Global economic outlook ‘somewhat less dire’ than expected: IMF

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The global economic outlook is not quite as dark as expected even just three months ago, a top International Monetary Fund official said on Thursday, citing better-than-anticipated economic data from China and other advanced economies.

However, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters the overall global outlook remained challenging as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on many economic sectors.

The situation remained “precarious” in many developing countries and emerging markets other than China, he said, noting that the IMF was also concerned about rising debt levels.

The IMF is due to release its latest World Economic Outlook on Oct. 13. In June, it slashed its 2020 global output forecasts further, forecasting the global economy would shrink by 4.9%, compared with a 3.0% contraction predicted in April.

Rice gave no fresh numbers, but said recent data from China and other advanced economies was better than expected.

“Recent incoming data suggests that the outlook may be somewhat less dire than at the time of the WEO update on June 24, with parts of the global economy beginning to turn the corner,” he told a regular briefing.

There were also signs that global trade was slowly beginning to recover after widespread lockdowns aimed at containing the spread of the virus, Rice said.

“But I would emphasize that we are not out of the woods, and the outlook remains very challenging, especially for many emerging markets and developing countries, other than China,” he said, noting that many of those countries faced continued weakness in domestic demand, lower export demand, shrinking remittances and declines in tourism.

“Taken together, we are very concerned that this crisis will reverse the gains in poverty reduction that have been made in recent years, and roll back progress that has been made toward the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said, referring to ambitious goals set out by the United Nations five years ago to end poverty and inequality.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Most Americans to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by July, CDC chief expects

(Reuters) – A top U.S. health official told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that he expects COVID-19 vaccinations to take place over many months and that most Americans could be vaccinated by July of 2021 at the latest.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Robert Redfield said he expects there to be about 700 million doses of vaccines available by late March or April, enough for 350 million people.

“I think that’s going to take us April, May, June, you know, possibly July, to get the entire American public completely vaccinated,” Redfield told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Redfield, U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Stephen Hahn, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci and Health and Human Services official Brett Giroir were testifying on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 200,000 deaths in the United States.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, but there are several in late stage trials here, including from Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson. Companies have begun manufacturing the vaccine in anticipation of a fast regulatory authorization once they are shown to work.

Fauci said he expects 50 million doses to be available in November and 100 million by the end of December. He expects a total of 700 million doses by April.

Health officials and President Donald Trump have presented different views about when the vaccines will be ready for most Americans. The process for deciding how to distribute vaccines falls largely to the CDC.

Redfield said Operation Warp Speed, the government group with officials from the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense, will ultimately decide how to allocate the vaccines.

PLAYING DEFENSE

Senator Patty Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed to some reported examples of Trump administration pressure on the health agencies, including FDA authorizations of hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma as treatments for COVID-19 and changes in the CDC’s guidance on testing for asymptomatic individuals.

“Any of these examples of political pressure would be alarming on their own. But together they paint a clear pattern of interference that is downright terrifying,” she said.

Redfield and Hahn defended their agencies against criticism of their handling of the pandemic, telling the committee they were using science as their guide, not politics.

“FDA will not authorize, or approve, a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families,” Hahn said.

Redfield said the agency’s change to guidance for testing for asymptomatic individuals with close contact to a COVID-19 positive person was poorly written. It has since been updated to make it clear that such individuals should get a test, he said.

The CDC will release new guidance on the role of aerosolized coronavirus in its spread, Redfield said. The agency took down a Sept. 18 update to its transmission guidance that mentioned airborne virus for the first time, as it lacked the needed technical review.

Redfield also said that based on an antibody testing study, about 90 percent of Americans are still vulnerable to the virus.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Manas Mishra in Bengalaru; Writing by Caroline Humer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and Howard Goller)

New York City mayor announces more furloughs to counter budget shortfall

(Reuters) – Over 9,000 New York City employees will be furloughed for five days between October and March to save about $21 million as the city battles a severe budget shortfall from the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday.

“It’s a difficult one because it will affect real people and their lives, it will affect their families,” de Blasio told reporters.

The furloughs will impact city employees in managerial positions and non-union employees, he said.

Last week, de Blasio announced that everyone in the mayor’s office, including the mayor himself, will be furloughed for one week without pay beginning Oct. 1.

The coronavirus outbreak had caused the city to lose $9 billion in revenue and forced a $7 billion cut to the city’s annual budget, de Blasio said.

“What would really solve this? A federal stimulus – and it’s shocking that it still hasn’t happened,” the mayor said, adding he was also still in negotiation with the state to obtain greater borrowing power.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Diane Craft)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s coffin arrives at Supreme Court as three days of tributes begin

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States began three days of tributes to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Wednesday, as pallbearers carried her flag-draped coffin into the white marble court building and members of the public lined up to pay their respects.

