U.S. extends non-essential travel restrictions with Canada, Mexico

By Mica Rosenberg and Frank Jack Daniel

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Tuesday it would extend existing restrictions on non-essential travel at land ports of entry with Canada and Mexico due to continued risks from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This extension protects Americans while keeping essential trade and travel flowing as we reopen the American economy,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement, without specifying an end date to the extension.

The travel restrictions had already been extended several times and were set to expire on June 23, according to a related U.S. government notice. A DHS official said the latest extension would run for 30 days.

Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a tweet on Tuesday that the travel restrictions across the country’s border with the United States would continue for 30 days.

The United States said it was in “close contact” with both countries on its northern and southern borders about the restrictions, which were first imposed in mid-March. The Trump administration had already extended indefinitely a separate set of pandemic-related rules that permit rapid deportation of migrants caught at U.S. borders.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday said in a statement it was again postponing hearings for thousands of migrants who have been waiting in Mexico for U.S. immigration court hearings.

The Justice Department, which runs the immigration court system, said the hearings for those in the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols program would be on hold until July 20.

“This will alleviate the need for travel within Mexico to a U.S. port of entry while pandemic conditions in Mexico remain severe,” the Justice Department said. The controversial program has stranded migrants – many of them seeking asylum in the United States – in Mexico for months.

Hundreds have been living in squalid tent camps near the U.S.-Mexico border, which health experts and immigration advocates have said leaves them vulnerable to coronavirus infections.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington D.C.; Editing by Paul Simao and Steve Orlofsky)

Trump, attorney general to meet as U.S. cities smolder amid protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet with his top law enforcement officer behind closed doors on Monday as cities nationwide awoke from a smoldering weekend of violent protests over race and policing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chaotic demonstrations from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles swelled from peaceful protests – sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody last Monday – into scenes of violence that drew National Guard troops in at least 15 states and Washington.

Dozens of cities across the United States faced curfews at a level not seen since the riots following the 1968 assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. as fires burned near the White House and stores were looted in New York City and other major cities.

Floyd’s death is the latest in a string of similar incidents involving unarmed black men in recent years that has raised an outcry over excessive police force and racism, and re-ignited outrage across a starkly politically and racially divided country just months before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Video footage has shown a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd, 46, for nearly nine minutes before he died on May 25.

Trump has made no major public statement to address the growing crisis but has issued a flurry of tweets, describing protesters as “thugs” and urging mayors and governors to “get tough.” He has also threatened to utilize the U.S. military, but his national security adviser on Sunday said the administration would not yet invoke federal control over the National Guard.

The Republican president was scheduled to hold a call with governors, law enforcement and national security officials later on Monday following his Oval Office meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr.

Critics have accused Trump, who is seeking re-election, of further stoking conflict and racial tension rather than seeking to bring the nation together and address the underlying issues.

Washington and other cities had been set to restart some normal economic activity over the weekend after more than two months of stay-at-home orders aimed at stemming the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has killed nearly 103,000 people nationwide and plunged more than 40 million people into joblessness.

Many states had already activated National Guard troops to help manage the pandemic, further straining local budgets with no immediate sign of relief from Congress as many weary Americans, particularly in urban areas, remain sheltered.

The demonstrations brought out a diversity of people in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon, among other cities, and have spread around the globe with demonstrations in New Zealand on Monday following events in London and elsewhere.

Hundreds of storefronts were smashed and buildings vandalized in multiple cities as protesters and police clashed. But the mayor of St. Paul, which is adjacent to Minneapolis, told CNN on Monday that thousands had gathered there peacefully on Sunday. Other cities also saw more peaceful demonstrations, sometimes with police support.

The arrest of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was charged with third-degree murder in Floyd’s case, has not quelled the demonstrations amid calls for the other three officers involved to also be charged.

Public health experts and local officials have also expressed concern the gatherings could trigger more cases of COVID-19, the highly transmissible and potentially deadly infection tied to the coronavirus.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Amazon to offer permanent roles to 70% of 175,000 new U.S. hires

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc plans to offer permanent jobs to about 70% of the U.S. workforce it has hired temporarily to meet consumer demand during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters on Thursday.

The world’s largest online retailer will begin telling 125,000 warehouse employees in June that they can keep their roles longer-term. The remaining 50,000 workers it has brought on will stay on seasonal contracts that last up to 11 months, a company spokeswoman said.

