‘A recipe for disaster,’ U.S. health official says of Americans ignoring coronavirus advice

By Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON Reuters) – A spike in U.S. coronavirus infections is fueled in large part by people ignoring public health guidelines to keep their distance and wear masks, the government’s top infectious disease official said.

A daily surge in confirmed cases has been most pronounced in southern and western states that did not follow health officials’ recommendations to wait for a steady decline in infections for two weeks before reopening their economies.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in an interview broadcast on Monday.

“Now we’re seeing the consequences of community spread, which is even more difficult to contain than spread in a well-known physical location like a prison or nursing home or meatpacking place,” Fauci told the cable channel in the interview, which was recorded on Friday.

More than 2.5 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States and more than 125,000 have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes, according to a Reuters tally. The U.S. tally is the highest in the world while the global death toll in the pandemic surpassed half a million people on Sunday.

California ordered some bars to close on Sunday, the first major rollback of efforts to reopen the economy in the most populous U.S. state, following Texas and Florida ordering the closure of all their bars on Friday. Arizona and Georgia are among 15 states that had record increases in cases last week.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday pressed Americans to adopt face masks during a trip to Texas and wore one himself, a sharp turnaround for the administration. Republican President Donald Trump has refused to cover his face in public.

Pence and other top health officials were expected to visit Arizona and Florida later this week.

In places where cases are soaring, U.S. health officials are also considering “completely blanketing these communities with tests,” Fauci said, to try to get a better sense of an outbreak.

They would either test groups, or “pools,” of people or have community groups do contact tracing in person rather than by phone. Contact tracing involves identifying people who are infected and monitoring people who may have been exposed and asking them to voluntarily go into quarantine.

Fauci said that he was optimistic that a vaccine could be available by year’s end but that it was unclear how effective it would prove to be, adding that no vaccine would be 100% effective and citing challenges to achieve so-called herd immunity.

The top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, on Monday stressed individual actions to stop the spread of the virus, deflecting criticism from Democrats and some health experts that Trump botched the prevention effort.

“You can’t say the federal government should do everything, and then say the federal government can’t tell the states what to do,” McCarthy told CNBC. “The governors have a big responsibility here but every American has a responsibility. They should wear a mask.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Howard Goller)

Some scold, others cheerlead: U.S. states tackle reopening differently

By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The two most populous U.S. states took markedly different approaches to reopening on Monday with New York scolding local governments for not enforcing social distancing and California encouraging counties to restart economies if they met criteria.

Scenes of merrymakers gathering outside bars prompted the governor of New York, the state hardest hit along with New Jersey by the coronavirus pandemic, to urge local officials and businesses on Monday to strictly enforce reopening guidelines.

“To the local governments I say, ‘Do your job,'” Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters. Over the weekend he criticized New York City street crowds outside bars and asked people to adhere to six feet (two meters) of distance from others.

Both Cuomo and neighboring New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said they were keeping open the option of reimposing restrictions if officials fail to stop large public gatherings that risk leading to a second wave of infections.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has left it up to individual counties on when to reopen once they meet state guidelines. He reminded county officials of the risks of not restarting economies, as well as reopening them.

Newsom told a news briefing on Monday people could not be “locked away for months and months and months,” especially those among the 5.5 million Americans who have lost their jobs since mid-March. He said some had also lost health coverage and were among the many people suffering severe mental and physical health problems during the pandemic.

In enforcing coronavirus restrictions, he said the state and counties could not “see lives and livelihoods completely destroyed without considering the health impact of those decisions as well.”

“As we mix, as we reopen, inevitably we’re going to see an increase in the total number of cases; it’s our capacity to address that that is so foundational,” said Newsom.

NEW FORECAST

California is one of four states that is projected to see the biggest spike in deaths in the months ahead, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

Its new forecast on Monday forecast over 200,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States through the beginning of October, mainly due to reopening measures underway.

The IHME, whose estimates are cited by many health experts, projected Florida will see its deaths nearly triple to 18,675 deaths from 6,559 on June 10, while California can expect to see deaths increase by 72 percent to 15,155 from 8,812, it said.

Georgia and Arizona also have sharp increases in deaths forecast by the institute.

