Prayers and faxed letters: Texas woman buries husband who died of COVID-19

By Callaghan O’Hare and Maria Caspani

HOUSTON (Reuters) – As hundreds of thousands of people in Texas fled their homes ahead of Hurricane Laura on Wednesday, Michelle Gutierrez was in Houston burying her husband David, who died of COVID-19 on Aug. 14.

The couple would have celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary on Sept. 4, a few days after David’s 54th birthday. Michelle and David met at a mechanic’s shop in Houston in 2009, when he had stepped in as a translator to help her with a mechanic who only spoke Spanish.

He then offered to fix her computer, and the rest is history. They built a life together in Houston, where they raised five children and he worked as a software engineer.

In early July, David was hospitalized after his symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, worsened. His wife and two daughters had tested positive but showed no symptoms.

David would fight the virus for over a month at Houston’s St. Luke’s in The Woodlands hospital, where he eventually died of heart failure.

“It’s been a roller coaster, every day is different,” Michelle said on the day of his funeral, her voice breaking with emotion. “One day you’re fine and the next day, you walk around and memories flood your mind… You just wish this was all a dream.”

About a week after her husband was hospitalized, Michelle and her daughters gathered under his hospital window to pray for him.

“And then after that first night I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna come in every night, honey, I’m going to be here every night, praying for you and just being there in spirit’,” she said.

And so she did, until the Friday in August when David passed away.

Michelle said she kept trying to communicate with her husband as his condition worsened. At first, before he was put on a ventilator, they managed to text one another, she said. But once he was in a coma, she began faxing letters to the hospital, and nurses would read them aloud to him.

David is one of thousands who have succumbed to the coronavirus in Texas, where a spike in cases in June and July strained hospital systems as the virus engulfed many southern states.

Nearly 180,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the highest in the world, with 5.8 million cases recorded nationwide, according to a Reuters tally, also the highest in the world.

At David’s wake, a bottle of hand sanitizer and social distancing signs were prominently displayed as masked mourners walked to the casket to bid their farewells.

As for the future, Michelle said she was enrolling in a college nursing program. She had already planned to do so before her husband’s passing, but feels more motivated now.

“That’s more so now than before after seeing how these nurses took care of David and they were wonderful… And I could not have done it without them.”

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston, Texas and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Beirut blast halts American-Lebanese woman’s final journey home

By Callaghan O’Hare and Maria Caspani

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Rami Basbous was on the phone with his uncle in Beirut on August 4, making arrangements to return his mother’s remains from the United States to her birthplace, when he heard the blast that reduced large parts of the Lebanese capital to rubble.

The explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history, killed at least 172 people, injured some 6,000 and triggered protests against Lebanon’s political elite. It also put an end to the Basbous family’s plan to bury a beloved wife and mother alongside her relatives.

“Before the blast and riots we had a very large set of hurdles to get through but it was doable,” said Rami, 21, after his mother’s funeral on Wednesday in Houston, Texas. “After the blast and now the riots we have a very slim chance at getting her there safely.”

Rita Basbous died earlier this month at age 53 in Houston, weeks after undergoing heart surgery. Rita, whose health was already compromised by a decades-long struggle with diabetes and related kidney problems, contracted the coronavirus in April and fought it through May.

She eventually recovered, her son said, although the illness left her weak.

“She loved the world,” Rami said of his mother, who was born in Lebanon, spoke five languages and lived in Mauritania and the United States, following her father to his postings as a civil engineer.

After the Basbous family settled in Houston, Rita worked as a teacher and dedicated much of her time to volunteering and helping fellow immigrants, her son said.

Mask-clad mourners occupied every other row of pews at her funeral service at Our Lady of the Cedars Maronite Church in Houston. Pink and white roses adorned her casket.

In a time of pandemic, the family said they were grateful to be able to hold an in-person funeral at all.

The son, Rami, said restrictions imposed by the pandemic forced them to get creative and live stream the funeral for family and friends unable to attend.

For now, Rita has been buried at a Houston area cemetery. The family still hopes to return her remains to Lebanon but the unrest in Beirut, coupled with the health issues raised by coronavirus, have put those plans on hold for now.

“We joke that that was her telling us ‘no’,” Rami said.

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston, Texas; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Diane Craft)

China seizes U.S. consulate in Chengdu, retaliating for Houston

By Martin Quin Pollard and Thomas Peter

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) – China took over the premises of the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday, after ordering the facility to be vacated in retaliation for China’s ouster last week from its consulate in Houston, Texas.

