Record California wildfires burn over four million acres

By Adrees Latif

NAPA, Calif. (Reuters) – Wildfires in California have burned more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) in 2020, over twice the previous record for any year and an area larger than Connecticut, the state’s fire agency reported on Sunday.

The most-populous U.S. state has suffered five of its six largest wildfires in history this year as heat waves and dry-lightning sieges coincided with drier conditions that climate scientists blame on global warming.

At least 31 people have died in this year’s fires and over 8,454 homes and other structures have been destroyed, Cal Fire said in a statement.

California’s previous record burn area was nearly 2 million acres in 2018 when the state had its most deadly and destructive wildfire that killed at least 85 civilians and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in and around the mountain town of Paradise.

“There’s no words to describe what is taking place and what continues to take place,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. “It goes to show how dry the state is and how volatile the vegetation is.”

California suffered a prolonged drought from around 2010 to 2017, causing diseases and insect infestations that killed millions of trees. That followed a century of fire suppression that also built up brush and dead trees, turning some forests into tinderboxes.

City real-estate prices and second-home construction have seen the growth of communities in peripheral, wildland areas that have naturally burned for millennia.

In the world-famous wine country of Napa County, the so-called Glass Fire has damaged over a dozen wineries. Vineyards worked through the night on Saturday to pick grape varieties that can resist smoke damage. Some crops heavily exposed to smoke may be a write-off.

Firefighters were expected to get a break from cooler temperatures in Northern California this week, with a chance of rain, Cal Fire said.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif; Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. COVID-19 deaths exceed 180,000, cases continue to fall

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus topped 180,000 on Thursday after a surge of new cases in June and July, many of them in hotspots like California, Florida, and Texas.

There were some signs of an improving outlook. Last week, deaths fell 17% from the prior week and below an average of 1,000 a day for the first time in weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

However, while U.S. metrics on cases, deaths, hospitalizations and test positivity rates were declining, health experts warned there could be another surge as schools reopen and colder weather forces more gatherings indoors.

This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people exposed to COVID-19 but not symptomatic may not need to be tested. This contradicted earlier guidance from the CDC, shocking doctors and politicians and prompting accusations that it may have been based not on sound science but on political pressure from the Trump administration.

The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut slammed the CDC’s move as “reckless” and “not based on science,” and said they will not change testing guidelines in their states.

“CDC and HHS have not shared their scientific rationale for this change in policy, which substitutes sound science-based public health guidance with the president’s misinformation,” they said in a joint statement. “Health experts recommend testing close contacts of individuals with COVID-19 to identify and prevent asymptomatic spread. This type of robust testing by our states has been a key factor in our success so far to flatten the curve in the tri-state area.”

On Wednesday, the top U.S. government infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told CNN he was having surgery during discussion of the change and expressed worry about the CDC’s move.

U.S. confirmed cases are now over 5.8 million – the highest total in the world. The U.S. death toll is also the world’s highest.

On a per capita basis, the United States ranks 12th in the world for the number of deaths, with 54 deaths per 100,000 people, and tenth in the world for cases, with 1,774 cases per 100,000 residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

U.S. consumer confidence dropped in August to its lowest in more than six years, as households worried about the labor market and incomes, casting doubts on the sustainability of the economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

The ebb in confidence followed the expiration of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit supplement on July 31.

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked over the size and shape of a fifth coronavirus-response bill, on top of the approximately $3 trillion already enacted into law.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and David Gregorio)

Ballot drop boxes are latest battleground in U.S. election fight

By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – Welcome to the latest partisan flash point in the U.S. presidential election: the ballot drop box.

As U.S. election officials gird for a dramatic expansion of mail voting in the Nov. 3 election, Democrats across the country are promoting drop boxes as a convenient and reliable option for voters who don’t want to entrust their ballots to the U.S. Postal Service.

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, has sued to prevent their use in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, alleging that the receptacles could enable voting fraud.

Republican officials in other states have prevented their use. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told a U.S. Senate committee in July that drop boxes could enable people to violate a state law against collecting ballots.

In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft decided not to distribute 80 drop boxes he had purchased because state law requires those ballots to be returned by mail.

“We didn’t want to cause confusion with voters,” spokeswoman Maura Browning said.

Drop boxes have taken on new urgency after cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service slowed mail delivery nationwide and Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of mail ballots. Polls show the Republican president trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a race that some experts say could see half of all votes cast absentee.

