on delivery groceries

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Walmart taxed the delivered groceries of at least two people in New Mexico even though a tax deduction governing such home deliveries took effect on July 1.

Walmart told the Las Cruces Sun-News that it was working to remove the assessment of sales tax on delivered groceries after receiving clarification from the state about the new tax exemption. “We apologize for the confusion,” Walmart said in a statement.

As delivered groceries became more popular during the pandemic, New Mexicans noticed gross receipts tax charges on their delivered groceries, which would normally be tax-free in grocery stores.

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Previously, only food sold at retail stores could be deducted from gross tax receipts. But earlier this year, New Mexico lawmakers amended the policy so that the deduction would apply to food sold by retail stores, thereby making delivered groceries deductible.

Tax and Revenue Department spokesman Charlie Moore said that although the agency will make a grocer aware of the change in the food tax deduction, the department “can’t control what deductions a taxpayer chooses to claim.”

The grocer can decide whether to take the deduction, according to Moore, though most grocers take the deduction and choose not to charge the tax.

“It is up to each taxpayer to interpret their eligibility for deductions,” Moore said. “The gross receipts tax is an obligation of the business.”

Source: https://www.chron.com/business/article/Walmart-sales-tax-delivery-groceries-16330404.php

Getting a ‘key’ to your apartment building

NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon is tired of ringing doorbells.

The online shopping giant is pushing landlords around the country — sometimes with financial incentives — to give its drivers the ability to unlock apartment-building doors themselves with a mobile device.

The service, dubbed Key for Business, is pitched as a way to cut down on stolen packages by making it easy to leave them in lobbies and not outside. Amazon benefits because it enables delivery workers to make their rounds faster. And fewer stolen packages reduce costs and could give Amazon an edge over competitors.

Those who have installed the device say it reduces the constant buzzing by delivery people and is a safer alternative to giving out codes to scores of delivery people.

But the Amazon program, first announced in 2018, may stir security and privacy concerns as it gains traction. The company said that it does background checks on delivery people and that they can unlock doors only when they have a package in hand to scan. But tenants may not know that Amazon drivers have access to their building’s front doors, since Amazon leaves it up to the building to notify them.

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Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher who was a senior tech advisor to former President Barack Obama, said that any device connected to the internet could be hacked, including the Amazon one, and bad actors could try to unlock the doors.

“You’re essentially introducing a foreign internet-connected device into an otherwise internal network,” said Soltani, who was also a former chief technologist at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Amazon didn’t respond to questions about potential hacking.

The company has already installed the device in thousands of U.S. apartment buildings but declined to give a specific number. It sometimes leaves a clue, placing a round sticker with the Amazon smile logo on buzzers where the device has been installed. On one New York City street, the sticker was on three of 11 buildings. In another neighborhood, two of seven buildings had the sticker.

Amazon salespeople have been fanning out to cities across the country to knock on doors, make cold calls or approach building managers on the street to urge them to install the device. The company has even partnered with local locksmiths to push it on building managers while they fix locks. Amazon installs the device for free and sometimes throws in a $100 Amazon gift card to whoever lets them in.

Soltani said he learned about Key for Business when he was approached by two Amazon salespeople in April who wanted access to the building where he lives in Oakland, California. Building management declined, and no device was installed.

Amazon had better luck with Kenton Girard. A Chicago landlord, Girard agreed to have the device installed in four of his buildings as a way to reduce package theft, which was getting so bad that he was considering building a package drop box outside.

“I would have paid to have it done,” Girard said of the Amazon device.

Currently, only the U.S. Postal Service has a way to enter apartment buildings in order to get to mailboxes. UPS says it has tested a way for its workers to enter buildings without buzzing tenants, teaming up with a smart-lock company in 2018. But that test ended, and UPS declined to say why. The company says customers can instead have their packages delivered to nearby grocery stores, dry cleaners or florists if they’re not home.

FedEx declined to comment for this story.