The seizure capped a dramatic escalation in tensions between the world’s two biggest economies that began when employees at China’s Houston consulate were seen burning documents in a courtyard last Tuesday, hours before Beijing announced that it had been ordered to leave the facility.

The U.S. consulate in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was closed as of 10 a.m (0200) on Monday, and Chinese authorities had entered the building from the front door, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

On Friday, Beijing announced that it had asked the United States to close its Chengdu post, and gave the Americans 72 hours to vacate, the same amount of time China was given to leave its Houston mission, which was shut on Friday.

“We are disappointed by the

By Martin Quin Pollard and Thomas Peter

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) – China took over the premises of the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday, after ordering the facility to be vacated in retaliation for China’s ouster last week from its consulate in Houston, Texas.

The seizure capped a dramatic escalation in tensions between the world’s two biggest economies that began when employees at China’s Houston consulate were seen burning documents in a courtyard last Tuesday, hours before Beijing announced that it had been ordered to leave the facility.

The U.S. consulate in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was closed as of 10 a.m (0200) on Monday, and Chinese authorities had entered the building from the front door, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

On Friday, Beijing announced that it had asked the United States to close its Chengdu post, and gave the Americans 72 hours to vacate, the same amount of time China was given to leave its Houston mission, which was shut on Friday.

“We are disappointed by the Chinese Communist Party’s decision and will strive to continue our outreach to the people in this important region through our other posts in China,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in an email to Reuters.

At midday on Monday, police removed a roadblock that had restricted access to the Chengdu facility, and dozens of passersby stopped to take photos and videos.

One man stood across the street and played the Chinese national anthem from his phone.

“We feel very sad about the breaking down of the relationship between China and U.S.,” said a bystander outside the facility who said his surname was Li. He said he was worried about the impact of deteriorating relations on Chinese citizens who want to travel or study in the United States.

Grey sheet-like material was placed over the spot near the entrance where a plaque had been affixed, and over the place where there was large lettering saying “U.S. Consulate General”.

The U.S. embassy issued a video in Chinese on its Twitter feed: “The U.S. consulate in Chengdu has been proudly promoting the mutual understanding between Americans and the people in Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Tibet since 1985. We will forever miss you,” it said.

The American flag was no longer flying at the consulate having been lowered at 6:18 a.m. on Monday, according to video shot by a journalist and shared by state broadcaster CCTV on its Twitter-like Weibo account.

The eagle on top of the flagpole remained.

On Sunday night, a crane was seen entering the consulate compound and hoisting at least one container onto a large truck.

The Chengdu consulate opened in 1985 and had almost 200 employees, including about 150 locally hired staff, according to its website. It was not immediately clear how many had been working there at the time of its closure, after U.S. diplomats were evacuated from China because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S.-China relations have plunged to their worst in decades over a range of disputes, from trade and technology to the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its clampdown on Hong Kong.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech calling a more assertive approach to China the “mission of our time”.

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard and Thomas Peter; writing by Tony Munroe; editing by Richard Pullin and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

 

China orders U.S. to shut Chengdu consulate, retaliating for Houston

By Yew Lun Tian, Tony Munroe and Doina Chiacu

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China ordered the United States on Friday to close its consulate in the city of Chengdu, responding to a U.S. demand for China to close its Houston consulate, as relations between the world’s two largest economies deteriorate.

The order to close the consulate in Chengdu, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, continued Beijing’s recent practice of like-for-like responses to U.S. actions.

China had warned it would retaliate after it was this week given 72 hours – until Friday – to vacate its consulate in the Texas city, and had urged the United States to reconsider.

Relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated sharply this year over issues ranging from trade and technology to the novel coronavirus, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its clampdown on Hong Kong.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China informed the U.S. Embassy in China of its decision to withdraw its consent for the establishment and operation of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said some Chengdu consulate personnel were “conducting activities not in line with their identities” and had interfered in China’s affairs and harmed China’s security interests, but he did not say how.

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, who is also foreign minister, blamed Washington for the deterioration in ties.

“The current difficult situation in Sino-U.S. relations is entirely caused by the United States, and its goal is trying to interrupt China’s development,” Wang said in a video conversation with his German counterpart.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said the closing of the consulate was aimed at protecting American intellectual property and personal information.

“We urge the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) to cease these malign actions rather than engage in tit-for-tat retaliation,” John Ullyot, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.

The consulate in Chengdu was given 72 hours to close, or until 10 a.m. on Monday, the editor of the Global Times newspaper said on Twitter.