Some say the drop box battle is a lot of fuss over a piece of civic furniture — typically a heavily constructed metal box placed in a public location, often monitored by video.

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill is recommending that voters return their ballots via drop box rather than through the mail for the November election, after receiving reports that some ballots mailed a week before the state’s Aug. 11 nominating contests arrived too late to be counted.

Three-quarters of ballots in that August primary were cast absentee, she said, up from roughly 4% in prior years. Merrill, a Democrat, said the state’s 200 newly installed drop boxes had proven a safe and popular option.

“I do not understand why people think they’re such a problem,” Merrill said. “They’re more secure than mailboxes.”

Republicans in Pennsylvania don’t share that sentiment. Trump won that competitive state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. Winning there again could prove pivotal in his quest to secure a second term in office.

The Trump campaign is suing to force the state to pull all drop boxes used in the June primary. It argues that people could drop off multiple ballots in boxes that are unstaffed, which is an illegal practice in Pennsylvania. State officials “have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted,” the lawsuit states.

The Trump campaign said in a court filing on Saturday that it had complied with a judge’s order to provide evidence of alleged fraud to the defendants. That evidence has not been made public. Trump lawyers did not respond to a request by Reuters to see it.

Bruce Marks, a former Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, said drop boxes do not provide a clear chain of custody for the ballots deposited inside.

“There’s no one watching or tracking,” he said.

Proponents say stuffing a ballot into a locked drop box is no different from dropping one into a Postal Service letter box. Pennsylvania Republicans oppose drop boxes because Democrats have had much more success in getting their voters to sign up for mail ballots this year, greater than a two-to-on margin, said Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

“(Republicans) know the easier it is for everyday people to vote, the more likely it is that they will lose,” Welch said. “Maybe they should spend their energy trying to match Pennsylvania Democrats’ organizing efforts in the Keystone State instead.”

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has defended Pennsylvania’s use of drop boxes, arguing they are legal and essential, particularly in the age of the coronavirus.

ONE BOX, 864,000 VOTERS

In neighboring Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said last week that he did not want to risk a similar lawsuit as he announced that he would authorize one drop box for each of the state’s 88 counties. He said the Republican-controlled legislature had not given him the authority to provide more.

Democrats are pressing LaRose to revise his decision, pointing out that it leaves the 864,000 registered voters of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, with the same number of drop boxes as the 8,400 registered voters of Republican Vinton County.

“You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach with our counties,” said Kathleen Clyde, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Ohio. “One drop box doesn’t cut it.”

LaRose in the meantime is trying to secure prepaid postage for mail ballots, spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said, “effectively making every mailbox its own drop box.”

Michigan, another battleground state, has added drop boxes this year.

Wisconsin’s five largest cities, including Milwaukee, are setting up drop boxes as part of a secure-voting plan funded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group.

In hotly contested Florida, Democrats in Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest, are seeking to remove some procedural hurdles to make it easier for voters to use drop boxes.

Unlike other counties in the state, Miami-Dade voters must provide election officials with valid identification when dropping off a ballot at a drop box. Election workers also manually record a 14-digit number printed on the voter’s envelope into a log.

The whole process can take up to three minutes, the Democratic Party said in a letter to local election officials seeking to allow voters to drop their ballots quickly without the processing requirements.

“Trump has sabotaged the post office deliberately and we have to find ways around that. We think making it easier to use a drop box, and avoid the post office, is part of the solution,” said Steve Simeonidis, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

The White House has said Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

NOT TENSE EVERYWHERE

Security measures required for ballot drop boxes vary by state. In Montana, these receptacles must be staffed by at least two election officials, while in New Mexico they must be monitored by video, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Before 2020, eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — had laws detailing how and where drop boxes could be used.

Returning ballots this way proved popular: In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of mail ballots were returned either to a drop box or to an election office in the 2016 presidential election, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey.

Drop boxes haven’t been controversial in those states.

“Both parties use it at a really high rate, so a lot of those tensions don’t exist here,” said Murphy Bannerman of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan voting-rights group.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Quarantine or not, tourists still flock to New Mexico

By Andrew Hay

RED RIVER, N.M. (Reuters) – In the New Mexico mountain resort of Red River, tourists from Texas stroll along Main Street, most disregarding Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders they quarantine and wear masks.