Amazon has wanted to walk through people’s front doors for years. In 2017, it launched a way for shoppers to let delivery people come in their home when they’re not there and leave packages in the foyer. Walmart did the same shortly after, but its delivery people also stocked the fridge with groceries. Amazon and Walmart don’t say how many people are using those services, but both have expanded them to more cities recently.

In 2018, Amazon set its sights on apartment buildings, launching Key for Business and signing up big landlords to install the device in their developments. But the push seems to have accelerated in the last year or so, with Amazon deploying salespeople nationwide. Recent job postings in Miami and San Antonio say Amazon salespeople can make $3,000 to $11,000 a month in bonuses and commissions. Amazon won’t say how much it’s spending on the effort.

MORE BIZ NEWS: Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers on strike in Topeka, citing forced overtime and 84-hour workweeks

Not all Amazon packages can get through front doors. The company delivers about 60% of its own packages itself, according to shopping data firm Rakuten Intelligence; the rest come through other delivery companies that can’t let themselves in.

Philip T. Evers, a logistics professor at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said Amazon’s desire to get the device into as many buildings as possible may be a way to keep competitors out.

“The landlord may say, ‘You know, I’ll do this for one company, but maybe we don’t want it for every delivery company that’s out there,’ ” he said. He added that Amazon could find other uses for the service, like having delivery people pick up returns left in the lobby instead of making shoppers schlep to the post office. Amazon declined to share any future plans.

Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at marketing company Publicis Communications, said the device could save Amazon money, since workers can drop off more packages during a shift and may have to offer fewer refunds to those whose packages were stolen.

He heard about the program in December, when a locksmith replacing the buzzer system at his Chicago condo building offered to install Amazon Key for Business for free. Goldberg, who helps manage the building, later allowed Amazon salespeople — dangling a $100 Amazon gift card — to install the device.

“They give it away for free because it benefits Amazon more than us,” Goldberg said.

Source: https://www.chron.com/business/article/amazon-key-for-business-16333207.php

Getting a ‘key’ to your apartment building

NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon is tired of ringing doorbells.

The online shopping giant is pushing landlords around the country — sometimes with financial incentives — to give its drivers the ability to unlock apartment-building doors themselves with a mobile device.

The service, dubbed Key for Business, is pitched as a way to cut down on stolen packages by making it easy to leave them in lobbies and not outside. Amazon benefits because it enables delivery workers to make their rounds faster. And fewer stolen packages reduce costs and could give Amazon an edge over competitors.

Those who have installed the device say it reduces the constant buzzing by delivery people and is a safer alternative to giving out codes to scores of delivery people.

But the Amazon program, first announced in 2018, may stir security and privacy concerns as it gains traction. The company said that it does background checks on delivery people and that they can unlock doors only when they have a package in hand to scan. But tenants may not know that Amazon drivers have access to their building’s front doors, since Amazon leaves it up to the building to notify them.

READ ALSO: Houston takes ‘stunner’ position on TIME’s ‘World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2021’ list

Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher who was a senior tech advisor to former President Barack Obama, said that any device connected to the internet could be hacked, including the Amazon one, and bad actors could try to unlock the doors.

“You’re essentially introducing a foreign internet-connected device into an otherwise internal network,” said Soltani, who was also a former chief technologist at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Amazon didn’t respond to questions about potential hacking.

The company has already installed the device in thousands of U.S. apartment buildings but declined to give a specific number. It sometimes leaves a clue, placing a round sticker with the Amazon smile logo on buzzers where the device has been installed. On one New York City street, the sticker was on three of 11 buildings. In another neighborhood, two of seven buildings had the sticker.

Amazon salespeople have been fanning out to cities across the country to knock on doors, make cold calls or approach building managers on the street to urge them to install the device. The company has even partnered with local locksmiths to push it on building managers while they fix locks. Amazon installs the device for free and sometimes throws in a $100 Amazon gift card to whoever lets them in.

Soltani said he learned about Key for Business when he was approached by two Amazon salespeople in April who wanted access to the building where he lives in Oakland, California. Building management declined, and no device was installed.