The consulate opened in 1985 and has almost 200 employees, including about 150 locally hired staff, according to its website. It was not immediately clear how many are there now after U.S. diplomats were evacuated from China during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Global share markets fell after the announcement, led by a heavy drop in Chinese blue chips, which fell 4.4%, while the yuan hit a two-week low. [MKTS/GLOB]

The U.S. State Department warned Americans in China of a greater risk of arbitrary law enforcement including detention, repeating a similar warning two weeks ago.

TROUBLED TIES

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech on Thursday Washington and its allies must use “more creative and assertive ways” to press the Chinese Communist Party to change its ways.

A source had told Reuters China was considering shutting the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where Washington withdrew staff as the coronavirus outbreak raged.

“The Chengdu consulate is more important than the Wuhan consulate because that is where the U.S. gathers information about Tibet and China’s development of strategic weapons in neighboring regions,” said Wu Xinbo, a professor and American studies expert at Fudan University in Shanghai.

He said the Chengdu consulate was less important for economic activity than U.S. consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Chinese social media users, who had denounced the order to close the Houston mission, lauded the response.

The comment, “let’s renovate it into a hotpot restaurant!”, a reference to a popular dish in Chengdu, got 100,000 likes on the Weibo account of state broadcaster CCTV.

(Reporting by Tony Munroe and Yew Lun Tian; additional reporting by Huizhong Wu and Judy Hua in Beijing, Rama Venkat in Bengaluru, Tom Westbrook in Singapore and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A flight bound for Shanghai carrying U.S. diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington’s Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday.

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The U.S. is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Thursday’s flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China’s consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the U.S. move, which had “severely harmed” relations.

It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 U.S. diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring U.S. diplomats back amid disagreement over COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

(Reporting by Humeyra Paumuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)

U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus

By Michelle Conlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Last month, as the coronavirus was surging in Houston, recently unemployed hospital secretary Ramzan Boudoin got more bad news: She had six days to vacate her apartment for failing to pay the rent.

A Texas ban on evictions had enabled Boudoin to keep the two-bedroom place she shared with her daughter and granddaughter while she searched for another job. But that moratorium expired on May 18. The landlord took legal action and Boudoin couldn’t come up with $2,997 plus interest to settle the judgment.

So this month Boudoin, 46, packed her family into a 2008 Nissan compact and headed to New Orleans, where she moved in with her mother and her sister’s family. In all, nine people share the packed three-bedroom house. Bedouin said her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung illness that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in a city where cases are rising at an alarming pace.

“Every minute, we are worried someone is going to give it to her,” Boudoin said.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes. Now those protections are vanishing. Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out unless Congress acts fast.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions. That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history. In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels. Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Swapnil Agarwal is the 39-year-old founder of Nitya Capital, one of the largest landlords in Texas and owner of the Providence at Champions Apartment Homes from which Boudoin was evicted. During the pandemic, the company has filed more than 120 eviction notices against renters in Houston, a Reuters review of court records found. Houston-based Nitya has $2 billion in real estate assets under management, according to its website.

Agarwal said his firm evicted Boudoin because she was behind on her rent and “we realized that there was no intention to pay,” an allegation she disputes. He said Nitya has gone to great lengths to keep tenants in place and has provided $4 million in rent assistance to those who lost their jobs.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May. Smith said she hasn’t been able to pay her rent because she never received her $1,200 federal stimulus check and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

On Thursday, she faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help. He said he’s handling around 25 eviction cases a week now, more than double his typical load.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 — an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said he’ll see what happens Thursday, but the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Marla Dickerson)

U.S. orders China to shut Houston consulate as spying accusations mount

By Cate Cadell and David Brunnstrom

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

China’s foreign ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.” The ministry threatened unspecified retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.

“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”

Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.

The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.

“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” he told reporters. “That’s the actions that you’re seeing taken by President Trump, we’ll continue to engage in this.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”

Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30 p.m. (2130 GMT), the White House said.

The New York Times quoted the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the “epicenter” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to U.S. universities.

“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Stilwell told the Times.

Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”

He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.

A Chinese diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.

‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’

U.S.-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues ranging from the coronavirus and telecoms-gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.

Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.

Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two U.S. government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.

But its closure within a short period of time by Washington was “an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang said.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Wang said the U.S. government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Chinese accusations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Patricia Zengerle, Daphne Psaledakis, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols and Echo Wang in New York and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. police unions approved for millions in pandemic aid

By Reade Levinson and Chris Prentice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six police unions qualified for a combined total of $2 million to $4.4 million in emergency U.S. government loans intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus lockdown, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The unions represent about 110,000 law enforcement officers in Philadelphia, Houston, New York state, Michigan and 11 Southern states.