New York and New Jersey between them account for more than a third of the nearly 116,000 U.S. deaths, but deaths and hospitalizations have been on the decline of late. Both have followed strict health guidelines for reopening businesses when all measures of infection drop – new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and positive rates among those getting tested.

Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration director who has advised the White House on the coronavirus, said on Monday that flare-ups needed to be addressed with aggressive contact tracing and targeted responses.

“We’re not going to be able to shut down the country again this summer. We’re probably not going to be able to shut down the country again this fall,” he said on CNBC.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Andrew Hay; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Six Atlanta cops face excessive force charges after tasing college students

(Reuters) – Six Atlanta police officers will face charges for an incident in which they tased two college students and removed them from their car during protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American in police custody.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said on Tuesday he would seek prison sentences of several years for the officers involved in the Saturday encounter with Messiah Young, 22, and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Taniyah Pilgrim.

“The conduct involved in this incident — it is not indicative of the way that we treat people in the city of Atlanta,” Howard told a briefing, which Young and Pilgrim also attended.

Video footage shared at the briefing showed officers stopping the car, relaying orders and firing a taser gun into the vehicle. Pilgrim is then pulled from the car screaming. There is no sign that either resisted or posed any threat.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Sunday that she and the city’s police chief had decided to fire two of the officers after reviewing body-camera footage of the incident.

The Atlanta Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the charges, which range from aggravated assault to criminal damage to Pilgrim’s car.

“I feel a little safer now that these monsters are off of the street,” said Young, a senior at Morehouse College, who suffered a fractured wrist during the incident. “Moving forward, we just need to make sure that all officers are held accountable.”

Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said the move to bring charges without a thorough investigation was unfair to the officers, none of whom have been interviewed.

“We believe that this is premature,” Champion said, adding he believed Howard and Bottoms were trying to score political points rather than uncover all the facts. “Why were the students stopped? We don’t know the answer to that.”

 

(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Three white men to face Georgia judge in death of black jogger

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Three white men charged with the murder of an unarmed black man in Georgia will face a judge Thursday morning in a case that caused a national outcry after cellphone video of the shooting was leaked on social media.

Protests are expected outside the courthouse after more than a week of demonstrations across the United States over the death of George Floyd, a black American who was pinned down to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

In the case in Georgia, the three men were not charged until more than two months after Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot dead while running on Feb. 23.

State police stepped in to investigate after the video was widely seen and Glynn County police took no action, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) pressed charges.

A former police officer is accused of involvement in Arbery’s death in the coastal community of Brunswick, and state officials have called in the National Guard to assist with the crowds expected outside the courthouse.

Glynn County Magistrate Judge Wallace Harrell who will review whether or not the GBI had probable cause to bring the charges.

Former police officer Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, are charged with murder and aggravated assault.

William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor of the McMichaels who took the cellphone video, was charged with felony murder and attempt to illegally detain and confine.

Police say Gregory McMichael saw Arbery running in his neighborhood just outside Brunswick and believed he looked like a burglary suspect. The elder McMichael called his son and the two armed themselves and gave chase in a pickup truck, police said.

Bryan’s video footage appears to show the McMichaels confronting Arbery before Arbery was shot with a shotgun.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the case as a possible federal hate crime. The GBI is investigating the police department and two local district attorneys offices over the handling of the case.

If convicted, the three men face life in prison or the death penalty.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

‘I should have stopped them’ -Note left at slain Georgia man’s memorial

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The family of Ahmaud Arbery, the black jogger whose fatal shooting in Georgia triggered a national outcry, appealed on Thursday for any new witness to the killing to step forward after a note reading “I should have stopped them” was found on his memorial.

The single-page note was discovered earlier this week by a television news crew at the memorial, set up in the victim’s hometown of Brunswick, about 300 miles (480 km) southeast of Atlanta.

More two months after the Feb. 23 slaying, a white former law enforcement officer and his son, who were seen on the video chasing the 25-year-old jogger, were arrested last week and charged with aggravated assault and murder.

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Arbery family, said in a statement that the family believes that the person who left the note is a witness to the Feb. 23 shooting.

“They feel great sympathy for the person who wrote that note and would like to speak with them to determine what they knew or what they saw,” the attorney said in a statement.