The decision is a sign that Amazon’s sales have increased sufficiently to justify an expanded workforce for order fulfillment, even as government lockdowns ease and rivals open their retail stores for pickup.

Amazon started the hiring spree in March with a blog post appealing to workers laid off by restaurants and other shuttered businesses, promising employment “until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back.”

Seattle-based Amazon did not disclose how much it was spending to make the positions permanent and whether that cost would be in addition to the $4 billion it has forecast for virus-related expenses.

The permanent roles come with benefits that seasonal workers lack, such as employer-offered health insurance and retirement plans.

Some Amazon staff, unions and elected officials have said the company has put employees’ health at risk by keeping nearly all its warehouses operational during the pandemic. At least 800 U.S.-based workers have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, according to figures compiled by one employee, which Amazon has not commented on.

The company has increased cleaning, added social distancing measures and offered face masks, fever checks and virus tests in response.

Amazon said it had 840,400 full and part-time staff at the end of last quarter while it still was in the process of hiring. It has not reported an updated number.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

A pandemic nurse’s love letter to New York

By Shannon Stapleton and Clare Baldwin

NEOSHO, Mo. (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has restricted almost everyone’s freedoms in America but for Meghan Lindsey it has done the opposite. This is the freest she has ever felt.

Traveling to New York City at age 33 to work as a COVID-19 nurse was the first time that Meghan, a married mother of two, had ever left southwest Missouri.

“It was my first time on a plane,” she said, describing how she came to work 12-hour shifts in the intensive care unit at NYU Winthrop Hospital.

“Flying into New York was the first time I’d ever seen the ocean.”

There are many stories about the lonely coronavirus deaths in the city’s hospitals and the traumatic work of the nurses who staff them.

Meghan’s story is about unexpected opportunities. It’s a story of how the pandemic gave a woman the chance to strike out into the world, confront danger and make a difference, and how her husband stayed home to care for their daughters. It’s a story about new beginnings.

“I always wanted to do something for my country,” said Meghan. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Meghan’s first nursing shifts in New York were a shock.

There are a lot of sick people in Missouri with chronic diseases like diabetes, where the progressions are slow and the declines are familiar.

COVID-19 patients are stunned by a virus that turns their lives upside down and in many cases ends them.

“One of my patients had her toes done up all nice and pretty and still had her jewelry on,” said Meghan.

Because they were coronavirus patients and visitors were banned, it was Meghan who would hold their hands as they died.

“Once you FaceTime and you meet their family and you hear them crying and sobbing, you know their cute little nicknames and you start to know them, it just gets to be really personal,” said Meghan. “You have a hard time separating yourself and not truly grieving for them as well.”

Despite all of the death, Meghan’s time in New York City’s COVID-19 wards was unexpectedly affirming. The pandemic gave Meghan something that her life in Missouri so far had not: a feeling of everything sliding into place.

When Meghan graduated from nursing school, it wasn’t like she imagined. It turned out to be just a job. She mourned.

“Now for once, it’s actually something important,” said Meghan. “This is the first time since I’ve become a nurse that it’s like, ‘yes, this is why.’ I can make a difference, and I can help, and I am strong enough for this.”

Her kids, she said, are proud. “They know that what I’m doing is hard and that I put my life in danger.”

Meghan is from a small town in Missouri. Most Sundays, she goes to church. Her mom was a manager at Walmart and her dad worked construction. Before he lost his job to the pandemic, her husband Aaron sold fire suppression systems to small businesses.

Meghan is the first in her family to finish college and has long held her family together. As thrilling as it was to be in New York, it was also hard.

Meghan often wondered if she should come home. Her husband Aaron told her no. He and the girls were fine, what she was doing mattered and he was proud of her. He sometimes called her superwoman.

“If he wasn’t such a good dad and there for my children, I could never do this,” said Meghan. He deserves credit too, she said, “but I guess you could say the limelight’s on me.”

Being a COVID-19 travel nurse isn’t glamorous. Meghan had to wear protective gear during her shifts and there was a lengthy decontamination process when she got home each night. She lived in a hotel room with another nurse and had to find a laundromat every few days to wash her scrubs.

But sometimes it did feel like a grand adventure. She saw the Statue of Liberty. She heard someone speaking Russian. She learned how to fold a slice of pizza.

