Chicago mayor loosens COVID-related capacity restrictions for businesses including bars, restaurants

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday loosened COVID-19-related capacity restrictions for businesses such as bars, restaurants and health clubs, a move that will go into effect later this week.

The new guidelines, which will take effect on Thursday, will increase indoor capacity to 40% for certain businesses, reopen bars for indoor service and increase maximum group sizes for fitness classes and after-school programming, a statement from the mayor’s office said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘Wild, wild West’: Wisconsin reopens for business

By Brendan O’Brien

PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. (Reuters) – As a handful of patrons sat at the bar nursing beers and watching a rerun of a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game on a cloudy Thursday afternoon, Junior Useling prepared for what he hoped would be another busy night at the Patio Bar & Grill.

It was just last evening that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the governor does not have the power to impose a statewide coronavirus lockdown, sparking a mix of hope and confusion among struggling business owners across the Midwestern state.

Useling, 71, considers himself one of the lucky ones: Port Washington is part of Ozaukee County, which unlike a half-dozen other counties and cities across Wisconsin has interpreted the court’s decision as an unfettered green light.

“Why would I stay closed? … I got mortgages and bills. My god, if we kept on going we would all be broke,” he told Reuters. “This country is supposed to be free to do what you want.”

The court sided with a legal challenge from Republican lawmakers who argued the state’s top public health official, Andrea Palm, exceeded her authority by imposing a stay-at-home order through May 26.

Not long after the ruling was announced, some beer-loving Wisconsinites rushed to bars for their first taste of freedom in nearly two months, and pictures appeared on social media of maskless crowds of revelers nowhere near 6 feet apart.

The rift over how and when to reopen in Wisconsin reflects its status as a key battleground for the Nov. 3 presidential election, along with neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Donald Trump won by a hair in 2016.

At a media briefing on Thursday, Palm urged state residents to continue to stay home even if their local leaders said otherwise, warning that relaxed restrictions risked “increasing our cases and deaths.”

Wisconsin had recorded 11,380 coronavirus cases and 433 deaths as of Thursday.

The owner of Remington’s River Inn, Amy Ollman, said she had already made up her mind to reopen before the ruling, a decision endorsed by a patron who shouted “open up America” as she described cleaning tables and chairs for the past two weeks.

“Top to bottom, left to right, we cleaned this entire place,” she said from behind her bar in the village of Thiensville, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Milwaukee and also part of Ozaukee County. “It’s time to get back to normalcy.”

WRESTLING WITH DECISIONS

The court’s decision came as state leaders wrestle with how and when to relax mandatory business closures and other restrictions on social gatherings that have proved successful in slowing the outbreak but have devastated the economy.

Like most of his counterparts, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has had to weigh the interests of cities such as Milwaukee and Madison against less-populated areas that have seen fewer cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Evers’ one-size-fits-all approach rankled Republicans in his state and drew fire from President Donald Trump, who took a swipe at the governor on Twitter on Thursday saying Wisconsin was “bustling” and “people want to get on with their lives.”

But the court’s ruling also triggered confusion as some local leaders in cities such as Milwaukee and Appleton, as well as in Dane, Brown and Kenosha counties, kept their lockdowns in place.

Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, sent out guidance on Thursday telling her group’s 7,000 mainly independent eating and drinking establishments to follow local restrictions if they exist.

“The rest of the state they can open 100% however they want,” she said. “It’s a little bit of the Wild Wild West right now.”

Mike Eitel said his phone “blew up” after the court ruling with patrons wanting to know if Milwaukee’s Nomad World Pub and the other establishments he owns would be opening that night. He said it was a clear sign of pent-up demand.

But like other owners, Eitel said he has struggled to buy masks, gloves and other protective equipment for his workers, is faced with rising meat prices and wonders if a bar can even be profitable with strict social distancing rules.

He has also had to straddle two worlds: while the Nomad cannot open its doors until May 26 at the earliest under city rules, the outdoor bar and water sports rental shop he runs in neighboring Waukesha County has been free of any restrictions as of Wednesday night.

“There is massive confusion on what it all means,” Eitel said. “It’s insane.”