It’s the same in other New Mexican tourist towns such as Taos and Santa Fe, except nearly all their visitors wear face coverings – surrounded by signs warning of fines if they don’t.

Like governors in at least 15 states, Democrat Lujan Grisham has ordered out-of-state tourists to self-isolate, citing data that about one in 10 of New Mexico’s spiking COVID-19 cases comes from visitors.

Enforcing the orders is proving difficult, given the lack of a national plan, police reluctance to take on the massive task, and Americans’ penchant for driving hundreds or thousands of miles to vacation, even in a pandemic.

A U.S. road trip this summer means navigating through a patchwork of quarantine regulations across various states, most of them voluntary.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut require travelers from 19 states with high COVID-19 infection rates to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. New York imposes fines.

Hard-hit Florida requires travelers from those three states to self-isolate for 14 days whether arriving by plane or car, or face a $500 fine.

Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont all have varying self-isolation rules.

‘TAKING AWAY OUR LIBERTY’

New Mexico published newspaper ads in neighboring Arizona and Texas, states respectively reporting 27% and 18% positive coronavirus test rates, urging their residents not to visit. Health experts consider a 5% rate to be worrisome.

But tourists keep coming.

“I think it’s bullshit. They’re saying the masks should work, so why should you be quarantined?” said Chris Fry, 59, a feed company manager from Dimmitt, Texas, staying in his cabin near Red River and stopping in town for ice before going fishing.

A 45-minute drive south in Taos Plaza, Louisiana tourist Christy Brasiel was frustrated the historic Native American community was closed to visitors and compared Lujan Grisham’s rules to “communism or socialism.”

“They’re taking away our liberty,” said Brasiel, 49, staying in an Airbnb rental to avoid her voluntary quarantine order enforced by local hotels that turn away out-of-state visitors.

As in cities across New Mexico, police in Red River have yet to issue citations for non-compliance to COVID-19 rules, said Mayor Linda Calhoun, a Republican, adding that she is encouraging businesses to require masks.

“We live off of tourists, that’s all we have, so it’s very difficult for us to enforce the order,” Calhoun said of the quarantine rule in her town nicknamed “Little Texas” for the number of visitors from that state.

Many locals in Taos County, where COVID-19 cases have doubled in the last month, are dismayed by the rule breaking.

“It doesn’t make any sense to be so selfish,” said lawyer Maureen Moore, 67.

“WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE”

Only three weeks ago, as outbreaks raged across the U.S. Sunbelt, New Mexico reported stable or declining daily cases.

A poor state with limited hospital capacity, New Mexico used early, tough restrictions to curb the pandemic.

But with its positive test rate rising above 4%, Lujan Grisham has scolded New Mexicans for letting down their guard since she eased restrictions on June 1, and on Monday re-closed indoor restaurant dining.

On a shortlist as a running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Lujan Grisham has also rounded on tourism, the state’s second-largest industry.

“We don’t want you here now,” she told potential visitors in a July 9 press briefing, taking special aim at Texans. “I want you to stay in Texas.”

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico State Police would “aggressively” enforce her quarantine and mask orders. The force has handed out 13 verbal warnings for mask violations but none for quarantine non-compliance, a spokeswoman said on Monday.

The rules are piling pandemic pain on businesses in the state. Standing outside his Red River supermarket, business owner Ted Calhoun said Lujan Grisham had gone too far.

“Ordering visitors to do a 14-day quarantine is killing the tourist industry of New Mexico,” said Calhoun, the mayor’s husband.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Red River, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown and Alistair Bell)

15 U.S. states to jointly work to advance electric heavy-duty trucks

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of 15 U.S. states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday unveiled a joint memorandum of understanding aimed at boosting the market for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and phasing out diesel-powered trucks by 2050.

The announcement comes weeks after the California Air Resources Board approved a groundbreaking policy to require manufacturers to sell a rising number of zero-emission vehicles, starting in 2024 and to electrify nearly all larger trucks by 2045.

The 14 states said the voluntary initiative is aimed at boosting the number of electric large pickup trucks and vans, delivery trucks, box trucks, school and transit buses, and long-haul delivery trucks, with the goal of ensuring all new medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales be zero emission vehicles (ZEV) by 2050 with a target of 30% ZEV sales by 2030.

The states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

The states committed to developing a plan within six months to identify barriers and propose solutions to support widespread electrification, including potential financial incentives and ways to boost EV infrastructure.