Restaurants sometimes gave her and her friends free food “because we’re nurses,” she said with a bit of awe. She took selfie after selfie standing in the middle of empty New York City streets and no cabbies honked at her.

Her husband Aaron said he was sometimes a little jealous (it’s New York), occasionally worried (again, New York), but mostly he was just really proud. “Meghan hasn’t been out there in the world,” he said. She nailed it.

Now, at the end of her contract, Meghan is unsure of what the future holds.

She is back in a small town in the Midwest. She no longer has a job and she is coming off the biggest high of her life. She sometimes asks herself, will I have the desire to go back to this life?

Something about New York stood out to her: people there had aspirations to make something of themselves.

(Reporting by Shannon Stapleton and Clare Baldwin; Editing by Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker)

Wilderness camps to $50,000 RV rentals: Luxury travelers in pandemic ready to pay for privacy

By Helen Coster

(Reuters) – Before the coronavirus pandemic, Melanie Burns and her husband between them had planned five trips between April and September, including three to Europe.

With only one still a possibility, the Oklahoma City resident is turning to a more reliable option: driving eight hours to the 550,000-acre Vermejo resort in Raton, New Mexico, where the couple can hike, fly fish and dine under the stars while avoiding other guests.

“We didn’t want a large property,” said Burns. “We didn’t want a hotel situation where there was daily housekeeping and you had to walk down a hall with rooms across from each other.”

As borders and much of the travel industry remained closed after the Memorial Day weekend, historically the start of the U.S. summer travel season, most Americans are staying put, with travel within the United States expected to plunge by over half a trillion dollars this year, a nearly 54% decline from 2019.

Even so, some cooped-up Americans are starting to think about stepping out. Nearly one-third of Americans would consider taking a vacation outside the home between now and the end summer, according to a study from The Points Guy, a U.S. travel website.

Some of the first to book trips will likely be those who can minimize their risk of exposure to the virus, with budgets that allow for more isolated and private forms of travel.

“There’s a redefining of what luxury means,” said Eliza Scott Harris, chief operating officer of Indagare, a members-only boutique travel company. “It’s less about the ‘wow’ factor of the design and more about the privacy you’re afforded.”

High-end travelers are upgrading to more self-contained transportation, resulting in a “huge uptick” in private air travel, according to Joanna Kuflik, director of travel services at Marchay, a membership-based luxury travel agency.

For those who prefer a road trip, luxury RVs are expected to be popular. Goss RV, which offers weeklong luxury RV rentals with a driver for up to $50,000 per week, saw a 62% increase in revenue from rentals compared to the same month last year, as of May 21.

Cities are less popular options and small, elite properties in remote destinations are in, according to industry experts.

The country’s wealthiest travelers are beginning to book U.S. properties like the Amangiri, a 600-acre, $3,000 per night resort in southern Utah, which reopened May 21 with employees who have been trained to perform spa treatments while wearing masks and gloves.

The Amangiri has bookings through July and beyond, according to a resort spokesperson, with clients coming from nearby California, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado at a time when flights remain limited. To enhance social distancing, the resort is limiting occupancy of its already-low room count of 34 suites.

Low density is a big draw.

“In a smaller boutique hotel or Airbnb you can trust that it’s a better-contained staff and a manager could be confident that 12 rooms could be cleaned very well, rather than 600 rooms,” said Kristin Peterson Edwards, an art consultant in Connecticut.

To attract more guests driving from San Francisco and Los Angeles – 11 and 10 hours away, respectively – the Lodge at Blue Sky in Wanship, Utah, may work with another outfitter to set up luxury camps in wilderness settings midway between the resort and those cities. The resort is reopening with limited occupancy on June 1, said general manager Joe Ogdie, who isn’t seeing a “major push of demand” yet, although he’s fielding inquiries about bookings.

On the international front, Indagare’s Harris said when borders reopen and international travel picks back up, many high-end travelers will head to New Zealand, which recorded just over 1,500 cases of coronavirus after imposing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Based on bookings for late December and early 2021, the country is now for the first time her firm’s top foreign destination from a revenue standpoint, beating out Italy and France, Harris said.

For now, New Orleans resident Catherine Makk is not ready to fly and is instead planning a road trip with her daughter, possibly to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’ll seek out small resorts where she can have more direct access to management, as well as experiences like private art tours.