The shooting was reminiscent of a spate of killings of black men in recent years that involved white police officers or former officers. Outrage over the killings and the response to them by the U.S. criminal justice system led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement and national protests.

“Ahmaud – I am so sorry. I should have stopped them. I am so sorry,” the note reads in full. It was posted on the internet by multiple media outlets.

The two suspects, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis, 34, were arrested and charged on May 7, after the local district attorney asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the case.

Their arrests came just days after the release of the video, which set off the national furor led by civil rights activists and celebrities.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also launched an inquiry on why charges were not brought sooner and whether to charge the suspects with federal hate crimes.

A caravan of protesters plans to drive more than 300 miles from Atlanta to Brunswick on Saturday to draw attention to the case.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Georgia cafes, theaters open as U.S. states ease more restrictions

By Rich McKay and Susan Heavey

ATLANTA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Georgia on Monday will start allowing residents to dine inside restaurants or watch a movie at a theater, as more U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi took steps to ease coronavirus restrictions despite the warnings of health experts.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to reopen some businesses to start reviving their battered economies. Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that threw millions of Americans out of work.

President Donald Trump and some local officials have criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for orders that enabled restaurants and theaters to join a list of businesses, such as hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, he allowed to reopen last week with social-distancing restrictions.

One restaurant chain, Waffle House, was imposing seating arrangements in Georgia that will keep patrons at least six feet apart, stricter sanitization measures and a requirement that employees wear masks, CEO Walt Ehmer told WSB-TV.

“I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families,” Ehmer said. “I think it’s going to give them some hope.”

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a fresh surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

Meanwhile, the number of known infections in the United States kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

ROADMAPS

Officials in some of the hardest-hit states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have been emphasizing for weeks that more testing and contact tracing for the virus needed to be in place before they could implement roadmaps for restarting their economies.

Contact tracing involves tracking down and testing people who may have been around anyone already infected.

“Testing is the way forward, and it’s been a long fight just to get the testing,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a briefing on Monday.

He said a new “self-swab” test, which allows patients to administer it to themselves under the supervision of medical personnel, will be available this week at sites run by New York public hospitals.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a news conference on Monday.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday that businesses including manufacturing and construction in parts of the state with fewer cases of the virus might reopen after his shutdown order expires on May 15.

In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

In a further step to ramp up supplies to fight the pandemic, Trump planned to meet with American textile industry representatives on Monday as clothiers seek to shift their production lines to face masks and other critical items, the White House said.

Companies are aiming “to repurpose their factories from making things like T-shirts into gowns and masks and things like cotton swabs” used for coronavirus testing, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March with predictions from the Trump administration that the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April.

“The next couple of months are going to look terrible,” Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on Monday said she hoped Smithfield’s Sioux Falls pork processing plant can reopen soon, a day after U.S. labor regulators urged the meat industry to adopt certain measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus among workers. The country’s meat plants have emerged as hot spots for the spread of the virus.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Susan Heavey in Washington; additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Jessica Resnick-Ault; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller)

U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi to reopen despite health warnings

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi this week prepared to join other states that have eased coronavirus restrictions to try to revive their battered economies, although some business owners voiced reluctance in the face of health warnings.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to allow some businesses deemed nonessential to reopen after being shut for weeks even as health experts advocated for more diagnostic testing to ensure safety.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina previously restarted their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of American workers out of their jobs.

The number of known U.S. infections kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a new surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message late on Sunday that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a Noon ET (1600 GMT) news conference on Monday.

Although unprecedented stay-at-home orders have put many businesses in jeopardy, many owners have expressed ambivalence about returning to work without more safeguards.

‘I WOULD STAY HOME’

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March and the White House has forecast a staggering jump in the nation’s monthly jobless rate.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April, and that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

On Monday, White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is focusing on protocols to keep U.S. factories open as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, including screening workers for potential cases.

“You’re going to have to reconfigure factories,” Navarro told Fox News. “You’re going to have to use things like thermoscanners to check fever as they come in.”