Trucks and buses represent 4% of U.S. vehicles, but account for nearly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

California’s mandate will put an estimated 300,000 zero-emission trucks on the road by 2035. California’s planned rules will initially require 5%-9% ZEVs based on class, rising to 30%-50% by 2030 and nearly all by 2045.

The push comes as a rising number of companies – including Rivian, Tesla Inc., Nikola Corp., and General Motors work to introduce zero emission trucks.

Major businesses like Amazon.com, UPS and Walmart have also said they are ramping up purchases of electric delivery trucks.

California later plans to adopt new limits on nitrogen oxide emissions, one of the major precursors of smog, as well as require large fleet owners to buy some ZEVs.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Hogue)

Six U.S. states to coordinate gradual reopening after coronavirus shutdown

By Maria Caspani and Jessica Resnick-Ault

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Six states in the U.S. Northeast took the first tentative step on Monday toward reopening their economies by forming a regional panel to develop a strategy for the gradual lifting of restrictions aimed at stanching the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement of the panel, to include economic and health officials from each state as well as the chief of staff of all six governors, came after President Donald Trump insisted that any decision on restarting the economy was his to make.

The states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with a total population of 32 million, will join with neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in coordinating their efforts to reopen the economy as more signs the outbreak has stabilized emerged over the weekend.

The joint planning reflected growing concern among health officials and political leaders that easing stay-at-home orders too soon could allow the pandemic to re-accelerate, undoing hard-won progress the country has made in recent weeks.

“Nobody has been here before, nobody has all the answers,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during an open conference call with his five counterparts. “Addressing public health and the economy: which one is first? They’re both first.”

Cuomo said earlier on Monday that reopening “is a delicate balance” that involved “recalibrating” which businesses and activities are essential.

The number of deaths reported in the United States overall on Sunday was 1,513, the smallest increase since April 6. The largest number of fatalities is still in and around New York City, the most populous U.S. city with about 8.4 million people.

Tensions between state governors and U.S. President Donald Trump have bubbled up since the outbreak worsened a month ago and surfaced in the debate about when and how to restart economic activity.

“It is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons,” Trump said on Twitter on Monday. He went on to write that his administration was working closely with the governors.

“A decision by me, in conjunction with the governors and input from others, will be made shortly!” Trump’s tweet said.

Legal experts say a U.S. president has limited power under the U.S. Constitution to order citizens back to their places of employment, or cities to reopen government buildings, transportation, or local businesses to reopen.

‘WORST IS OVER’ BUT…

Cuomo said on Monday that “the worst is over” for his state, the U.S. epicenter of the virus, but he hedged his remark with a warning that gains achieved through social distancing could be undone if “we do something stupid” and relax those restrictions too quickly.

“We can control the spread. Feel good about that,” Cuomo said. “The worst is over, if we continue to be smart going forward.”

Political leaders said a reopening of the economy may hinge on more widespread testing and cautioned that lifting of stay-at-home restrictions too early could reignite the outbreak. The Trump administration has signaled May 1 as a potential date for easing the restrictions.

The United States, with the world’s third-largest population, has recorded more fatalities from COVID-19 than any other country, with more than 23,000 deaths as of Monday morning, according to a Reuters tally.

Wyoming reported its first death from the coronavirus on Monday, the final U.S. state to report a fatality.

Official statistics, which exclude deaths outside of hospitals, have understated the actual number of people who have succumbed to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, health experts said. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T)

More than 10,000 people have died in New York state, and the death rate was “basically flat at an horrific level of pain and sorrow,” Cuomo said, referring to a flattening of the curve as seen on a graph.

In New York City, three indicators have to show a sustained decline before the city could consider the outbreak to be in a less dangerous phase, Mayor Bill de Blasio said: the daily number of people admitted to hospitals, the number of people in intensive care units, and the percentage of positive tests for the virus.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot acknowledged a “tightening” of the supply chain for swabs needed in coronavirus testing, and said it was part of a “national and international challenge” to ramp up testing.

Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, said testing for the coronavirus had improved “but we don’t have enough. Nobody has enough.”

“There’s just a limited supply for a massive amount of demand,” Sununu told CNN.

To ease the impact of the shutdown on the U.S. economy, the two top Democrats in the U.S. Congress urged Republicans on Monday to authorize more funding for national testing. An effort to rush fresh assistance to U.S. small businesses stalled in Congress as the health emergency failed to overcome partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani Jessica Resnick-Ault; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller)

CDC warns residents of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut against non-essential travel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday warned residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut against non-essential domestic travel for 14 days.