“I think there will be more private one-on-one experiences with people in the region,” Makk said. “Everything will be much more relationship-based, much more considered.”

(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York; Editing by Kenneth Li and Leslie Adler)

‘Digital twins’ can help create healthier cities after coronavirus

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The use of new technologies, such as virtual reality, by planners to help design more sustainable and healthier cities has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, urban experts said on Friday.

The respiratory disease, which has infected more than 5 million people worldwide, has already triggered the widespread use of robots, drones and artificial intelligence to track the virus and deliver services.

Now, planners and authorities are also turning to new technologies – including so-called Digital Twins of cities, or virtual three-dimensional replicas – to tackle future health crises, said Michael Jansen, chief executive of Cityzenith, a Chicago-based technology firm.

“A Digital Twin that could track the progress of the virus in real-time is the perfect platform for aggregating and distributing information at scale in a crisis,” he said.

“Digital Twins would also help assess and implement economic recovery plans for affected cities and urban regions,” he said.

Virtual Singapore, a digital twin of the island city, models and simulates climate change, infrastructure planning and public health studies, and can be used in crisis management, a spokesman at the Government Technology Agency said.

Modeling a city’s street grids, transport networks, buildings and population can help planners predict how design changes would affect them, said Fabian Dembski, a researcher at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS).

“Cities are complex. But if we can simulate factors such as climate, air quality, traffic flow and movement of people, then planning decisions can be more efficient, equitable, and inclusive,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But even these models and simulations do not capture human emotions, which play a big role in the success of urban design.”

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Dembski and other researchers built a digital twin of Herrenberg, a small city near Stuttgart in Germany.

They then invited residents to use an app to record their emotional responses to simulated scenarios in public spaces.

Using virtual reality, about 1,000 residents noted whether they felt comfortable, happy or unsafe in those areas.

“The idea was to see what they thought made a good public space, and use that data to support planners and architects to improve spaces where residents didn’t feel happy – like areas with heavy traffic or poor lighting,” Dembski said.

“As a planner, you don’t have that kind of information beforehand, and this is a democratic way to do it,” he said, adding that respondents included women, older people, migrants and people with disabilities who are otherwise excluded.

Digital Twins are particularly helpful for cities that are vulnerable to climate change, or are in environmentally fragile areas, as problems can be simulated to find solutions, he said.

Researchers are now modeling pandemics – which have affected urban planning decisions in the past – and also hope to simulate the effects of factors such as regional migration and gentrification on cities, Dembski said.

Technological tools such as Digital Twins “offer the possibility of testing a variety of different concepts,” said Thomas Sprissler, the mayor of Herrenberg.

“Considerably more innovative ideas can be tried out that might otherwise never be tested in reality,” he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

U.S. Supreme Court conservatives lean toward shielding religious schools from suits

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled sympathy on Monday toward a bid by two Catholic elementary schools in California to avoid discrimination lawsuits by former teachers in a case that could make it harder to hold religious institutions liable in employment disputes.

In more than 90 minutes of arguments heard by teleconference due to the coronavirus pandemic, the justices struggled over how courts can determine when a religious entity must face an employee’s civil rights lawsuit and when it is immune because of protections previously recognized by the high court.

Conservative justices asked questions indicating support for shielding the schools from such litigation. Liberal justices seemed to lean toward the teachers. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority. President Donald Trump’s administration sided with the schools.

A ruling favoring of the Catholic schools could strip more than 300,000 lay teachers working in religious schools of employment law protections and could impact industries including nurses in Catholic hospitals, the plaintiffs said.

Teachers Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Biel accused the schools of firing them due to discrimination. Morrissey-Berru accused her school of age discrimination. Biel accused hers of discrimination based on disability stemming from breast cancer treatment. Biel died last year after a five-year battle with the disease.

At issue is the breadth of a “ministerial exception” that protects religious organizations from employee suits alleging violations of laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on grounds including sex, race, national origin and religion.

In a 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court recognized the ministerial exception under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The exception, meant to prevent government interference with religion, restricts discrimination lawsuits by certain employees if they hold a ministerial role.

The justices in that case left unresolved how to decide when an employee qualifies for this ministerial role, a thorny question that the justices struggled with on Monday.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas offered hypothetical examples such as a chemistry teacher who starts class with a “Hail Mary” prayer, a chemistry teacher who is also a nun and a lay teacher who teaches religion.

