New Jersey to make face masks mandatory outdoors as U.S. outbreak widens

By Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Wednesday he would sign an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings outdoors to prevent a resurgence of the novel coronavirus whenever social distancing is not possible.

More than 15,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New Jersey, ranking it second after neighboring New York state in the total number of deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

A Democrat, Murphy told MSNBC that requiring the public to wear masks outdoors was critical to controlling the spread of the virus in the state, an early hot spot where rates of the virus have started to creep up again.

“There’s no question that face coverings are a game-changer,” he said, acknowledging that it would be hard to enforce the order but saying the state needed to build on the progress made in its battle against the virus.

“We’ve gone through hell in New Jersey. We’ve lost over 13,000 people, we’ve brought our numbers way down. We can’t go through that hell again.”

The order, when formally announced later in the day, would be one of the most stringent coronavirus restrictions on public activity in the United States. Many states require use of masks in public indoor areas and recommend they be used outside.

Murphy is taking action as infections skyrocket in many other states, including California, Florida and Texas, and health officials warn of a coming spike in the death toll from the virus, which has killed more than 131,000 Americans.

The U.S. outbreak crossed a grim milestone of over 3 million confirmed cases on Tuesday, roughly equivalent to 1% of the population, as more states reported record numbers of new infections.

In New Jersey, some people voiced surprise that face coverings were not already mandatory.

“I figured that was already the rule – it’s confusing that it’s not clear and I try pretty hard to keep up,” said Calia Nochumson, a 42-year-old high school teacher from Maplewood, New Jersey. She said she was disappointed to see so few people wearing face coverings during a recent trip to the beach.

Ohio is ordering people in seven counties to wear face coverings in public starting on Wednesday evening.

TRUMP PUSHES RETURN TO SCHOOL

President Donald Trump, who owns a golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, has eschewed the idea of wearing a face mask and has exhorted Americans to return to their daily routines since the end of mandatory lockdowns imposed in March and April.

The Republican president, seeking a second White House term in a Nov. 3 election, threatened on Wednesday to cut off federal funding to schools that fail to open in the autumn due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” Trump posted on Twitter.

It was unclear what specific aid Trump had in mind. States are responsible for primary and secondary education under the U.S. Constitution but the federal government provides some supplementary aid.

SURGE IN NEW CASES

Nineteen states have reported record increases in cases this month and about 24 states have reported disturbingly high infection rates as a percentage of diagnostic tests conducted over the past week.

In Texas alone, the number of hospitalized patients more than doubled in just two weeks, and the number of available hospital intensive care unit beds for adults in Florida has fallen sharply in recent days.

Additional hospitalizations could strain healthcare systems in many areas, leading to an uptick in lives lost. The U.S. death toll rose by 962 on Tuesday, the biggest one-day rise since June 10, according to a Reuters tally.

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory lockdowns in March and April reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill and put millions of Americans out of work.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. may require masks at airports in changes to limit coronavirus

By Ted Hesson and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The lead U.S. airport security agency is weighing the possibility of requiring masks or face coverings for passengers who pass through checkpoints, according to a U.S. official and two people familiar with the deliberations.

The move is part of a broader rethinking of how to limit the spread of the new coronavirus during air travel, an effort that could bring some of the most significant changes to the industry since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Travelers passing through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints will see other changes, including additional barriers to protect security officers, more extensive cleaning regimes and upgraded screening equipment to speed travelers through lines faster, according to current and former U.S. officials and industry experts familiar with the plans.

TSA officers are allowed to wear masks at checkpoints but not required to do so. The agency is considering such a requirement, sources said.

News of potential changes came as the Senate Commerce Committee was set to hold a hearing Wednesday on the state of the aviation industry.

The number of U.S. air travelers plunged by 95% in March as lockdowns went into effect across the country to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the new coronavirus. But with restrictions ending in some states, U.S. officials, airports and airlines are grappling with how air travel must change to operate more safely.

The discussions over possible face mask requirements came after nearly every major U.S. airline said in the past week they will require passengers to wear them onboard flights. The San Diego International Airport and San Francisco International Airport already require face coverings.

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest union for federal workers, said during an online discussion with Democratic lawmakers on Thursday that passengers should be encouraged to wear masks, calling it “a priority.”

TSA has been reviewing the legality of requiring passengers to wear them, as well as reviewing whether it would need to have masks available for passengers, but has not reached a final decision, according to a U.S. official and a source familiar with the matter.