In a travel advisory posted on its website, the agency said the warning did not apply to employees of “critical infrastructure industries” including trucking, public health, financial services, and food supply professionals.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

White House-led airlift of urgently needed medical supplies arrives in New York

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard-hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.

The airlift is a product of a team led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, which formed “Project Airbridge,” a partnership between large U.S. healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc, and the federal government.

Representatives of those companies were to attend a White House meeting later on Sunday with President Donald Trump to discuss the effort, the official said.

The goal is to expedite the arrival of critical medical supplies purchased by the companies over the next 30 days, using planes instead of ships to reduce the shipping time.

“At President Trump’s direction we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure that massive amounts of masks, gear and other PPE will be brought to the United States immediately to better equip our health care workers on the front lines and to better serve the American people,” Kushner said in a statement.

Trump, accused of initially playing down the threat from the virus, has been searching for supplies to fill the mounting need for equipment to protect healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers across the country are clamoring for equipment to protect themselves from infection as they deal with the flood of virus victims.

The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.

FEMA will distribute most of the supplies to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the rest going to nursing homes in the area and other high-risk areas across the country.

The flight from Shanghai, China, was the first of about 20 flights to arrive between now and early April, the official said. Additional flights will carry similar gear from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the official said.

“It will be allocated based on need,” the White House official said.

Involved in the effort are the FEMA transportation task force as well as officials at both the U.S. embassy in China as well as the State Department’s East-Asia Pacific team, the official said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Trump says he might lock down New York as health workers call for more supplies

By Alexandra Alper and Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Saturday he might prohibit travel in and out of the New York area to limit the spread of the coronavirus from its U.S. epicenter, as healthcare workers in the hard-hit region said they did not have enough masks and medical equipment.

With the number of known cases soaring past 115,000, the highest tally in the world, Trump said he might impose a quarantine on New York, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut to protect other states that have yet to bear the brunt.

“They’re having problems down in Florida. A lot of New Yorkers are going down. We don’t want that,” Trump told reporters.

Since the virus first appeared in the United States in late January, Trump has vacillated between playing down the risks of infection and urging Americans to take steps to slow its spread.

Trump has also been reluctant to invoke emergency powers to order U.S. companies to produce much-needed medical supplies, despite the pleas of governors and hospital workers.

He also appeared to soften his previous comments calling for the U.S. economy to be reopened by mid-April. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

It was not clear whether Trump would be able to block road, air and sea travel out of a region that serves as the economic engine of the eastern United States, accounting for 10 percent of the population and 12 percent of GDP.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had no details on a possible quarantine order.

“I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know how that would be legally enforceable, and from a medical point of view I don’t know what you would be accomplishing,” Cuomo told reporters. “I don’t even like the sound of it.”

Some states have already imposed limits on interstate travel. New Yorkers arriving in Florida and Rhode Island face orders to self-isolate if they intend to stay, and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice asked New Yorkers to avoid citizens in his state.

New coronavirus cases in China leveled off after the government imposed a strict lockdown of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease.

The body count continues to climb in Italy, where authorities have blocked travel across the country and prevented people from leaving their houses for all but essential reasons.

In the United States, the number of cases stood at 119,327 on Saturday afternoon with at least 1,992 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. The number of cases in the United States eclipsed those of China and Italy on Thursday.

TOO LATE FOR A LOCKDOWN?

Trump said any New York-area lockdown would only apply to people leaving the region. It would not cover truckers making deliveries or driving through the area, he said.

U.S. courts would likely uphold a presidentially imposed quarantine, but Trump would not be able to enlist local police to enforce it, said Louisiana State University law professor Edward Richards.

“The logistics of deciding who is an essential person or essential cargo could shut down the ability to transport essential personnel and supplies,” he said.

Even if it were possible, a New York-area lockdown might come too late for the rest of the country.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Southern California was on track to match New York City’s infection figures in the next week.

In New Orleans, where Mardi Gras celebrations late last month fueled an outbreak, the number of coronavirus patients “have been staggering,” said Sophia Thomas, a nurse practitioner at DePaul Community Health Center.

American healthcare workers are appealing for more protective gear and equipment as a surge in patients pushes hospitals to their limits.