“I don’t see what standards a secular court would use to determine which of those is an important … religious duty or function,” Thomas said.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she found it “very disturbing” if a person could be fired or refused a job for any reason “that has nothing to with religion.”

Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach after being told in 2015, just before her 65th birthday, that her contract would not be renewed. Biel sued St. James School in Torrance after she said she was dismissed when she requested time off to undergo surgery and chemotherapy for her cancer. Her husband has continued the litigation on her behalf.

Both private schools operate under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Morrissey-Berru and Biel taught their students religion several days a week in addition to secular subjects.

Federal judges concluded that the ministerial exception barred both claims. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently ruled that both lawsuits could proceed.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. graduates turn regalia into PPE: Wear the cap, donate the gown

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – In this year’s mostly virtual commencement ceremonies, thousands of American graduates are adorning their mortarboards with the slogan “Gowns 4 Good” after donating their gowns to healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic to use as personal protective equipment.

Gowns 4 Good is the name of a charity started three weeks ago by Nathaniel Moore, a front-line physician assistant in Burlington, Vermont, who is asking graduates to donate their gowns to more than 75,000 front-line responders and others who have registered for the regalia on Gowns4Good.net.

Across the country, school graduations have been canceled to abide by social distancing rules, including Moore’s own ceremony at the University of Vermont, where he was earning an MBA with a focus on sustainability.

“The image of my colleagues on the front line and at other medical facilities that lack the appropriate PPE and wearing trash bags with no sleeves and no protection under the waist, that just struck me,” Moore, 30, told Reuters.

After researching Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for PPE in times of shortage, he launched the non-profit with the slogan, “Wear the Cap, Donate the Gown.”

Gowns worn backwards, with the zippered opening in the rear and the high collar in the front, fit the CDC requirements for covering “critical zones,” including forearms, chests, stomach and waistline, Moore said.

“We are getting cries for help – from New York City emergency departments that have hundreds of patients coming in a day and they have no adequate gown protection to assisted living facilities that are sending us pictures of their staff without gowns,” he said.

In keeping with the tradition of graduates decorating their caps to express their individuality, those who donate their gowns are using the Gowns 4 Good logo to draw attention to the cause.

On Wednesday, Gowns4Good.net listed more than 75,000 gowns requested by medical facilities, more than 4,100 gowns donated by individuals and more than 1,500 gowns donated by institutional partners, including a regalia manufacturer.

Nearly 4 million people are expected to graduate from U.S. colleges in the 2019-2020 academic year, according to educationdata.org.

With much of the nation locked down, hundreds of schools have announced they will either cancel, postpone or stage virtual ceremonies.

Before the crisis hit the United States, Graduation Source in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of several cap and gown suppliers nationwide, received about 2 million orders for regalia for this spring’s graduation season, a spokesman said.

But the cancellations of graduation ceremonies have been changing that number daily, he said, although he declined to release an updated number.

Even gowns that students wear for a virtual graduation in the living room or back yard can be donated as PPE. But recipients are advised not to use the regalia before the three days that researchers say the virus can remain active on clothing, Moore said.

Among the most poignant donations were gowns sent by parents who included notes saying their sons and daughters died years ago, before they had a chance to graduate, and their regalia was just too precious to give away – until now.

“It’s the gown that has been sitting in their closet collecting dust but is too sentimental to do anything with,” Moore said.

“Now this is an honorable donation. So they can feel good about where it’s going.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Special Report: U.S. rearms to nullify China’s missile supremacy

By David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – As Washington and Beijing trade barbs over the coronavirus pandemic, a longer-term struggle between the two Pacific powers is at a turning point, as the United States rolls out new weapons and strategy in a bid to close a wide missile gap with China.

The United States has largely stood by in recent decades as China dramatically expanded its military firepower. Now, having shed the constraints of a Cold War-era arms control treaty, the Trump administration is planning to deploy long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Pentagon intends to arm its Marines with versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile now carried on U.S. warships, according to the White House budget requests for 2021 and Congressional testimony in March of senior U.S. military commanders. It is also accelerating deliveries of its first new long-range anti-ship missiles in decades.

In a statement to Reuters about the latest U.S. moves, Beijing urged Washington to “be cautious in word and deed,” to “stop moving chess pieces around” the region, and to “stop flexing its military muscles around China.”