An agency spokeswoman declined to comment on a mandate for passengers, calling it “speculative.”

INCREASED SAFETY, FASTER PROCESSING

Aside from masks, passengers will find other changes in place at airports.

Plexiglass barriers have been installed at TSA checkpoints in more than a dozen airports around the country to protect officers from infection, according to the agency.

Cleaning efforts will be stepped up, too.

Some U.S. airports and airlines are disinfecting surfaces with electrostatic sprayers, which create a quick-drying mist.

Separately, TSA frontline employees have been instructed to routinely clean frequently touched surfaces and screening equipment, the agency said.

The most ambitious developments could be on the technology front to speed up passenger processing and limit interactions with security officers.

A technology rolled out in 2019 that allows TSA security officers to scan a traveler’s driver’s license or identity document to confirm its authenticity and check it against flight records could be positioned to allow passengers to insert their IDs themselves.

The agency has installed more than 500 of the “credential authentication” machines across the country and recently awarded French company Idemia $11 million for another 500 units, which will be deployed over the summer, according to the TSA.

The agency has been pushing ahead with more advanced checkpoint scanning equipment that creates 3-D images of the contents of a traveler’s bag. Since November, TSA has put nearly 100 such machines into place and continues toward a goal of 300 in total, a spokeswoman said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. states plow ahead with reopening; Trump warns death toll could hit 100,000

By Susan Heavey and Maria Caspani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ohio and other U.S. states on Monday planned to ease more restrictions on businesses even as President Donald Trump acknowledged that as many as 100,000 Americans could die in a pandemic that has also decimated the U.S. economy.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine was allowing construction and manufacturing to reopen on Monday, and letting office workers return. Retail shops and many consumer services were due to resume operations on May 12.

To reopen, businesses must meet state requirements that workers wear face coverings and stay at least six feet apart, and employers sanitize their workplaces. DeWine has urged as many workers as possible to work from home.

“It’s a delicate balance,” he told MSNBC on Monday.

About half of all U.S. states have lifted shutdowns, at least partially, as the number of new cases of the COVID-19 illness has begun to decline or level off in many places, though infections are still rising in others.

Health experts have warned of a possible resurgence of the virus if states rushed to restart their battered economies too early and without a widespread testing and tracing network in place.

COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 1.1 million people in the United States and killed nearly 68,000.

Trump late on Sunday acknowledged the U.S. death toll from the disease would exceed previous projections cited by the White House.

“We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people. That’s a horrible thing,” Trump said on Fox News on Sunday night. As recently as Friday the president said he hoped fewer than 100,000 Americans would die and earlier in the week had talked of 60,000 to 70,000 deaths.

‘MIXED BAG’

Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said on Sunday the country was seeing a “mixed bag” of results from coronavirus mitigation efforts.

He said about 20 states had experienced a rising number of new cases including Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Virginia reported a record number of deaths on Sunday, up 44 for a total of 660.

“We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point. And we’re just not seeing that,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “If we don’t snuff this out more and you have this slow burn of infection, it can ignite at any time.”

But Democratic Governor Jared Polis of Colorado on Monday said that residents could not be kept at home indefinitely.

“Stay-at-home is so unsustainable,” Polis told FOX News’s “Fox and Friends” program, adding that he hoped his state’s partial reopening that began on April 27 could help ease the burden on state unemployment benefit filings.

“We have to start being able to do this in a way that’s psychologically sustainable, economically sustainable, but also works form a health perspective so we don’t overwhelm our hospital system.”

A weekend of warm weather in many parts of the country put enforcement of social-distancing rules to the test in densely populated metropolitan areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C.

On Saturday, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to view a U.S. Navy flyover to honor healthcare workers and others battling the pandemic.

In New York City, the warmest weather yet this spring caused picnickers and sunbathers to flock to green spaces in Manhattan. Photos on social media showed crowded conditions at the Christopher Street Pier in Greenwich Village and other open spaces.

Last week, California ordered beaches in Orange County to close, after crowds defied public health guidelines to throng the popular shoreline. Police in the county’s Huntington Beach said people were complying on Sunday.

In a break from tradition caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday for the first time heard arguments in a case by teleconference – and even typically silent Justice Clarence Thomas asked questions.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Writing by Maria Caspani, Editing by Howard Goller)