Trump was scheduled to hold a video call with the country’s governors on Monday afternoon before the White House coronavirus task force’s daily briefing.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases has been attributed in part to increased diagnostic screening. But health authorities also warn that testing and contact tracing must be vastly expanded before shuttered businesses can safely reopen widely.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Nicholas Brown and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

As U.S. coronavirus death toll nears 50,000, Georgia forges ahead with reopening

By Rich McKay and Susan Heavey

ATLANTA (Reuters) – With the U.S. coronavirus death toll nearing 50,000, Georgia pushed ahead with its plan to become the first state to allow an array of small businesses to reopen on Friday despite the disapproval of U.S. President Donald Trump and health experts.

Trump late on Thursday sparked fresh confusion over the prospects for treating COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, suggesting that scientists should investigate whether patients might be cured by ingesting disinfectant.

Gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors and some other businesses were cleared to open their doors by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who disregarded warnings from public health experts that relaxing restrictions could lead to a surge in infections of the novel coronavirus and more deaths.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence more than once told Kemp they approved of his plan to lift restrictions before Trump reversed that stance and told a news conference this week he disapproved, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing two administration officials.

Georgia has become a flashpoint in the debate over how quickly the country should get back to work.

It is the first state to embark on a widespread reopening, although Oklahoma was also opening some retail businesses on Friday, Florida started allowing people to visit some of its beaches last Friday, South Carolina began to ease restrictions on Monday and other states will relax guidelines next week.

The lockdowns have exacted a severe toll on the economy, with U.S. Labor Department data released on Thursday showing 26.5 million Americans had sought jobless benefits over the last five weeks.

Despite the lost revenues, not all businesses are jumping at the chance to reopen. Shay Cannon, owner of Liberty Tattoo in Atlanta, Georgia, said he would reopen in May by appointment only and did not foresee a return to normal until June or later.

“We are not opening today, we feel it is too soon,” Cannon told Reuters. “We’re just watching the numbers and doing what seems right to us.”

‘UNACCEPTABLE,’ MAYOR SAYS

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has repeatedly criticized Kemp’s push to reopen businesses, told the ABC News “Good Morning America” program that Georgia did not have the hospital capacity to handle the outbreak and warned of a second wave of cases.

“It’s necessary that we continue to distance ourselves,” she told ABC. “There are some who are willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of the economy and that’s unacceptable to me.”

The number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 875,000, with nearly 50,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

According to a model maintained by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, which is used by the White House, hospitalizations in Georgia will peak next week and should not open until June 22.

Oklahoma plans to open hair and nail salons, barber shops and other personal care businesses on Friday, and will expand the easing of restrictions to restaurants, churches and gyms on May 1. Governor Kevin Stitt has said businesses need to maintain space for customers to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

With far fewer cases and deaths than Georgia, the IHME model predicts that Oklahoma already hit its hospitalizations peak on Tuesday and could loosen restrictions on June 17.

At his media briefing on Thursday, Trump said scientists should explore whether inserting light or disinfectant into the bodies of people infected with COVID-19 might serve as a “cleaning” and clear the disease.

The comments prompted doctors and health experts to issue warnings to the public not to drink or inject disinfectant, while Lysol and Dettol maker Reckitt Benckiser <RB.L> felt compelled to issue a statement of its own.

“Under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” the company said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Susan Heavey in Washington and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Writing by Nathan Layne; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller)

With reopenings in U.S. South, some merchants lay out welcome mat, others fearful

By Ann Saphir and Lindsay Dunsmuir

(Reuters) – Angie Bullman plans to reopen her suburban Atlanta hair salon on Friday after closing a month ago to comply with state orders. She and her co-owner husband, also a stylist, are already fully booked for the weekend.

Salon de la Vie’s five other stylists, massage therapist and esthetician will come back to work on May 1, when the state’s stay-at-home order will lift.

“We got to get back to work,” Bullman said. “I am just not all that freaked out about it.”

Georgia is among a handful of states that will allow more businesses to reopen beginning this week and next. The state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, gave the green light to gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo and massage parlors to restart on Friday, followed by movie theaters and restaurants next week. It is not clear how quickly businesses will jump at the chance to reopen.

White House guidelines say states should wait until new cases are on the decline before reopening. The virus has killed more than 45,000 people in the United States, more than any other country.

But Kemp and other governors are keen to get their economies rolling again, which would bring in income and sales taxes, the main revenue sources for most states. The lockdown has decimated state budgets, and the latest federal government coronavirus aid bill, set to be passed this week, does not include new money for state and local governments in part because Trump administration officials and some Republicans were concerned it could deter them from reopening.

