WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – With initial White House social-distancing guidelines expiring on Thursday, about half the U.S. states were pressing ahead with plans to ease restrictions on businesses and social life, aiming to revive economies stalled by coronavirus while keeping people safe.
An employee talks on the phone and smokes outside to a Walmart Superstore temporarily closed by an order from the city after numerous employees tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S., April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The enormous pressure on states to reopen was highlighted by fresh Labor Department data showing around 30 million people had sought unemployment benefits since March 21, or more than 18.4% of the working-age population.
Some states are planning to ease restrictions without the “Opening Up America Again” safeguards that the Trump administration itself had recommended on April 16, including declines in the infection rate and expanded virus testing.
The safeguards sought to give states some parameters for relaxing restrictions.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned states not to move too fast, a refrain of many public health officials since states, led by Georgia, started relaxing restrictions.
“You can’t just leap over things to a situation where you’re really tempting (the virus) to rebound. That’s the thing I get concerned about. I hope they don’t do that,” Fauci, a White House coronavirus task force member, told NBC’s “Today” show.
The number of coronavirus cases is still climbing in many parts of the country, although peaks appear to have been reached in New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and other places.
Kansas, Virginia and Arizona reported a record number of new cases, while Minnesota reported a record number of new cases for the second day in a row. Washington, D.C., posted a record number of deaths. The total number of U.S. deaths has topped 61,000, with well over 1 million confirmed cases.
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that many states still do not have enough testing capacity, which most experts say is a prerequisite for a safe reopening.
“What will give people confidence to go into the work force – (is) that they know that their coworkers had been tested and cleared to be there,” Pelosi said at a news conference.
In the latest of a patchwork of announcements made across the country over the past several days, Florida on Wednesday became one of the largest states to ease some of the restrictions that have crippled business activity.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Governor Ron DeSantis said as he unveiled his phase-one plan due to start on Monday to relax the mandatory workplace closures and stay-at-home orders imposed four weeks ago.
Texas unveiled a similar reopening strategy to take effect on Friday. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy plans to allow state parks and golf courses to reopen on Saturday.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the closure of Orange County beaches and parks in the southern part of the state after crowds jammed the popular shoreline last weekend.
A Democrat, Newsom has said that curbside retail, manufacturing and other “lower-risk workplaces” should reopen in California within weeks as testing and contact-tracing improve.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer requested an extension to a state of emergency in Michigan due to expire on Thursday.
Republican lawmakers in her state oppose the extension, and hundreds gathered inside the state Capitol to protest against the move, including militia group members carrying firearms and people with signs supporting Republican President Donald Trump.
In a sign that the worst may be over in hard-hit New York, the 1,000-bed hospital ship Comfort steamed out of Manhattan on Thursday after a month-long stay.
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The Navy vessel, painted a gleaming white with red crosses, was a symbol of hope when it arrived on March 30 to absorb an anticipated crush of patients that, under the most dire projections, could have overwhelmed hospitals.
With the success of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the extra capacity was never needed, allowing the ship to return to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said New York would hire thousands of people to trace the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus. He also announced a halt to New York City subway service from 1 to 5 a.m. to disinfect trains.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lucia Mutikani in Washington, Lisa Shumaker, Michael Martina and Nathan Layne; Writing by Maria Caspani and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller
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