Amazon had better luck with Kenton Girard. A Chicago landlord, Girard agreed to have the device installed in four of his buildings as a way to reduce package theft, which was getting so bad that he was considering building a package drop box outside.

“I would have paid to have it done,” Girard said of the Amazon device.

Currently, only the U.S. Postal Service has a way to enter apartment buildings in order to get to mailboxes. UPS says it has tested a way for its workers to enter buildings without buzzing tenants, teaming up with a smart-lock company in 2018. But that test ended, and UPS declined to say why. The company says customers can instead have their packages delivered to nearby grocery stores, dry cleaners or florists if they’re not home.

FedEx declined to comment for this story.

Amazon has wanted to walk through people’s front doors for years. In 2017, it launched a way for shoppers to let delivery people come in their home when they’re not there and leave packages in the foyer. Walmart did the same shortly after, but its delivery people also stocked the fridge with groceries. Amazon and Walmart don’t say how many people are using those services, but both have expanded them to more cities recently.

In 2018, Amazon set its sights on apartment buildings, launching Key for Business and signing up big landlords to install the device in their developments. But the push seems to have accelerated in the last year or so, with Amazon deploying salespeople nationwide. Recent job postings in Miami and San Antonio say Amazon salespeople can make $3,000 to $11,000 a month in bonuses and commissions. Amazon won’t say how much it’s spending on the effort.

MORE BIZ NEWS: Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers on strike in Topeka, citing forced overtime and 84-hour workweeks

Not all Amazon packages can get through front doors. The company delivers about 60% of its own packages itself, according to shopping data firm Rakuten Intelligence; the rest come through other delivery companies that can’t let themselves in.

Philip T. Evers, a logistics professor at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said Amazon’s desire to get the device into as many buildings as possible may be a way to keep competitors out.

“The landlord may say, ‘You know, I’ll do this for one company, but maybe we don’t want it for every delivery company that’s out there,’ ” he said. He added that Amazon could find other uses for the service, like having delivery people pick up returns left in the lobby instead of making shoppers schlep to the post office. Amazon declined to share any future plans.

Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at marketing company Publicis Communications, said the device could save Amazon money, since workers can drop off more packages during a shift and may have to offer fewer refunds to those whose packages were stolen.

He heard about the program in December, when a locksmith replacing the buzzer system at his Chicago condo building offered to install Amazon Key for Business for free. Goldberg, who helps manage the building, later allowed Amazon salespeople — dangling a $100 Amazon gift card — to install the device.

“They give it away for free because it benefits Amazon more than us,” Goldberg said.

Source: https://www.chron.com/business/article/Amazon-16333207.php

Thousands Of Texas Restaurants Closed During The Pandemic. Some Houston Favorites Are Ready For A Comeback – Houston Public Media

Spanish Village on Almeda Road has been a Houston Tex-Mex favorite for nearly 70 years.

With more and more people getting vaccinated, Houstonians have been flocking back to their favorite restaurants.

But for many longtime Houston eateries, the crowd is coming too late: The Texas Restaurant Association estimates the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes many Houston favorites, such as Spanish Village on Almeda Road, at the edge of Third Ward. The restaurant has seen several owners since it first opened in 1953, and for the past four years, it was run by Abhi Sreerama and his wife Ishita Chakravarty, who was also the chef.

But last Saturday, the couple had to close the popular Tex-Mex spot.

“The pandemic obviously was a huge factor,” Sreerama said.

He added that things were going great up until early last year, when the pandemic began. But not only did people stop coming — the cost of basic ingredients like beef and dairy spiked, Sreerama said.

“My margins went down from 30-35% all the way down to around 7%,” he said.

Srereema said he had no choice but to let people go, and he and his wife were doing most of the work themselves. Had it not been for the Paycheck Protection Program, he said, they likely would have had to close the first month of the pandemic.

However, those federal pandemic loans weren’t enough to keep Barry’s Pizza from having to shut its doors permanently in May of 2020.

Barry Childers ran the popular restaurant on Richmond and Fountain View for 37 years.