Georgia has fewer coronavirus cases and deaths per capita than the national average, but one of the lowest rates of testing. Even so, cases have been on the rise, with 1,242 new infections detected over the prior 24 hours, the highest single-day tally in two weeks.

Bullman is unruffled and said while she will wear a mask, she will not require her customers to do so. She said her salon is housed in a 4,000-square-foot building with tall ceilings and plenty of ventilation, and can easily space customers out.

“I just don’t think our environment is high risk,” she said, of both her salon and community.

TOO MUCH, TOO SOON

Just because governors want their economies to restart does not mean they will switch on like a light. Some business owners are fearful, and customers may be too, about their health or about spending during the steepest economic downturn in 90 years.

Shonda King runs Gifted Creations hair salon in Midway, near Georgia’s Atlantic coast, with her daughter. Before the crisis, they were fully booked with a largely African-American clientele. The salon has been closed since late March and King has been living off savings.

Even so, King will not be reopening on Friday.

“The governor is saying, You can go back to work. But at the risk of losing your life? People are walking around with Covid and they don’t even know it,” she said, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the virus. “Why should we put our lives on the line to go out and style hair?”

King said it would be impossible for her to comply with social distancing requirements. “There is no way you can stay six feet apart – my arms aren’t even six feet long!” King said. She hopes to reopen in May, but only once the number of cases in her area are falling.

Steve Pitts, 53, general manager of Manuel’s Tavern, a popular fixture just east of midtown Atlanta for more than six decades, is in the same camp as King.

“It’s still too dangerous,” Pitts said. “Even with protection, you’d still be breathing the same air for hours. We need to listen to the scientists and epidemiologists and not the politicians.”

Pitts said as soon as Kemp announced plans to reopen restaurants for dine-in service starting Monday, his phone started “blowing up.”

“I started fielding concerns from the staff, some have been here for 25 years, one since ’78. They’re in their 50s and 60s. Our concern is for them and for our customers.”

MIDDLE GROUND

In South Carolina, the state’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, began to ease restrictions on Monday, just two weeks after imposing a stay-at-home order. Businesses that may reopen are limited mostly to department stores, and furniture, clothing, shoe and jewelry stores. There are strict limits on the number of customers allowed in each store.

Chuck Dawson is relieved to be back in business. In the two weeks his six furniture and mattress stores, J&K Home Furnishings, located along the state’s coastal Grand Strand, were essentially closed, revenue was down 90%.

“I don’t think he’s done it too early. He’s not opened bowling alleys or gyms,” Dawson said of the governor’s actions. “We are definitely seeing customers. It’s a nice start and an appropriate one.”

For now he is limiting how many of his 56 employees are on site. On Tuesday, he had five employees in his largest store, compared with the usual 15 to 18. All those whose jobs may be done from home can do so, he said. He has masks and wipes for customers.

South Carolina has more than 4,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and rising.

Dawson does not think business will be booming any time soon. He hopes to be up to 50% of normal revenue for the month of May, but does not see returning to pre-crisis levels until at least October.

“People are scared and pulling back. They’re scared to come out,” he said.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir and Ann Saphir; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Dan Burns and Leslie Adler)

Georgia tests boundaries of life post-pandemic with ‘risky’ reopening

By Howard Schneider and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A handful of mostly southern U.S. states will begin loosening economic restrictions this week in the midst of a still virulent pandemic, providing a live-fire test of whether America’s communities can start to reopen without triggering a surge that may force them to close again.

The Republican governors of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Ohio all announced on Monday they would begin peeling back the curbs on commerce and social activity aimed at stopping the coronavirus outbreak over the next two weeks. Colorado’s Democratic governor said on Tuesday he would open retail stores on May 1.

Georgia has been hardest-hit of these states, with 19,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths, including a dense cluster in the state’s southwest. Amid a national debate over how to fight the virus while mitigating the deep economic toll, these moves are the first to test the borders of resuming “normal” life.

None of the states have met basic White House guidelines unveiled last week of two weeks of declining cases before a state should reopen. Most are weeks away from the timing suggested in modeling by the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), based on the virus’s spread and social distancing.