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Port Washington, Wisconsin and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Daniel Wallis)

Fed cuts rates and NYC, LA close restaurants to fight coronavirus

By Lindsay Dunsmuir and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With panic buying on Main Street and fear-driven sell-offs on Wall Street, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero on Sunday in another emergency move to help shore up the U.S. economy amid the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic.

The mayors of New York City and Los Angeles ordered restaurants, bars and cafes closed, with takeout and delivery the only options for food sales. Movie theaters, small theater houses and concert venues were also ordered closed as the U.S. death toll from the outbreak hit 65.

“The virus can spread rapidly through the close interactions New Yorkers have in restaurants, bars and places where we sit close together,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We have to break that cycle.”

For the second time since the financial crisis of 2008, the Fed cut rates at an emergency meeting, aiming for a target range of 0% to 0.25% to help put a floor under a rapidly disintegrating global economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who had openly pressed the Fed for further action, called the move “terrific” and “very good news.”

Store shelves have been stripped bare of essentials, schools closed and millions of jobs in jeopardy as businesses temporarily shut their doors.

“We’re learning from watching other countries,” Trump said. “It’s a very contagious virus … but it’s something that we have tremendous control of.”

Trump has faced criticism at home and abroad for sometimes downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus and overstating his administration’s ability to handle it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said the United States was entering a new phase of coronavirus testing but tempered the president’s optimism.

“The worst is yet ahead for us,” Fauci said, a warning he has issued frequently in the past week. “It is how we respond to that challenge that is going to what the ultimate end point is going to be.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said testing for coronavirus was expanding with more than 2,000 labs across the country ready to process tests and 10 states operating drive-through testing.

The United States has lagged behind other industrialized nations in its ability to test for the coronavirus. In early March, the Trump administration said close to 1 million coronavirus tests would soon be available and anyone who needed a test would get one, a promise it failed to keep.

With limited testing available, U.S. officials have recorded nearly 3,000 cases and 65 deaths, up from 58 on Saturday. Globally more than 162,000 are infected and over 6,000 have died.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Sunday recommended that events with gatherings of 50 or more people over the next eight weeks be postponed or canceled.

DON’T HOARD

The White House appealed to Americans not to hoard as the coronavirus spreads, reassuring them that grocery supply chains were strong.

Trump held a phone call on Sunday with 30 executives from grocery stores including Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Whole Foods, Target Corp <TGT.N>, Costco Wholesale Corp <COST.O> and Walmart Inc <WMT.N>, the White House said.

“Have a nice dinner, relax because there’s plenty, but you don’t have to … you don’t have to buy the quantities,” Trump said. “We’re doing really, really well. A lot of good things are going to happen.”

Trump tested negative for coronavirus, his doctors said on Saturday, as the president extended a travel ban to Britain and Ireland to try to slow the pandemic.

Trump’s spokesman, Judd Deere, said temperature checks will be conducted on everyone who enters the White House grounds, beginning Monday morning.

Travelers returning to the United States and being screened for the coronavirus were met by long lines and massive delays at some major airports, prompting federal officials to deploy more staff and Trump to appeal for patience.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, squaring off in a Democratic debate, blasted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and touted their own plans to deal with it.

In their first one-on-one debate, the two Democratic contenders to face Trump in the November election said the Republican president had contributed to worries about the pandemic by minimizing the threat before declaring a national emergency on Friday.

CLOSURES EXPAND

The U.S. containment measures have so far been mild compared to the nationwide lockdowns imposed in Italy, France and Spain.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Even though Americans are not barred from going to the movies, ticket sales in North America fell to their lowest level in more than two decades this weekend, according to measurement firm Comscore.

Democratic New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that schools in New York City, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties would close from Monday, and he called on Trump to mobilize the Army Corps of Engineers to create more hospital beds.

Cuomo had been criticized for not closing schools as other states have done, given that New York has a large cluster of coronavirus cases.

A clinical trial to evaluate a vaccine designed to protect against coronavirus will begin on Monday, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed U.S. government official.

It would take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine, the AP added, citing public health officials.

(For an interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus, open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Andrea Shalal, Nandita Bose, Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk, John Whitesides, Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Diane Craft, Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle.)