As federal guidelines expire, some states press ahead to reopen, despite health warnings.

As some states moved to reopen Friday — while others kept residents home to curb the outbreak — America is finding itself divided in new ways: not just by politics and geography, but by public health policy, the toll of the pandemic, and where people can dine in restaurants or get haircuts in barber shops.

Millions more Americans will soon be able to eat at restaurants and shop in stores as some states moved toward reopening on Thursday, despite warnings from public health experts.

Governors in several states — including Alabama, Maine, Tennessee and Texas — plan to allow stay-at-home orders to expire on Thursday, paving the way for certain businesses to reopen and marking the end of an unparalleled month in which an astonishing nine in 10 residents in the United States were told to stay at home to help stop the spread of the virus.

Federal guidelines encouraging people to curtail nearly all public activities are also poised to expire Thursday after President Trump indicated he did not intend to extend them.

“They’ll be fading out, because now the governors are doing it,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the restrictions.

More restrictions will be lifted on Friday as additional states, including Iowa, North Dakota and Wyoming, ease their rules.

The latest reopenings represent a pivotal moment in America’s response to the virus, even as the number of deaths from the virus in the United States has surged past 60,000. As of Friday, more than a dozen states will have begun to partially reopen their economies and restart public life, raising concerns among health experts about another spike in cases that may not be detected in official numbers for two weeks.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned that premature action by states could lead to “a rebound to get us right back in the same boat that we were in a few weeks ago.”

Texas is expected to take one of the most expansive actions on Friday, allowing retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen and operate at 25 percent capacity. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, lifted his stay at home order after less than a month, citing the state’s expanded testing, stock of protective equipment and a high number of coronavirus recoveries.

The pace of reopening has created a divided America, along both political and geographical lines. Many states in the South with Republican governors were among the first to partially reopen, including Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina, which paved the way last week. Also beginning to reopen are less dense states, including Alaska and Montana.

Several of the nation’s most populous states remain on extended lockdown, including California, New York, Illinois, and Michigan, where armed protesters gathered at the Capitol in Lansing on Thursday to urge lawmakers to vote against extending the state of emergency.

New Jersey reported 460 new virus-related deaths on Thursday, more than any other state in the nation is currently reporting.

The state is now reporting more new deaths than its neighbor, New York, which reported 306 new deaths on Thursday, less than half of the deaths it was reporting each day when the outbreak peaked there earlier this month.

“This is the single biggest day that we’ve had,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said, calling the daily toll “a very sobering number.”

The state’s overall death toll, he noted, was “a staggering 7,228.”

Mr. Murphy of New Jersey shared the somber news hours after meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House, where the president showered Mr. Murphy with praise but stopped short of offering more financial assistance to New Jersey.

It was the president’s third Oval Office sit-down with a governor this week as he begins to turn his focus to helping states reopen their economies. The president stopped short of offering more money even as Mr. Murphy said his state would need between $20 billion and $30 billion in assistance for a full economic recovery.

Senator Mitch McConnell’s plan to bring the Senate back to Washington next week drew criticism on Thursday from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, who said it could endanger not only lawmakers and their aides but also low-level workers, many of whom are minorities and at higher risk of infection and death.

Democrats have been particularly critical of the decision to return given that Mr. McConnell has not scheduled any virus-related work and is instead planning to move ahead on nominations, including of a judge nominated for a federal appeals court.

Mr. McConnell’s announcement comes as virus cases keep rising in the District of Columbia, where nearly half the population is black. District residents are still bound by a stay-at-home order issued March 16.

Democratic leaders scrapped their plans to call the House back into session next week, saying they were acting on the advice of Congress’s attending physician, who told them it was a health risk.

Eight Capitol Police officers and 11 facilities workers have already tested positive, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, 86, wrote in a letter to Mr. McConnell, adding that, “returning the Senate for nonessential business is not worth the risk.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said her new plan was to reconvene the week of May 11 and begin consideration of another sweeping response measure that could top $1 trillion. She said the measure would include funding for state, local, tribal and municipal governments, which Mr. McConnell has resisted.

Mr. Trump suggested Thursday evening that he was in no hurry to pass more aid for states, saying at a White House briefing that “the Republican-run states are in strong shape,” a dynamic that he suggested would strengthen his “negotiating position.”

He said that he would look at the issue, after a pause. “If we do that, we’ll have to get something for it,” he said.