Doctors are also especially concerned about a shortage of ventilators, machines that help patients breathe and are widely needed for those suffering from COVID-19, the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Hospitals have also sounded the alarm about scarcities of drugs, oxygen tanks and trained staff.

On Saturday, nurses protested outside the Jacobi Medical Center in New York, saying supervisors asked them to reuse their masks, putting their own health at risk.

“The masks are supposed to be one-time use,” one nurse said, according to videos posted online.

One medical trainee at New York Presbyterian Hospital said they were given just one mask.

“It’s not the people who are making these decisions that go into the patients’ rooms,” said the trainee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Gabriella Borter and Brendan Pierson in New York, and Joel Schectman, Andy Sullivan and Michelle Price in Washington; and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Coronavirus stay-at-home directives multiply in major U.S. states

By Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – New Jersey’s governor was expected on Saturday to follow four other states – California, New York, Illinois and Connecticut – demanding that millions of Americans close up shop and stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus infections.

The sweeping state-by-state public health restrictions, unprecedented in breadth and scope, added to the distance being experienced among ordinary Americans.

“I know people want to hear it’s only going to be a matter of weeks and then everything’s going to be fine,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference on Saturday. “I don’t believe it’s going to be a matter of weeks. I believe it is going to be a matter of months.”

Meanwhile, the global pandemic seemed to close in on the highest levels of power in the nation’s capital.

An aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, leading the White House task force formed to combat the outbreak, tested positive for the virus, but neither President Donald Trump nor Pence have had close contact with the individual, Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, said in a statement late on Friday.

Pence’s office was notified of the positive test on Friday evening, and officials were seeking to determine who the staffer might have exposed, Miller said.

The aide was not publicly identified, and the vice president’s office did not immediately respond to a request for further details of the diagnosis or whether Pence would be tested.

“He’s recovering and has very, very mild symptoms,” Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short told CNN on Saturday.

The White House said last week that Pence did not require testing after dining with a Brazilian delegation, at least one member of which later tested positive for the respiratory illness. Trump has tested negative for the virus, his doctor said last week.

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives tested positive on Wednesday, becoming the first members of Congress known to have contracted the disease, which has killed 266 people in the United States.

The total number of known U.S. coronavirus cases has risen exponentially in recent days, climbing past 19,000 in a surge that health officials attributed in large part to an increase in diagnostic testing. More than 270 Americans have died.

Click  for a GRAPHIC on U.S. cases.

Cuomo said New York state was sending 1 million N95 respirator masks to New York City on Saturday. He said the state has identified 6,000 ventilators for purchase, which he described as a major step, but added that it needs 30,000.

“We are literally scouring the globe for medical supplies,” the governor said. New York state has recorded 10,356 cases, he said, 6,211 of them in New York City.

SOCIAL-DISTANCING GOES STATEWIDE

Expanding on social-distancing measures increasingly adopted at the local level, California Governor Gavin Newsom instituted the first statewide directive requiring residents to remain indoors except for trips to grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other “essential businesses.”

Newsom’s order, announced late on Thursday, made allowances for the state’s 40 million people to venture outside for exercise so long as they kept their distance from others.

On Friday, his counterparts in New York state, Illinois and Connecticut followed suit, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he planned to issue similar directives on Saturday.

The five states where governors have banned or will soon ban non-essential businesses and press residents to stay inside are home to 84 million people combined, about a quarter of the entire U.S. population and account for nearly a third of the nation’s economy.

The state directives were for the most part issued without strict enforcement mechanisms to back them up.

“What we want is for people to be in compliance and we’re going to do everything that we can to educate them,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a briefing on Saturday. Police officers would “admonish” those found to be on non-essential outings to go home, she said.

“That’s what we hope is the end of any kind of contact that anyone might have with the police department,” Lightfoot said.

Cuomo said there will be a civil fine and mandatory closure for any business that is not in compliance.

Even before the flurry of statewide stay-at-home orders, the pandemic had virtually paralyzed parts of the U.S. economy and upended lifestyles over the past week, as school districts and colleges canceled classes and many companies were shuttered, either voluntarily or by local government mandates.

Washington state, which documented the first known U.S. coronavirus case in January and now accounts for the greatest number of deaths – 83 as of Friday – has since March 16 closed bars, restaurants, recreation venues and entertainment facilities, while banning all gatherings of more than 50 people.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Caroline Spezio in New York; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Daniel Wallis)