Wearing dark suits and black face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of the liberal icon’s former clerks stood at attention as the coffin was carried up the court’s broad steps and into the Great Hall, where a private ceremony was planned for friends and family.

Members of the public watched from behind barricades as they awaited a public viewing due to start at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT).

“It’s almost like I felt the hand of God on my shoulder saying you have got to come and pay your respects to this person who was a fierce champion of women’s voices and women’s rights,” said Cecilia Ryan, 64, who drove 12 hours from the Chicago area.

Ginsburg, who over the course of her long legal career championed gender equality and other liberal causes, in recent years became something of a pop icon for the American left. She died on Friday at age 87.

After two days of public viewing under the neoclassical court building’s massive Corinthian columns, Ginsburg will on Friday become the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol when her casket is placed in National Statuary Hall.

Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was also mourned at the Capitol in a similar ceremony in 2005, but as someone who did not hold government or military office, she lay “in honor,” not “in state.”

Both historic events for Ginsburg, however, come with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that, due to the pandemic, a formal ceremony to be held on Friday morning will be limited to invited guests only.

At the courthouse, which remains closed to the public due to the pandemic, the justice will lie in repose under the portico outdoors to allow for public viewing starting at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT).

Officials said social distancing and face coverings will be required to participate to guard against the spread of the virus. Flowers and other offerings are forbidden on the court’s plaza or its great flight of steps.

The justices for the first time in the court’s history heard oral arguments in May by teleconference, and will do so again next month. Though the building is closed, Ginsburg’s courtroom chair and the bench in front of it have been draped with black wool crepe to mark the occasion, a tradition that dates back at least to 1873. A black drape has also been hung over the courtroom doors.

“On a personal level, she was such an amazing person. She had a mind like a steel trap,” said Jill Alexander, 59, whose husband served as a clerk for Ginsburg when she was an appeals-court judge.

Inside the courthouse, the coffin was due to be moved on to the Lincoln catafalque, a pine board platform draped in black cloth that was used to support President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin when he lay in state in the Capitol’s Rotunda after his assassination in 1865. The catafalque was loaned to the court by the U.S. Congress for the ceremony. A 2016 portrait Ginsburg by Constance P. Beaty will be on display in the hall.

Public viewing runs until 10 p.m. on Wednesday and between 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Thursday. A private interment service is planned for next week at Arlington National Cemetery. Ginsburg’s husband, Martin Ginsburg, was buried there in 2010.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

At U.N., Trump demands action against China over virus, Xi urges cooperation

By Michelle Nichols and Steve Holland

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump used the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to attack China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the world body “must hold China accountable” for its actions related to the outbreak.

By contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping struck a conciliatory tone in his pre-recorded virtual address to the General Assembly, calling for enhanced cooperation over the pandemic and stressing that China had no intention of fighting “either a Cold War or a hot one” with any other country.

The leaders of the world’s two largest economies laid out their competing visions as relations have plunged to their worst level in decades against the backdrop of the pandemic, with coronavirus tensions aggravating trade and technology disputes.

Trump, facing a November re-election battle with the United States dealing with the world’s highest official number of deaths and infections from the coronavirus, focused his speech on attacking China.

Trump accused Beijing of allowing people to leave China in the early stages of the outbreak to infect the world while shutting down domestic travel.

“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world, China,” he said in remarks taped on Monday at the White House and delivered remotely to the General Assembly due to the pandemic.

“The Chinese government, and the World Health Organization – which is virtually controlled by China – falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” he said.

“Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease … The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”

The president promised to distribute a vaccine and said: “We will defeat the virus, and we will end the pandemic.”

In introducing Xi’s remarks, China’s U.N. ambassador Zhang Jun said China “resolutely rejects the baseless accusations against China.”

“The world is at a crossroads. At this moment, the world needs more solidarity and cooperation, but not confrontation,” he said.

‘GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER’

In his address, in what appeared to be an implicit rebuke to Trump, Xi called for a global response to the coronavirus and giving a leading role to the World Health Organization, which the U.S. president has announced plans to leave.

“Facing the virus, we should enhance solidarity and get through this together,” he said. “We should follow the guidance of science, give full play to the leading role of the World Health Organization and launch a joint international response to beat this pandemic. Any attempt of politicizing the issue, or stigmatization, must be rejected.”

The death toll from the spread of the coronavirus in the United States surpassed 200,000 on Monday, by far the highest official number of any country.

Trump also attacked China’s record on the environment, but leveled no direct criticism at Beijing over human rights.

The president, a frequent critic of the United Nations, said that if it was to be effective, it must focus on “the real problems of the world” like “terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.”

Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world was “moving in a very dangerous direction” with U.S.-China tensions.

“We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War,” he told the assembly. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities.

“A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Steve Holland, Arshad Mohammed and David Brunnstrom; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller)

House bill extends U.S. highway funding, boosts airport funding

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday proposed spending $14 billion to shore up a trust fund that pays for airport improvements and air traffic control operations, as well as to extend surface transportation programs.

Earlier this year, Congress agreed to suspend taxes on passenger airline tickets, cargo and fuel for the remainder of 2020. Significantly reduced travel demand because of the coronavirus pandemic and the tax suspension has led to a major shortfall in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

The bill also proposes extending surface transportation funding for another year. Congress has struggled for years to find a way to fund highway repairs as gasoline tax revenue has lagged spending. The House bill proposes directing $13.6 billion from the general fund to maintain current spending levels on highways and mass transit.

House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio said “with this one-year extension in place, we can continue work on a long-term, transformational bill.”

Representative Sam Graves, the top Republican on the panel, said the extension provides “immediate, desperately needed certainty to state DOTs and transportation and construction industry workers.”

On June 15, Reuters and Bloomberg News reported that the Trump administration was preparing an infrastructure package of up to $1 trillion focused on transportation projects as part of its push to spur the world’s largest economy back to life.

After weeks of internal debate, the White House opted not to make the plan public ahead of the November presidential election, sources told Reuters.

In July, the House approved a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package to boost spending on roads, bridges, public transit and rail over 10 years – a plan the White House rejected.

Since 2008, Congress has transferred about $141 billion to the Highway Trust Fund, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Congress has not boosted the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax since 1993. That tax is now worth just 10.2 cents after adjusting for inflation.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. Gulf Coast tourism, already stung by pandemic, slammed by Hurricane Sally

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Sally made a direct hit on the U.S. Gulf Coast this week, dealing a blow to a popular tourist destination already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. In the storm’s aftermath, many bar and restaurant owners were breathing a sigh of relief the damage was not worse.

Sally bulled its way through this stretch of beach towns and condos in Alabama and Florida, making landfall on Wednesday as a powerful Category 2 hurricane and bringing extensive floods that destroyed numerous piers and caused two riverboat casinos under construction to break free of their moorings.

Max Murphy, general manager of Crabs, a seafood and steak restaurant in Pensacola Beach, Florida, said the hurricane’s late eastward turn left residents unprepared.

“Everyone in the community expected it to keep going straight west to New Orleans or Gulfport (Miss.), but it took that turn so we weren’t really prepared,” Murphy said. “I didn’t even get the plywood up on my windows, because I wasn’t expecting it to come here.”

The damage from Hurricane Sally could range from $8 billion to $10 billion, well above earlier estimates of $2 billion to $3 billion, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the costs of their damage. The hit to tourism revenues may not be fully known for months.

The U.S. leisure and hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. The Gulf region is a popular driving destination for the entire Southeast and Texas, peppered with restaurants, casinos and amusement parks.

Baldwin County, Alabama, where the hurricane made landfall, was the state’s most-visited county in 2019, according to the state tourism bureau, bringing in $1.7 billion in travel-related revenue.

In the Pensacola region, approximately 22,900 people were employed in that industry in August, a 13% drop from March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mike Bose, a manager at the Flora-Bama beach bar in Perdido Key, Florida, which hugs the Alabama state line, said the damage was still being assessed. More than 24 hours after the storm made landfall, parts of the restaurant were still flooded.

“We got quite a bit of water damage throughout, which we’re working on today,” Bose said. “There’s no telling at this point what the cost is to get back on track.”

Some tourists and visitors say the hurricane has scared them away from a return visit. Toni Galloway from Kansas City, Missouri, was visiting the Gulf area when Sally struck.

“This was my first hurricane. I wouldn’t want to weather another one. It’s frightening. I will have to think long and hard about returning to the Gulf Coast,” she said.

Murphy, the Crabs general manager, said the damage from this hurricane was less extensive than others like Hurricane Ivan, which hit 16 years ago at Category 5 strength. “That’s enough damage for the season. We don’t want anymore. We got lucky, we really did.”

John Perkins, 71, got to Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Sunday night from Tennessee to attend a wedding. Instead, he found himself hunkering down with his wife as the winds blew for hours.

“I told my wife – we can mark this off our bucket list. We rode out a hurricane,” he said.

(Reporting By Devika Krishna Kumar in Pensacola, Florida; additional reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Timothy Gardner)

Michigan court rules that late arriving ballots must be counted

By Michael Martina

DETROIT (Reuters) – A Michigan judge ruled on Friday that mailed ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 must be counted in the state as long as they are received within two weeks after the Nov. 3 election, the latest move by a U.S. court to protect voting rights in the pandemic.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens made the ruling in a case brought by the Michigan Alliance for Retired Americans, and argued for by Marc Elias, an elections lawyer working with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign.