After pictures of packed California beaches led to an outcry that social distancing guidelines were being flagrantly flouted, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said Thursday that beaches in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, were ordered closed.

“We are going to do a hard close in that part of the state, just in the Orange County area,” he said, while praising the behavior of beachgoers elsewhere.

The governor’s decision came after his pleas to slow the spread of the virus by staying home, despite the temptations of seawater and sunny weather. Photographs of umbrellas and surfers dotting the shorelines of some beaches showed that many residents had not heeded his requests.

Mr. Newsom said the beach shutdown in Orange County was a “temporary closure,” adding, “I hope it’s a very short-term adjustment.”

State parks would remain open “as long as we are modifying our behavior and practicing the physical distancing,” he said.

Nathan Click, a spokesman for Mr. Newsom, said the beach closures were effective on Friday. The order applied to both state and local beaches, Mr. Click said.

Beaches in warmer parts of the nation have become flash points for weeks, as photographs showed social distancing guidelines being flouted. Images of crowded beaches in Florida during spring break prompted national outrage.

Now, as spring brings warmer weather, beaches are posing a challenge to more coastal states. Many are struggling to find a balance that will allow them to provide safe outdoor spaces to a frustrated, pent-up public while preventing the kind of large, packed gatherings that can help spread the virus — but which are commonly found on big public beaches.

Other states, however, were reopening their beaches.

Alabama allowed its beaches to reopen on Thursday afternoon under the governor’s new “safer-at-home” order, which limits gatherings to fewer than 10 people and requires six feet between groups from different households. Beaches in Galveston, Texas, will reopen on Friday after the governor’s phased reopening order, which permits outdoor activities as long as people take precautions to “minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

Earlier this week, the City Council in Newport Beach, which is in Orange County, voted down a measure that would have closed the beaches during the next three weekends. Instead, the city asked for more police officers and lifeguards to patrol the beaches and enforce social distancing.

Also on Thursday, NASCAR said it planned to make a comeback with live auto racing in late May, staging seven races in 11 days without spectators at tracks in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Even before the state began considering closing beaches, the flurry of beachgoers last weekend prompted some local governments to take action.

In Northern California, Santa Cruz County on Wednesday said it was closing beaches entirely between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. beginning this weekend, and that they would be open for only “recreational activities to promote physical and mental health” outside of that window. Officials there said the order was a direct result of the “overwhelming weekend beach crowds.”

“Despite warnings against traveling to Santa Cruz County for beach access and against congregating on beaches, local law enforcement spent the weekend responding to numerous issues all along our coastline,” Sheriff Jim Hart of Santa Cruz County said in a statement. “Unfortunately, these actions are necessary to protect the health and welfare of our most vulnerable residents.”

A Newport Beach spokesman, John Pope, said a statewide closure would not be difficult to enforce, but that it could inflame divisions among conservative civil libertarians and residents who fear further spread of the virus. “There are passionate arguments on both sides,” he said, “and this is going to get very political very fast.

Nursing homes will face federal inspections and reporting requirements, Trump says.

President Trump announced that the federal government would increase inspections of nursing homes, which have been at the center of the pandemic. The facilities would be required to report cases directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with testing data posted online.

“I guess you could call it a little bit of a weak spot because things are happening at the nursing homes that we are not happy about,” Mr. Trump said at the White House during an event focused on protecting older Americans from the virus. “We don’t want to have them happen, so we will be taking care of it very carefully and methodically.”

The inspections will be financed by money from the federal relief packages approved by Congress, Mr. Trump said. Testing data from nursing homes will be posted online, and facilities will be required to report cases to residents and their family members, the president said. Mr. Trump said a commission of industry experts, doctors, scientists, family members and patient advocates would be formed to monitor safety and quality.

The announcement reiterated a significant effort to address one of the deadliest settings of the pandemic in the United States. The virus has devastated nursing homes, which house the infirm and elderly, often with insufficient resources.

“This is a big deal,” said Dr. Kevin Kavanaugh, a Kentucky physician who has lobbied for greater transparency from nursing homes. “If you report these pathogens, you’re able to better formulate strategies to prevent them from coming in,” he said. “If you cover up the problem, you have no idea how to stop it from happening.”

The New York Times has identified more than 6,400 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the United States with coronavirus cases. More than 100,000 residents and staff members at those facilities have contracted the virus, and more than 17,000 have died. That means more than a quarter of the deaths in the pandemic have been linked to long-term care facilities.

Senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the outbreak, according to current and former American officials. The effort comes as Mr. Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.

Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.

Reporting for The New York Times, Mark Mazzetti, Julian E. Barnes, Edward Wong and Adam Goldman investigate how scientists, spies and government officials have wrestled for months with varying theories about how the outbreak began. Many agree on the importance of determining the genesis of the pandemic. In government and academia, however, experts have ruled out the notion that it was concocted as a bioweapon. And they agree that the new pathogen began as a bat virus that evolved naturally, probably in another mammal, to become adept at infecting and killing humans.

Mr. Trump leaned into the theory that it originated in a Chinese lab at a White House briefing Thursday evening, but offered no evidence. Asked if he had seen anything that gave him a high degree of confidence that the virus had originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Mr. Trump replied, “Yes I have.” But asked what gave him that confidence, he said, “I can’t tell you that; I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

A few veteran national security experts have pointed to a history of lab accidents infecting researchers to suggest it might have happened in this case, but many scientists have dismissed such theories.

The figures announced Thursday by the Labor Department brought the number of workers joining the official jobless ranks in the last six weeks to more than 30 million, underscoring just how dire economic conditions remain.

Many state agencies still find themselves overwhelmed by the flood of claims, leaving perhaps millions with dwindling resources to pay the rent or put food on the table.

If anything, the job losses may be far worse than government figures indicate, according to many economists. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that roughly 50 percent more people than counted as filing claims in a recent four-week period may have qualified for benefits but were stymied in applying or didn’t even try because they found the process too formidable.

“The problem is even bigger than the data suggest,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the institute, a left-leaning research group. “We’re undercounting the economic pain.”

As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano reported, systems that were devised to treat each unemployment case as potentially fraudulent are now rushing to deal with millions of newly unemployed people.

The state unemployment systems that were supposed to help millions of jobless workers were full of boxes to check and mandates to meet that couldn’t possibly apply in a pandemic.

States required workers to document their job searches, weekly; to register with employment services, in person; to take a wait period before their first check, up to 10 days.

Such requirements increased in the years following the Great Recession, as many states moved to tighten access to or reduce unemployment benefits. With them, most states cut the share of jobless workers they helped.

Now these requirements have been getting in the way. Effectively, many states have been trying to scale up aid with systems built to keep claims low.

Stocks fell on Thursday, giving up some of their gains from the day before, after the weekly unemployment report. The S&P 500 closed down nearly 1 percent.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Thursday that the New York City subway would halt service from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. each night so trains could be disinfected.

The policy will go into effect next Wednesday, the governor said. Public transit in New York City is the only system in the United States, and among the relatively few in the world, that runs 24 hours a day.

“This is as ambitious as anything we’ve ever undertaken,” the governor said.

He said that shuttle buses, dollar vans and even for-hire vehicles would provide what he called an “essential connector” during those hours to transport essential workers who needed to get to their jobs.

The announcement comes after days of building tension over homeless people using subway trains as an alternative form of shelter and creating what many felt were unsanitary conditions on trains. On Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo, who effectively controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the transit system, had declared the situation “disgusting.”

The governor said Thursday that Mayor Bill de Blasio would help lead the effort to coordinate transportation during the halt and praised the mayor for his cooperation.

“It’s a heck of an undertaking by the mayor and I applaud him for his ambition here in stepping up and taking this on,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Mr. de Blasio, appearing at Mr. Cuomo’s briefing via video, said that the effort would be a way to help homeless people, whose life on the subways he called “an unacceptable reality.”

Here are some other highlights from the governor’s morning briefing:

  • 306 more people died of the virus in the state, the lowest daily death toll since March 30.

  • The number of new hospital admissions for virus patients declined, after it ticked up slightly on Wednesday.

  • The number of virus patients in hospitals dropped for the 17th day in a row and is now below 12,000 — down nearly 40 percent from mid-April, when there were nearly 19,000 hospitalized patients.

Mr. Cuomo also gave more details on the state’s planned effort to test and trace, saying that the “massive” effort would require hiring between 6,400 and 17,000 contact tracers, depending on the virus’s spread.

“When social distancing is relaxed, contract tracing is our best hope for isolating the virus when it appears and keeping it isolated,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who appeared by video at the governor’s briefing and who has volunteered to lead the effort.