All told, the six approved loans make up a small fraction of the program’s $521 billion in lending across 4.9 million loans as of June 30. The data released on Monday does not specify whether the loans were disbursed or if the unions will qualify for loan forgiveness.

Intended to help small companies and non-profit organizations keep their work forces employed during the coronavirus crisis, the federal Paycheck Protection Program allows employers with 500 or fewer workers hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic to apply for a forgivable government-backed loan.

The six police unions typically receive 90% of their revenue from membership dues, according to tax records reviewed by Reuters, and thus, barring layoffs, would not be hurting for cash. All six unions have work forces of their own, providing support to members. Their combined loan applications said they sought to retain 331 jobs.

Four forces with unions that received loans – the New York State Police, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department – told Reuters they had not laid off or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, so their unions’ dues collections should not have suffered any significant hits.

It is clear the loan program, overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA), gave out funds with few limits on who would benefit, said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The onus was on the SBA to ensure we’re not just throwing public funds at entities that don’t need them,” she said. “It is common sense we’d prioritize the industries that need it most, and I don’t know that’s police unions right now.”

James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said the union sought a loan in anticipation of potential revenue losses and possible layoffs amid prison closures. The union, which represents about 26,000 employees and retirees, qualified to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000.

“Based on current revenue projections for the remainder of the year, we anticipate returning the loan, as it is the prudent thing to do,” he said, in an email to Reuters.

The other police unions approved for loans did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment.

Qualifying for a loan of between $1 million and $2 million was the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 58,000 federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers in eleven states. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia police officers and sheriff deputies, qualified to borrow between $350,000 and $1 million.

Authorized to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000 were the Police Officers Labor Council in Michigan, which represents about 350 sheriffs and police departments; the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents 5,300 Houston Police Department officers; and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Home Association, a separate non-profit that maintains a lodge for union meetings.

The police unions were among at least 117 public and private sector unions that applied for loans through the program. The SBA did not release the names of recipients of loans less than $150,000.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which represents about 900,000 members across industries including teaching, performing arts, hospitality, manufacturing and construction, said in an email Wednesday that it received $267,000 and plans to ask for loan forgiveness.

Many affiliate unions represent industries that have laid off members as a result of the coronavirus, Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, said in an email. Faced with declining dues, he said, the union decided to seek aid.

“We made the decision to apply for the loan to keep our people employed.”

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.)

From New York to Houston, flood risk for real estate hubs ramps up

By Kate Duguid and Ally Levine

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of properties in the United States in danger of flooding this year is 70% higher than government data estimates, research released on Monday shows, with at-risk hot spots in Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The higher risk identified could have implications for property values as well as insurance rates, municipal bonds and mortgage-backed securities, according to investors and researchers at First Street Foundation, which released the data. (http://www.floodfactor.com)

“This could change the calculus on whether a given property is resalable, or what price you sell it at,” said Tom Graff, head of fixed income at Brown Advisory.

The data, which covers the contiguous United States, found that around 14.6 million properties, or 10.3%, are at a substantial risk of flooding this year versus the 8.7 million mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA maps are currently used to determine rates on government flood insurance and underpin risk assessments done by mortgage lenders, investors and home buyers. The maps, however, only account for coastal flooding – not rain or rivers – and do not incorporate the ways climate change has made storms worse.

A FEMA spokesperson said that First Street’s maps build on those created by the agency and the two are not incompatible.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, New York and Cape Coral, Florida top First Street’s list of cities with the most number of properties at risk. At the state level, Florida, Texas, California, New York and Pennsylvania have the most to lose. Florida and Texas also top FEMA’s list, but with significantly fewer properties estimated to be at risk.

Washington, D.C., has the greatest deviation from FEMA’s numbers, 438.4% more properties at risk, because First Street accounts for potential flooding from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and a drainage basin under the city. Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have the next highest deviations, all between three to four times greater than FEMA estimates.

Commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), investments that pool loans for office buildings, hotels, shopping centers and more, are among the securities most exposed to flood risk because of the concentration of cities on the U.S. coasts.

“There is a moral hazard within the investment community of not pricing in the risk of something like this happening,” said Scott Burg, chief investment officer at hedge fund Deer Park Road.