With farmers, small business owners, and larger industries teetering on the edge, “I see the terrible impact on public health as well as the pocketbook,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said.

Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s Democratic rival in a closely fought gubernatorial race in 2018, warned of the dangers faced by lower-wage workers called back into businesses that may not follow the rules, serving customers who may not abide by them.

Around the country, the pandemic has taken a greater toll on poorer Americans and minorities. As of Monday, 412 of Georgia’s 774 COVID-19 fatalities were black, or more than 53% compared to the 31% black share of the state’s population.

“We’re not ready to return to normal,” Abrams told CBS’s “This Morning” on Tuesday. “We have people who are the most vulnerable and the least resilient being put on the front lines, contracting a disease that they cannot get treatment for.”

TATTOO PARLORS AND NAIL SALONS

Republican President Donald Trump, who has been eager to end a lockdown that has crushed the U.S. economy in an election year, has called for Democratic governors in big states to “liberate” their citizens from the stay-at-home orders.

In Georgia, where the growth in cases and deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus has slowed in recent days, Kemp said he would allow a broad swath of businesses from barbershops to tattoo parlors to reopen on Friday under enhanced rules for hygiene, distancing among employees, and use of masks.

The industries employ thousands in Georgia, but are not top contributors to the state’s overall GDP, which is led https://apps.bea.gov/regional/bearfacts/action.cfm by finance and insurance, followed by professional and business services. Retail stores and fast food chains are top employers.

Graphic: Georgia moves to reopen – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/xlbpgadypqd/eikon.png

(See a graphic of Georgia’s economy https://reut.rs/3eBy40W.)

On Monday, movie theaters, restaurants and private clubs in the state will be allowed to open, with some restrictions. Bars, music clubs and amusement parks will remain closed for now.

Some questioned the wisdom of opening up service industries that operated with such high levels of human contact.

“Gyms, nail salons, bowling alleys, hair salons, tattoo parlors — it feels like they collected, you know, a list of the businesses that were most risky and decided to open those first,” Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, told CNBC on Tuesday.

“Unlike other businesses, these entities have been unable to manage inventory, deal with payroll, and take care of administrative items while we shelter in place,” Kemp said on Monday.

Georgia was one of the best-prepared U.S. states to weather an economic downturn before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Moody’s Analytics noted in an April report, with a “rainy day” balance of 10.9% of 2019 revenues on hand. Only six other states had more.

NEXT STEPS

With stepped-up testing and monitoring, “we will get Georgians back to work safely,” Kemp said.

Leaders of the other states offered similar rationales, arguing that caseloads had eased, testing and monitoring had expanded, and hospital capacity was now adequate to take what Kemp called a “small step forward” in resuming normal life.

Some health experts have suggested activity should remain restricted until near universal testing is available.

Death rates in Georgia, Colorado and Ohio are close to the national average, but their testing rates are among the lowest in the United States, according to a Reuters analysis.

Just 83,000 tests have been conducted so far on Georgia’s more than 10 million residents.

Graphic: Flying blind – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/jznpnrgkplm/eikon.png

(See a graphic of state testing rates https://reut.rs/34Ui1Xv.)

“We’ve got to get more testing done before we make any public health decisions,” said Dr. Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Opening is a gamble in a situation where much is still unknown about the virus’ presence in people who show no symptoms, incubation periods within the body, and transmissibility, health experts say.

Economists and epidemiologists who have studied past pandemics warn https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-reopen-analysi/the-u-s-weighs-the-grim-math-of-death-vs-the-economy-idUSKBN21H1B4 that reopening too quickly could both cause unnecessary deaths and cause worse damage to the economy over the long run.

Unknown as well is the public’s tolerance for potential exposure, critical in determining whether reopening at this point provides true economic relief or simply a pathway for the virus to surge – whether confidence, in other words, rises before the infection rate.

Guidelines issued by the IHME at the University of Washington as of Monday recommended Georgia keep restrictions in place until June 15, South Carolina until June 1, Tennessee and Colorado until May 25, and Ohio until May 18.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Heather Timmons in Washington and Ann Saphir in Berkeley, Calif.; Editing by Heather Timmons and Sonya Hepinstall)