The ruling said the ballots must be received “by the clerk’s office no later than 14 days after the election has occurred,” and would apply to this year’s election as a special provision due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Late arriving ballots “are eligible to be counted in the same manner as all provisional ballots” up until the time when the election is certified, Stephens said.

Elias, in a tweet, called the ruling a “major victory for voting rights” in the state, though it is likely to be appealed.

“This helps rectify issues with delays from the USPS, while relieving pressure on voters to make sure their ballot is received in time to be counted,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes. “This is a victory for every voter in Michigan.”

Democrats and Republicans have clashed over the rules for voting by mail ahead of the November election, when there is expected to be a surge in mail voting because of the virus.

That has led to controversy over whether the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will be able to handle the mail rush in time to ensure that voters who mailed their ballots would not be disenfranchised.

The Michigan ruling also cleared the way for anyone to help deliver a person’s ballot to clerks “between 5:01 p.m. on the Friday before the election and the close of polls on Election Day,” a practice normally banned under law unless the delivery is done by a family member, an election official or mail carrier.

The ruling came a day after Pennsylvania’s top court ruled that state officials can accept mail ballots up to three days after the election, as long as they were mailed by Election Day.

But not all courts have moved to expand voting rights.

A federal appeals court last week rejected Texas Democrats’ bid to allow all state residents to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, ruling that the state’s law extending that right only to those over 65 was not unconstitutional age discrimination.

Another federal appeals court last week said Florida could require felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees they face before they can regain their right to vote.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)

White House to announce $11.6 billion aid for Puerto Rico: Fox News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to announce an $11.6 billion aid package for Puerto Rico, focused on the territory’s energy and education systems, to help the island recover from the devastation brought by 2017’s Hurricane Maria, Fox News reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.

Puerto Rico was already struggling financially before the deadly hurricane struck three years ago, and filed a form of municipal bankruptcy for the commonwealth in 2017 to restructure about $120 billion of debt and obligations.

Since then, the U.S. commonwealth has been hit by more hurricanes, earthquakes, the coronavirus pandemic and political upheaval, and has been the target of increased federal scrutiny into its use of U.S. aid. A large portion of its financial distress was linked to the territory’s power utility.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Susan Heavey and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. median income hit record high before coronavirus hit, Census says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. median household income hit a record high in 2019 and the poverty rate fell, according to a government survey released on Tuesday that offered a snapshot of the economy before millions of American jobs were destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau said real median household income jumped 6.8% from $64,324 in 2018 to $68,703 last year – the highest since the agency began tracking the data in 1967.

It also said the nation’s poverty rate fell last year to 10.5%, a 1.3-percentage-point drop. Another measure of poverty that adjusts for government aid programs for low-income Americans showed a drop to 11.7% last year from 12.8% in 2018.

At the same time, however, the number of people without health insurance for at least part of the year hit 29.6 million, up one million from the year before. The number of uninsured children also grew.

The report offered a look back at the state of the economy before the novel coronavirus outbreak hit the United States early this year, shuttering many businesses as the country sought to contain the pandemic.

Since then, more than 6.5 million people in the United States have contracted the highly contagious virus and more than 194,000 have died. Vast swaths of the economy were devastated and 22 million Americans were thrown out of work.

While activity is now rebounding, economists warn that the recovery may be uneven as federal stimulus money runs out with no signs of replenishment from Washington. A potential second wave of COVID-19 infections this autumn and winter as people move back indoors also looms large.

President Donald Trump, who had staked his re-election on economic gains before the outbreak, has downplayed impact of the virus and the risk of another wave, as he has urged states to fully re-open. He has also repeatedly touted gains on Wall Street – a narrow gauge of economic performance – and pledged to rebuild the economy if he wins a second term.

His Democratic rival in the Nov. 3 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said the gains since COVID-19 emerged have been uneven and have left many segments of the working population still reeling.

“Those at the top see things going up. But those in the middle and below see things getting worse. And we have leaders who bear false witness, want us to believe that our country isn’t gone off track,” Biden said on Monday.

A Reuters/Ispos poll in late August showed American’s support for Trump’s handling of the economy has slipped.

The income and poverty data for 2019, the last year of the economic expansion following the 2007-2009 Great Recession, “do not reflect the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic or the current recession,” Census’ Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division chief David Waddington told reporters on a conference call.

Census officials and private economists cautioned that the COVID-19 outbreak impacted data collection as the agency suspended in-person interviews earlier this year.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; additional reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)