Nearly 20% of all U.S. commercial real estate value is located in Houston, Miami and New York, according to CoStar data, each of which has been hit by hurricanes in the last decade.

Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston in 2017 and caused $131 billion damage, affected over 1,300 CMBS loans, 3% of the CMBS market in 2017, according to BlackRock research. Hurricane Irma in 2017 affected 2%.

The BlackRock report concluded that 80% of the commercial property damaged by those two storms was outside of FEMA flood zones, indicating that many of the buildings hit may not have been appropriately insured.

Any floods this year could compound the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent more than $32 billion of commercial loans into special servicing – negotiations for relief in the event of a default – according to Moody’s.

“For property owners that’s like getting your arm amputated and then your head lopped off,” said Jacob Hagi a professor of finance at the University of North Carolina and a First Street research partner.

(Reporting by Kate Duguid; editing by Megan Davies and Steve Orlofsky)

George Floyd to be buried Tuesday as global anti-racism protests spread

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – George Floyd will be buried in Houston on Tuesday two weeks after his death while being held by police in a Minneapolis street, and more anti-racism rallies inspired by his treatment were set to take place in the United States and in Europe.

Thousands of mourners paid their respects on Monday, filing past his open coffin at the Fountain of Praise Church in Houston, Texas, where Floyd grew up.

Some mourners bowed their heads, others made the sign of the cross or raised a fist. Many wore face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a service that lasted more than six hours. The funeral will be a private ceremony and he will buried next to his mother’s grave.

“I’m glad he got the send-off he deserved,” Marcus Williams, a 46-year-old black resident of Houston, said outside. “I want the police killings to stop. I want them to reform the process to achieve justice, and stop the killing.”

Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Unarmed and handcuffed, he lay face down in the street, gasping for air and groaning for help before falling silent, footage filmed by a bystander showed.

His death unleashed a surge of protests across the U.S. cities against racism and the systematic mistreatment of black people.

Though mostly peaceful, there have been episodes of arson, looting and clashes with police, whose often heavy-handed tactics have fueled the rage.

The case also thrust President Donald Trump into a political crisis. He has repeatedly threatened to order the military on to the streets to restore order and has struggled to unite the nation.

People stand in front of a makeshift memorial as protesters rally against racial inequality and the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

The demonstrations have reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and raised demands for racial justice and police reforms to the top of the political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“I’m here to protest the mistreatment of our black bodies. It’s not going to stop unless we keep protesting,” said Erica Corley, 34, one of the hundreds attending a gathering in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.

AROUND THE WORLD

Floyd’s death triggered protests across the globe, particularly in countries with a history of colonialism and involvement in the slave trade.

In Britain, thousands of people of all races rallied in several cities over the weekend. In the port city of Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from trading African slaves, was pulled down and dumped in the harbor.

A protest is scheduled for Tuesday night at Oxford University to demand the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century businessman in southern Africa long accused of imperialist exploitation.

Mayor Sadiq Khan ordered a review of London statues and street names which largely reflect Britain’s empire in the reign of Queen Victoria.

“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored,” Khan said.

The British parliament held a minute’s silence at 11 a.m. to mark Floyd’s death.

In France, the family of a black Frenchman who died in police custody called for a nationwide protest on Saturday and spurned a government offer of talks.

Adama Traore died in July 2016 after three police officers used their weight to restrain him. His family and supporters have demanded that the officers involved be held to account. No one has been charged.

Thousands of people marched in Paris last Saturday to mark Traore’s death and in solidarity with the U.S. protesters.

MURDER CHARGE

Derek Chauvin, 44, the policeman who knelt on Floyd’s neck and is charged with second-degree murder, made his first court appearance in Minneapolis by video link on Monday. A judge ordered his bail raised from $1 million to $1.25 million.

Chauvin’s co-defendants, three fellow officers, are accused of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder. All four were dismissed from the police department the day after Floyd’s death.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden met with Floyd’s relatives for more than an hour in Houston on Monday.

“He listened, heard their pain and shared in their woe,” family lawyer Benjamin Crump said. “That compassion meant the world to this grieving family.”

In Washington, Democrats in Congress announced legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime and to allow victims of police misconduct and their families to sue law enforcement for damages in civil court, ending a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.

Trump resisted calls to defund police departments, saying 99% of police were “great, great people”.

In Richmond, Virginia, a judge issued a 10-day injunction blocking plans by the state governor to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston, David Morgan and Susan Heavey in Washington, Andrea Shalal in Silver Spring, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brad Brooks in Austin, Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Lucine Libert in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Nick Macfie)