“The option to stay open was extremely high risk,” he said. “I could have done it for eight or nine months and after that I would have been in deep trouble. We had 40% of the business in to-go and pick-up, but you need every bit of the business to survive in the restaurant industry.”

He said the PPP loan helped cover staff salaries, but not the majority of expenses, such as food, taxes, and the high cost of rent.

Childers said he had initially hoped to wait out the pandemic, but soon realized COVID-19 was here to stay — at least for the time being. That pushed him to make what he said was a painful decision to let go of almost 40 employees and close down.

He added that before the pandemic, there was no timeline for him to retire — despite his 71 years.

“I was having too much fun,” he said. “And I was making a good living.”

Barry’s Pizza was among several Houston eateries that fell during the pandemic.

Inside the Loop, at Greentown Plaza, Burger-Chan was a popular lunch spot for workers in the business district. Diane Wu Feng and her husband Willet Feng co-owned the restaurant and were on track to open a second location in the Galleria area when the pandemic interrupted their plans.

“Once March, mid-March hit and everyone was forced to stay at home, we overnight just had no business,” Wu Feng said.

Over the next few months, they would only get 20-40 orders per day – down from more than 200. So instead of expanding their business, they closed down in August, after more than four years.

Establishments that relied on office workers, like Boomtown Coffee Downtown, were especially vulnerable due to the loss of business traffic.

While that location closed, Boomtown CEO Andrew Loreman said he was able to keep his Heights location open.

“The people in the neighborhood really still needed coffee, they needed food, they needed all the things on a daily basis just like they did before the pandemic,” he said. “Whereas downtown, nobody’s there. Nobody lives downtown.”

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants to the pandemic, according to the Downtown District.

Despite even less business in the Houston tunnels, Boomtown’s Loreman did manage to continue his Understory location with just one employee for most of the pandemic.

Location is only one factor in the decision of whether a restaurant had to close due to the pandemic, said Scott Taylor, a professor at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He added that adaptability also played a part.

“The ones that continued to do well early on and are still doing well now,” he said, “adapted to carry-out, take-out, online ordering, selling of other things, not just food.”

According to Taylor, those who were able to close down temporarily and minimize expenses during the worst of the pandemic were likely to recover.

He said he was optimistic that Houston’s restaurant scene will come back to its former glory, as new places are already popping up to replace the old ones — which is the nature of the business, he added.

Eight new restaurants and bars have opened in downtown Houston since late 2020, with several more on the way this year, according to the Downtown District. New business filings were up again this year across Harris County, and through June, are already close to total new filings for all of last year, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office.

Some businesses that had previously shuttered their doors are now reemerging as the pandemic begins to wane.

Spanish Village now has a new owner who promises to reopen the restaurant next month, while the old owners are working on a new concept elsewhere. The Fengs also plan to open their new Burger-Chan location in the Galleria area within the next two months.

Barry Childers, who still isn’t ready to retire, is looking to reopen Barry’s Pizza or start another business in a different part of the city.

“The Barry’s brand still has value,” Childers said. “My wife and I are looking more and more at doing something like that – finding some of our old staff who can run a restaurant and open perhaps something a little smaller.”

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Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

Source: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/in-depth/2021/07/22/403723/houston-lost-many-popular-restaurants-to-the-pandemic-but-some-are-coming-back/?utm_source=rss-business-article&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=hpm-rss-link

Thousands Of Texas Restaurants Closed During The Pandemic. Some Houston Favorites Are Ready For A Comeback – Houston Public Media

Spanish Village on Almeda Road has been a Houston Tex-Mex favorite for nearly 70 years.

With more and more people getting vaccinated, Houstonians have been flocking back to their favorite restaurants.

But for many longtime Houston eateries, the crowd is coming too late: The Texas Restaurant Association estimates the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes many Houston favorites, such as Spanish Village on Almeda Road, at the edge of Third Ward. The restaurant has seen several owners since it first opened in 1953, and for the past four years, it was run by Abhi Sreerama and his wife Ishita Chakravarty, who was also the chef.

But last Saturday, the couple had to close the popular Tex-Mex spot.