Gilead Sciences plans to give away the first 1.5 million doses of remdesivir, an antiviral drug shown to modestly reduce recovery time in virus patients, if the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency approval.

Gilead could charge for the drug under a so-called emergency use authorization from the agency. But at least at the beginning, Gilead will provide the drug free of charge, Dan O’Day, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview on Thursday.

The company started planning in January to manufacture remdesivir in large quantities, well before large federal trial of the antiviral drug began at the end of February.

The results, announced by administration officials on Wednesday, showed that patients receiving the drug recovered in 11 days on average, compared to 15 days for patients receiving a placebo.

Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the results were “a very important proof of concept” but not a “knockout.”

Gilead has about 1.5 million vials of remdesivir on hand, enough to treat 140,000 to 150,000 patients with a ten-day course, Mr. O’Day said. Gilead should have enough to treat 500,000 patients by the fall, and one million by December, he added.

Gilead has not decided yet on whether or what to charge for the drug in the long run, Mr. O’Day said.

Gilead has a controversial history with drug pricing, noted Harvard health care economist Aaron Kesselheim.

The company bought a drug that cured hepatitis C from a small company, and then charged so much for it — $1,000 for a pill, which translated into $84,000 for a course of treatment — that many state Medicaid programs and prison systems could not afford it.

“A lot of people with hepatitis C did not get the drug early on,” Dr. Kesselheim said. “And this was a drug, unlike remdesivir, that was a curative treatment for an otherwise chronic and deadly disease.”

Dr. Kesselheim said pricing for remdesivir should take into account a large public investment in the drug. It was developed and tested by scientists at Vanderbilt University and Emory University, among other institutions, and the federal trial was taxpayer-funded, he noted.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized emergency use of a high-pressure ventilator developed by NASA engineers who usually work on interplanetary space missions. The device is one of numerous ventilators and other medical tools that engineers and scientists around the world have devised to help hospitals respond to the strain of Covid-19 cases.

Called VITAL, short for Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally, the device is simpler than traditional ventilators and tailored specifically for patients suffering from severe symptoms of the novel coronavirus. In 37 days, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California completed work on the ventilator, designing it to use fewer parts and to be easily modified. But it is intended to last only three to four months. A prototype passed tests at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Vice President Mike Pence was photographed wearing a face mask for the first time on Thursday during a visit to a General Motors plant in Indiana.

Mr. Pence was criticized earlier this week for flouting the guidelines of Mayo Clinic that asked for all visitors to wear face masks. Surrounded by administration officials and medical professionals wearing masks, Mr. Pence appeared to be the only person at the clinic who was not covering his face.

At the time, Mr. Pence defended himself, saying he was tested regularly for the coronavirus, so there was no need for him to wear a face mask because he was not at risk of contributing to asymptomatic spread, an argument that experts immediately dismissed as faulty. But in his first public outing since then, Mr. Pence appeared to concede to public pressure and covered his face.

The vice president visited a General Motors plant in his home state that had been converted into a ventilator production site. He participated in a round-table discussion with employees there.

“It’s amazing to think this floor was empty about a month ago,” Mr. Pence said. “It was a partnership to meet a vital need for Americans struggling in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.”

There’s no evidence that drugs championed by Trump help virus patients, researchers say.

A report from Harvard researchers adds to the growing doubts about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drugs that Mr. Trump has repeatedly advocated for virus patients.

The drugs “should only be used with caution and in the context of carefully thought out clinical trials, or on a case-by-case basis after rigorous consideration of the risks and benefits,” the researchers wrote, in an article posted Thursday in The Faseb Journal, published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

The authors found evidence that the drugs could harm Covid patients, but no evidence that they could help, in an analysis of 10 published studies.

The drugs can cause dangerous abnormalities in heart rhythm, especially in high doses or when combined with the antibiotic azithromycin — which some doctors have recommended — or with other drugs that may also disrupt heart rhythm.

The Harvard researchers also noted that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine affect the immune system, which could have unintended consequences in virus patients, maybe even diminishing their ability to fight it off.

Top Army leaders on Thursday defended their decision to summon 1,000 cadets back to West Point in June for a graduation ceremony featuring a speech by the president. The students would have to return anyway to take physical exams, pack their belongings and move out of their barracks, they said.

Mr. Trump and the academy have been criticized since he abruptly announced on April 17 that he would be speaking at West Point, the only major service academy he had not yet addressed. Students had left campus in early March as the outbreak in New York State intensified.

