Philadelphia bans all indoor gatherings as COVID-19 surges across the United States

By Maria Caspani and Sharon Bernstein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The city of Philadelphia will ban indoor gatherings altogether and the nearby state of New Jersey will strictly limit their size as U.S. officials struggle to slow a COVID-19 surge that could overwhelm hospitals and kill thousands.

Philadelphia, the nation’s sixth-largest city, is strongly urging residents to shelter at home and “prohibiting indoor gatherings of any size in any location, public or private,” health commissioner Thomas Farley said at a news conference on Monday.

“We need to keep this virus from jumping from one household to another,” Farley said. If “exponential” growth of cases continues, hospitals will soon become overwhelmed and more than 1,000 people could die in Philadelphia over the next six weeks before the end of the year, he said.

In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy on Monday said a maximum of 10 people will be allowed to gather indoors, down from 25. On Nov. 23, the limit for outdoor gatherings will drop from 500 to 150.

“It’s gotten worse and it’s gonna get worse,” the Northeastern state’s Democratic governor said in an interview with MSNBC.

Total U.S. infections crossed the 11 million mark, just over a week after hitting 10 million, the fastest time it took the country to report an additional 1 million cases since the pandemic began. States across the nation have re-imposed restrictions to stem the resurgent virus straining many healthcare systems.

Dr. Alexander Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said hospitals in Missouri could run out of capacity in two weeks as cases there continue to rise.

“If this continues, we’re absolutely going to need more staff, more help, more of everything to deal with the crush of patients that we see coming at us,” Garza told CNN on Monday.

HOSPITALISATIONS ALL-TIME HIGH

Forty U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases in November, while 20 have seen a record rise in deaths and 26 reported record hospitalizations, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

The latest seven-day average shows the United States is reporting more than 148,000 daily cases and 1,120 daily deaths. U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations hit an all-time high on Sunday.

In Ohio, where total cases have increased by about 17% and total hospitalizations have risen by at least 25% in the past seven days, the state’s health department issued a revised order to limit mass gatherings, which takes effect on Tuesday, Governor Mike DeWine said on Monday.

In what she called the re-enactment of the “most heightened level of statewide” coronavirus restrictions, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham instructed residents to stay home for two weeks beginning on Monday, among other curbs.

“We face a life-or-death situation and we cannot fail to act,” Grisham wrote on Twitter.

Michigan and Washington state on Sunday imposed sweeping new restrictions on gatherings, including halting indoor restaurant service.

MODERNA VACCINE 95% EFFECTIVE

The slew of grim records and news was partly offset by Monday’s announcement by drugmaker Moderna that its experimental vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19, based on interim data from a late-stage trial.

Together with Pfizer Inc’s vaccine, which is also more than 90% effective, and pending more safety data and regulatory review, the United States could have two vaccines authorized for emergency use in December with as many as 60 million doses available this year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. health official, said the Moderna vaccine results were impressive but cautioned the United States could still go through a “dark winter” as COVID-19 fatigue sets in and people grow tired of restrictions.

“It’s a very serious situation,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Today” program. “But the fact that help is on the way should spur us even more to double down on some of the public health measures. … We can do it.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, David Shepardson and David Lawder in Washington; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Tarrant and Aurora Ellis)

Indoor dining to resume in New Jersey this week, governor says

(Reuters) – New Jersey restaurants may open their indoor dining areas to patrons later this week for the first time since the state shut down most of its commerce when the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March, Governor Phil Murphy said on Monday.

The number of diners must be limited to 25% of the restaurant’s capacity and tables must be spaced in accordance with social-distancing rules when indoor dining resumes on Friday, Murphy said.

“Reopening responsibly will help us restore one of our state’s key industries while continuing to make progress against #COVID19,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

The governor is expected to elaborate later on Monday on the coronavirus status in the state, which has moved incrementally in reopening its economy since May.

New Jersey, the country’s most densely populated state, was among the hardest hit in the months when the coronavirus first spread to the United States. It still has the second-most COVID-19 deaths of any state, with nearly 16,000, and is eighth among total cases with more than 193,000, according to a Reuters tally.

But the state has had much better control of the pandemic in the past several weeks, with a transmission rate that has largely been below 1%.

Across the rest of the country, total coronavirus cases topped 6 million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally.