The U.S. moves are aimed at countering China’s overwhelming advantage in land-based cruise and ballistic missiles. The Pentagon also intends to dial back China’s lead in what strategists refer to as the “range war.” The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, has built up a huge force of missiles that mostly outrange those of the U.S. and its regional allies, according to senior U.S. commanders and strategic advisers to the Pentagon, who have been warning that China holds a clear advantage in these weapons.

And, in a radical shift in tactics, the Marines will join forces with the U.S. Navy in attacking an enemy’s warships. Small and mobile units of U.S. Marines armed with anti-ship missiles will become ship killers.

In a conflict, these units will be dispersed at key points in the Western Pacific and along the so-called first island chain, commanders said. The first island chain is the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas.

Top U.S. military commanders explained the new tactics to Congress in March in a series of budget hearings. The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General David Berger, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 5 that small units of Marines armed with precision missiles could assist the U.S. Navy to gain control of the seas, particularly in the Western Pacific. “The Tomahawk missile is one of the tools that is going to allow us to do that,” he said.

The Tomahawk – which first gained fame when launched in massed strikes during the 1991 Gulf War – has been carried on U.S. warships and used to attack land targets in recent decades. The Marines would test fire the cruise missile through 2022 with the aim of making it operational the following year, top Pentagon commanders testified.

At first, a relatively small number of land-based cruise missiles will not change the balance of power. But such a shift would send a strong political signal that Washington is preparing to compete with China’s massive arsenal, according to senior U.S. and other Western strategists. Longer term, bigger numbers of these weapons combined with similar Japanese and Taiwanese missiles would pose a serious threat to Chinese forces, they say. The biggest immediate threat to the PLA comes from new, long-range anti-ship missiles now entering service with U.S. Navy and Air Force strike aircraft.

“The Americans are coming back strongly,” said Ross Babbage, a former senior Australian government defense official and now a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a security research group. “By 2024 or 2025 there is a serious risk for the PLA that their military developments will be obsolete.”

A Chinese military spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, warned last October that Beijing would “not stand by” if Washington deployed land-based, long-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s foreign ministry accused the United States of sticking “to its cold war mentality” and “constantly increasing military deployment” in the region.

“Recently, the United States has gotten worse, stepping up its pursuit of a so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ that seeks to deploy new weapons, including ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, in the Asia-Pacific region,” the ministry said in a statement to Reuters. “China firmly opposes that.”

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said he would not comment on statements by the Chinese government or the PLA.

U.S. MILITARY UNSHACKLED

While the coronavirus pandemic rages, Beijing has increased its military pressure on Taiwan and exercises in the South China Sea. In a show of strength, on April 11 the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning led a flotilla of five other warships into the Western Pacific through the Miyako Strait to the northeast of Taiwan, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. On April 12, the Chinese warships exercised in waters east and south of Taiwan, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy was forced to tie up the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt at Guam while it battles to contain a coronavirus outbreak among the crew of the giant warship. However, the U.S. Navy managed to maintain a powerful presence off the Chinese coast. The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry passed through the Taiwan Strait twice in April. And the amphibious assault ship USS America last month exercised in the East China Sea and South China Sea, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said.

In a series last year, Reuters reported that while the U.S. was distracted by almost two decades of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the PLA had built a missile force designed to attack the aircraft carriers, other surface warships and network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia. Over that period, Chinese shipyards built the world’s biggest navy, which is now capable of dominating the country’s coastal waters and keeping U.S. forces at bay.

The series also revealed that in most categories, China’s missiles now rival or outperform counterparts in the armories of the U.S. alliance.

To read the series, click https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/china-army

China derived an advantage because it was not party to a Cold War-era treaty – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – that banned the United States and Russia from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Unrestrained by the INF pact, China has deployed about 2,000 of these weapons, according to U.S. and other Western estimates.

While building up its missile forces on land, the PLA also fitted powerful, long-range anti-ship missiles to its warships and strike aircraft.

This accumulated firepower has shifted the regional balance of power in China’s favor. The United States, long the dominant military power in Asia, can no longer be confident of victory in a military clash in waters off the Chinese coast, according to senior retired U.S. military officers.

But the decision by President Donald Trump last year to exit the INF treaty has given American military planners new leeway. Almost immediately after withdrawing from the pact on August 2, the administration signaled it would respond to China’s missile force. The next day, U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper said he would like to see ground-based missiles deployed in Asia within months, but he acknowledged it would take longer.