The West Point superintendent said on Thursday that returning seniors would be screened, tested and quarantined for 14 days before graduation. Ample medical supplies and personnel were on hand, he said, adding, “we’ve created a safety bubble.”

By contrast, the city of Chicago had a workaround for its more than 40,000 graduating high school seniors stuck at home: a virtual commencement ceremony featuring Oprah Winfrey.

The ceremony, details of which are still being worked out, will take place in mid-June. It will include performances, speeches and a keynote address by Ms. Winfrey, who lives and works in the city and will not be paid for her remarks. Students from local private and religious schools will also be included.

In an interview, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago said it had been a difficult period for the city’s students, whose studies and post-graduation plans were affected by a teacher’s strike that came a few months later by the school closures in March.

Given everything, she said, “I feel we owe our seniors a proper send-off.”

Macy’s plans to reopen all of its 775 stores in 6 to 8 weeks.

The reopening plan will start on Monday with 68 stores in Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, and another 50 locations on May 11. Macy’s said it would reopen stores only in markets where state and local governments said it was safe for nonessential retailers to return to business. The chain temporarily closed its stores on March 18, causing the majority of its sales to disappear, and furloughed the majority of its 123,000 employees in the past month.

Macy’s expects that its reopened stores will only bring in about 15 to 20 percent of their typical business at first and “slowly build” from there, the company’s chief executive, Jeff Gennette, said during a presentation. He acknowledged that it was an open question as to whether shoppers would return.

There will be new protocols for fitting rooms and beauty counters, associates will wear company-issued cloth masks and sometimes gloves, hand sanitizer stations will be placed by elevators and escalators, and plexiglass barriers will be installed at cash registers.

The pandemic has hit small and independent restaurants hard, forcing owners to shutter dining rooms and lay off employees. But the shutdowns have done more than imperil the restaurants’ financial health — they have made the buildings themselves tempting targets for burglars emboldened by the quiet streets and deserted spaces.

Across the country, closed restaurants have been invaded by thieves who seem especially drawn to well-stocked liquor cabinets, and iPads and other equipment.

“It’s the perfect storm,” said Kam Razavi, an owner of a California restaurant who watched from his phone as security cameras recorded a burglar helping himself to the best bottles in the bar. “They know everybody is probably at home with a loaded gun. They’re not going to go rob homes. They’re going to go to closed businesses.”

When his restaurant was broken into in early April, Mr. Razavi had already laid off most of his 75 or so employees, and was uncertain whether he would ever reopen. Now, he is out $5,000 from stolen alcohol, a broken door and cleanup costs.

Most restaurant owners who have had burglaries expect their insurance companies to cover at least a portion of the damage, though the pandemic has created backlogs for claims, delaying payments in some cases.

Some burglars have not gotten far. Shortly after the lockdown in New York, a would-be thief broke into Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, in Harlem, and put a few half-empty bottles of alcohol into a bag. When he came upstairs from the basement, police officers were waiting for him.

Need help figuring out the balance between your screens and your life?

Phones and computers are keeping us tethered to the outside world during the pandemic. But being thoughtful about your use of screens can help you emerge from this crisis empowered, and with more self-awareness.

Follow updates on the pandemic from our team of international correspondents.

South Korea on Thursday reported that for the first time since the virus peaked on Feb. 29, it had no new domestic cases and just four cases among people who came from outside the country. That progress has been mirrored in Hong Kong, which on Thursday reported that there had been no new cases for five straight days.

Reporting was contributed by Emily Badger, Peter Baker, Karen Barrow, Alan Blinder, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Jonah Engel Bromwich, Kenneth Chang, Emily Cochrane, Michael Cooper, Maria Cramer, Alan Feuer, Thomas Fuller, Oskar Garcia, Michael Gold, Dana Goldstein, Denise Grady, Shawn Hubler, Danielle Ivory, Annie Karni, Kate Kelly, Gina Kolata, Lisa Lerer, Sapna Maheshwari, David McCabe, Sarah Mervosh, Tariro Mzezewa, Amelia Nierenberg, Alicia Parlapiano, Matt Phillips, Brad Plumer, Matt Richtel, Marc Santora, Eric Schmitt, Ashley Southall, Eileen Sullivan, Kenneth P. Vogel, David Waldstein and David Yaffe-Bellany.

Source link