Although the national metrics on new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and positivity rates of tests have been declining, new hot spots have emerged in the Midwest.

Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota recently reported record one-day increases in new cases, while Montana and Idaho are seeing record numbers of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

New Jersey to give voters in-person, mail-in option in November election, governor says

(Reuters) – New Jersey voters will have the choice in the November election of using ballots mailed to their homes or going to their local polling places, just as they did during last month’s primary elections, Governor Phil Murphy said on Friday.

“We’re going to have a hybrid model in November,” Murphy said on CNN. “We liked what we saw. We’ll tweak it. And that’s where we’re headed.”

A formal announcement will be made later on Friday, Murphy said.

Under the procedure, which is designed to protect residents from exposure to the coronavirus, all registered voters will have ballots mailed to their homes which they can mail back or place in secure “drop boxes.”

Residents who opt to go to their local polling places on Nov. 3 will do so in “provisional voting,” meaning they must use paper ballots, not voting machines, so that officials can guard against duplicate voting, Murphy said.

The process is “a little bit more cumbersome but it works,” he said.

Mail-in voting, which several states encouraged because of the pandemic, often led to delays in reporting the results of this year’s primary elections, especially in close races, because of the additional time needed to count them. States often required mail-in ballots to be postmarked by Election Day.

Asked whether he was concerned about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, Murphy acknowledged that there were delays because of personnel shortages in the first two months of the pandemic, but said “as far as we can tell, it’s behind us.”

“We’ve been in constant touch with the U.S. Postal Service,” he said. “We’ve pressed them hard. We’ll continue to press them hard.”

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

New Jersey governor can borrow $9.9 billion to plug shortfalls, top state court rules

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – New Jersey’s highest court on Wednesday rejected an effort by state Republicans to block Democratic Governor Phil Murphy from borrowing as much as $9.9 billion to help offset plunging tax revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The New Jersey Supreme Court said the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act was constitutional, but officials will need to certify that projected revenue and fiscal shortfalls were “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic” before they can borrow.

State legislators had passed the law on July 16, prompting a lawsuit by the New Jersey Republican State Committee, which said it violated the appropriations and debt limitation clauses of New Jersey’s constitution.

Lawyers for the committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Murphy is expected to publicly discuss the decision later on Wednesday.

The $9.9 billion cap represented New Jersey’s estimate of how much less tax revenue it might collect through June 30, 2021, compared with its projection before the pandemic struck.

In Wednesday’s 7-0 decision, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said COVID-19 qualified as a “disaster” permitting the state to resort on emergency financing to plug anticipated shortfalls.

He said the plaintiffs had not met the “heavy burden” of showing that the law’s alleged unconstitutionality was “clear beyond reasonable doubt.”

States nationwide have struggled with lower tax revenues because of decreased economic activity and higher unemployment resulting from the pandemic.

New Jersey, whose population is about 8.88 million, was one of the earliest U.S. hotspots for the coronavirus, and has had more than 185,000 cases and 14,000 deaths.

Its per capita infection rate is now lower than in many other states as the pandemic took hold elsewhere in the country.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

New Jersey governor re-tightens restrictions on indoor gatherings after COVID-19 surge

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Monday announced he was re-tightening restrictions on indoor gatherings after a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state that officials have, in part, linked to house parties and indoor events.

Murphy said such events will now be limited to 25% of a room’s capacity with a maximum of 25 people, down from the previous limit of 100.

“The actions of a few knuckleheads leaves us no other course,” Murphy said at a news briefing. “We have to go back and tighten these restrictions once again until we begin to see the numbers of cases decrease.”

The restrictions will not apply to weddings, funerals and memorial services, and religious and political activities protected under the First Amendment, Murphy said.

The rate of COVID-19 transmission has climbed to 1.48 in New Jersey, the governor said, compared with 0.87 about a month ago, while cases have also been on the rise.

“Let me reiterate, we remain in a public health emergency,” Murphy said. “Over the past week we saw numbers of cases that we had not seen in eight weeks, our rate of transmission is now more than double where it was a few weeks ago. Everyone needs to get it together folks.”

Murphy also sought to clarify previously provided guidance on schools reopening and announced that all students will be required to wear face coverings at all times when inside a school building, excepts for health reasons.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)