Later that month, the Pentagon tested a ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile. In December, it tested a ground-launched ballistic missile. The INF treaty banned such ground-launched weapons, and thus both tests would have been forbidden.

A senior Marines commander, Lieutenant General Eric Smith, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11 that the Pentagon leadership had instructed the Marines to field a ground-launched cruise missile “very quickly.”

The budget documents show that the Marines have requested $125 million to buy 48 Tomahawk missiles from next year. The Tomahawk has a range of 1,600km, according to its manufacturer, Raytheon Company.

Smith said the cruise missile may not ultimately prove to be the most suitable weapon for the Marines. “It may be a little too heavy for us,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, but experience gained from the tests could be transferred to the army.

Smith also said the Marines had successfully tested a new shorter-range anti-ship weapon, the Naval Strike Missile, from a ground launcher and would conduct another test in June. He said if that test was successful, the Marines intended to order 36 of these missiles in 2022. The U.S. Army is also testing a new long-range, land-based missile that can target warships. This missile would have been prohibited under the INF treaty.

The Marine Corps said in a statement it was evaluating the Naval Strike Missile to target ships and the Tomahawk for attacking targets on land. Eventually, the Marines aimed to field a system “that could engage long-range moving targets either on land or sea,” the statement said.

The Defense Department also has research underway on new, long-range strike weapons, with a budget request of $3.2 billion for hypersonic technology, mostly for missiles.

China’s foreign ministry drew a distinction between the PLA’s arsenal of missiles and the planned U.S. deployment. It said China’s missiles were “located in its territory, especially short and medium-range missiles, which cannot reach the mainland of the United States. This is fundamentally different from the U.S., which is vigorously pushing forward deployment.”

BOTTLING UP CHINA’S NAVY

Military strategists James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara suggested almost a decade ago that the first island chain was a natural barrier that could be exploited by the American military to counter the Chinese naval build-up. Ground-based anti-ship missiles could command key passages through the island chain into the Western Pacific as part of a strategy to keep the rapidly expanding Chinese navy bottled up, they suggested.

In embracing this strategy, Washington is attempting to turn Chinese tactics back on the PLA. Senior U.S. commanders have warned that China’s land-based cruise and ballistic missiles would make it difficult for U.S. and allied navies to operate near China’s coastal waters.

But deploying ground-based U.S. and allied missiles in the island chain would pose a similar threat to Chinese warships – to vessels operating in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea, or ships attempting to break out into the Western Pacific. Japan and Taiwan have already deployed ground-based anti-ship missiles for this purpose.

“We need to be able to plug up the straits,” said Holmes, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “We can, in effect, ask them if they want Taiwan or the Senkakus badly enough to see their economy and armed forces cut off from the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. In all likelihood the answer will be no.”

Holmes was referring to the uninhabited group of isles in the East China Sea – known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China – that are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.

The United States faces challenges in plugging the first island chain. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to distance himself from the United States and forge closer ties with China is a potential obstacle to American plans. U.S. forces could face barriers to operating from strategically important islands in the Philippines archipelago after Duterte in February scrapped a key security agreement with Washington.

And if U.S. forces do deploy in the first island chain with anti-ship missiles, some U.S. strategists believe this won’t be decisive, as the Marines would be vulnerable to strikes from the Chinese military.

The United States has other counterweights. The firepower of long-range U.S. Air Force bombers could pose a bigger threat to Chinese forces than the Marines, the strategists said. Particularly effective, they said, could be the stealthy B-21 bomber, which is due to enter service in the middle of this decade, armed with long-range missiles.

The Pentagon is already moving to boost the firepower of its existing strike aircraft in Asia. U.S. Navy Super Hornet jets and Air Force B-1 bombers are now being armed with early deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, according to the budget request documents. The new missile is being deployed in response to an “urgent operational need” for the U.S. Pacific Command, the documents explain.

The new missile carries a 450 kilogram warhead and is capable of “semi-autonomous” targeting, giving it some ability to steer itself, according to the budget request. Details of the stealthy cruise missile’s range are classified. But U.S. and other Western military officials estimate it can strike targets at distances greater than 800 kilometers.

The budget documents show the Pentagon is seeking $224 million to order another 53 of these missiles in 2021. The U.S. Navy and Air Force expect to have more than 400 of them in service by 2025, according to orders projected in the documents.