“The pandemic obviously was a huge factor,” Sreerama said.

He added that things were going great up until early last year, when the pandemic began. But not only did people stop coming — the cost of basic ingredients like beef and dairy spiked, Sreerama said.

“My margins went down from 30-35% all the way down to around 7%,” he said.

Srereema said he had no choice but to let people go, and he and his wife were doing most of the work themselves. Had it not been for the Paycheck Protection Program, he said, they likely would have had to close the first month of the pandemic.

However, those federal pandemic loans weren’t enough to keep Barry’s Pizza from having to shut its doors permanently in May of 2020.

Barry Childers ran the popular restaurant on Richmond and Fountain View for 37 years.

“The option to stay open was extremely high risk,” he said. “I could have done it for eight or nine months and after that I would have been in deep trouble. We had 40% of the business in to-go and pick-up, but you need every bit of the business to survive in the restaurant industry.”

He said the PPP loan helped cover staff salaries, but not the majority of expenses, such as food, taxes, and the high cost of rent.

Childers said he had initially hoped to wait out the pandemic, but soon realized COVID-19 was here to stay — at least for the time being. That pushed him to make what he said was a painful decision to let go of almost 40 employees and close down.

He added that before the pandemic, there was no timeline for him to retire — despite his 71 years.

“I was having too much fun,” he said. “And I was making a good living.”

Barry’s Pizza was among several Houston eateries that fell during the pandemic.

Inside the Loop, at Greentown Plaza, Burger-Chan was a popular lunch spot for workers in the business district. Diane Wu Feng and her husband Willet Feng co-owned the restaurant and were on track to open a second location in the Galleria area when the pandemic interrupted their plans.

“Once March, mid-March hit and everyone was forced to stay at home, we overnight just had no business,” Wu Feng said.

Over the next few months, they would only get 20-40 orders per day – down from more than 200. So instead of expanding their business, they closed down in August, after more than four years.

Establishments that relied on office workers, like Boomtown Coffee Downtown, were especially vulnerable due to the loss of business traffic.

While that location closed, Boomtown CEO Andrew Loreman said he was able to keep his Heights location open.

“The people in the neighborhood really still needed coffee, they needed food, they needed all the things on a daily basis just like they did before the pandemic,” he said. “Whereas downtown, nobody’s there. Nobody lives downtown.”

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants to the pandemic, according to the Downtown District.

Despite even less business in the Houston tunnels, Boomtown’s Loreman did manage to continue his Understory location with just one employee for most of the pandemic.

Location is only one factor in the decision of whether a restaurant had to close due to the pandemic, said Scott Taylor, a professor at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. He added that adaptability also played a part.

“The ones that continued to do well early on and are still doing well now,” he said, “adapted to carry-out, take-out, online ordering, selling of other things, not just food.”

According to Taylor, those who were able to close down temporarily and minimize expenses during the worst of the pandemic were likely to recover.

He said he was optimistic that Houston’s restaurant scene will come back to its former glory, as new places are already popping up to replace the old ones — which is the nature of the business, he added.

Eight new restaurants and bars have opened in downtown Houston since late 2020, with several more on the way this year, according to the Downtown District. New business filings were up again this year across Harris County, and through June, are already close to total new filings for all of last year, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office.

Some businesses that had previously shuttered their doors are now reemerging as the pandemic begins to wane.

Spanish Village now has a new owner who promises to reopen the restaurant next month, while the old owners are working on a new concept elsewhere. The Fengs also plan to open their new Burger-Chan location in the Galleria area within the next two months.

Barry Childers, who still isn’t ready to retire, is looking to reopen Barry’s Pizza or start another business in a different part of the city.

“The Barry’s brand still has value,” Childers said. “My wife and I are looking more and more at doing something like that – finding some of our old staff who can run a restaurant and open perhaps something a little smaller.”

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

Source: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/business/2021/07/22/403723/houston-lost-many-popular-restaurants-to-the-pandemic-but-some-are-coming-back/?utm_source=rss-business-article&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=hpm-rss-link