This new anti-ship missile is derived from an existing Lockheed long-range, land attack weapon, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. The Pentagon is asking for $577 million next year to order another 400 of these land-attack missiles.

“The U.S. and allied focus on long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles was the quickest way to rebuild long-range conventional firepower in the Western Pacific region,” said Robert Haddick, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and now a visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies based in Arlington, Virginia.

For the U.S. Navy in Asia, Super Hornet jets operating from aircraft carriers and armed with the new anti-ship missile would deliver a major boost in firepower while allowing the expensive warships to operate further away from potential threats, U.S. and other Western military officials say.

Current and retired U.S. Navy officers have been urging the Pentagon to equip American warships with longer-range anti-ship missiles that would allow them to compete with the latest, heavily armed Chinese cruisers, destroyers and frigates. Lockheed has said it successfully test-fired one of the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles from the type of launcher used on U.S. and allied warships.

Haddick, one of the first to draw attention to China’s firepower advantage in his 2014 book, “Fire on the Water,” said the threat from Chinese missiles had galvanized the Pentagon with new strategic thinking and budgets now directed at preparing for high-technology conflict with powerful nations like China.

Haddick said the new missiles were critical to the defensive plans of America and its allies in the Western Pacific. The gap won’t close immediately, but firepower would gradually improve, Haddick said. “This is especially true during the next half-decade and more, as successor hypersonic and other classified munition designs complete their long periods of development, testing, production, and deployment,” he said.

(Additional reporting by the Beijing newsroom. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

In a pandemic-caused first, U.S. Supreme Court hears cases by teleconference

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a break from tradition caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday for the first time will hear arguments in a case not in person but by teleconference – a trademark dispute involving the popular hotel reservation website Booking.com.

The nine justices over the next two weeks are set to participate in arguments in 10 cases, using a dial-in format to combat the spread of the pathogen. In another first, the court will provide a live audio feed, making these the first arguments that the public can hear live. Cable TV network C-SPAN said it plans to broadcast that feed in all the cases.

Rather than the wide-open questioning exhibited during typical cases in the justices’ ornate courtroom, the court has tweaked the format for the teleconference arguments so justices will take turn asking questions in order of seniority.

Justice Clarence Thomas is the court’s longest-serving member, though he typically refrains from asking questions during arguments. The next most senior justice is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a frequent questioner.

The first case is due to begin at 10 a.m. ET (1400 GMT). The justices will hear a bid by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to prevent Booking.com, a unit of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Booking Holdings Inc <BKNG.O>, from trademarking the site’s name, contending that it is too generic to deserve legal protection.

The case comes as Booking.com, along with the rest of the travel industry, has been slammed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused tourism and business travel to evaporate worldwide.

The agency is appealing a lower court decision allowing the trademark because by adding “.com” to the generic word “booking” it became eligible for a trademark. The online reservation service filed several trademark applications in 2011 and 2012.

A Patent and Trademark Office tribunal in 2016 rejected those applications, saying Booking.com referred generically to the common meaning of booking lodging and transportation and cannot be used exclusively through a federal trademark registration. Under U.S. law, only terms that distinguish a particular product or service from others on the market can be trademarked.

Booking.com appealed, presenting a survey that showed that 74% of consumers identified Booking.com as a brand name. The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the company last year because the name as a whole is understood by the public to refer to a business.

Booking.com spokeswoman Kimberly Soward said the company is “honored to be a small part of the U.S. Supreme Court history being made this week” as one of the cases being heard by teleconference.

“We remain hopeful the Supreme Court will uphold the decisions of the two lower courts, recognizing the changing landscape of the digital world we live in,” Soward said.

The court will hear arguments on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and the same days next week. The biggest cases to be considered by teleconference are three that focus on the question of whether President Donald Trump can keep his financial records including tax returns secret. Those cases will be argued on May 12.

The Supreme Court building has been closed to the public since March 13 due to the pandemic. The justices have met only via teleconference, and have issued rulings only online.

The coronavirus has proven to be particularly dangerous in elderly people, especially those with underlying medical issues. Three of the nine justices are over age 70: Ginsburg (87), Stephen Breyer (81) and Thomas (71).

(For a graphic on major cases before the Supreme Court, click https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-COURT/0100B2E31KB/index.html)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington and Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)