Masked and partitioned, worshippers return to Jerusalem’s Western Wall

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Worshippers are returning to the Western Wall in Jerusalem as Judaism’s holiest prayer site gradually reopens under eased coronavirus precautions. But now they are themselves being walled-off.

Under revised rules, up to 300 visitors at a time are being allowed to access the Western Wall, a remnant of two ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem’s Old City. They must wear masks.

“Worshippers that have so yearned to visit the sacred stones and pray in front of them can return to the Western Wall while keeping to the health ministry restrictions,” said the site’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

But the prayer plaza facing the wall, which in peak holidays of the past would throng with thousands of people, is subdivided by barriers and cloth partitions forming temporary cloisters that can each accommodate 19 worshippers – the current cap.

Full Jewish prayer services require a quorum of 10.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Pravin Char)

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

By Ted Hesson and David Shepardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INCREASED SAFETY, FASTER PROCESSING

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

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

Cleaning efforts will be stepped up, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. airlines now requiring masks, promise more safety measures

By Tracy Rucinski and David Shepardson

(Reuters) – With the largest U.S. airlines now set to mandate – and provide – facial coverings for all passengers over the next two weeks, many are turning their focus to other measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus during air travel.

United Airlines Holdings Inc., for example, told journalists on Friday that it has purchased hundreds of hospital-type electrostatic fogging machines that it will start using in June to decontaminate airplane cabin surfaces and crevices before every flight.

The measures are among the steps airlines are taking to help passengers feel more comfortable about flying in the midst of the pandemic, which has decimated travel demand.

The industry, through lobby Airlines for America, has also begun discussions with policymakers in Washington on measures such as virus testing and pre-boarding temperature checks, United Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest said.

Southwest Airlines Co and Alaska Airlines on Friday joined other major airlines in imposing facial coverings.

JetBlue Airways Corp <JBLU.O> was the first to mandate such a policy, and on Thursday United, Delta Air Lines Inc. American Airlines Group Inc  and low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, which is owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners LLC, followed suit.

The largest airlines provide masks for passengers who do not have their own facial covering. United noted that recent supply issues with masks have now eased.

The requirements are being made by airlines on an individual basis and will be included in the contracts of carriage and explained on their websites. They are not mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has said that it only has the authority to regulate matters that are directly tied to air safety.

Asked how airlines would enforce the policy, United’s Earnest said: “We’re gonna ask customers to comply with the requirement.”

Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, applauded the airlines’ “common-sense measure” on Friday while calling on the U.S. government to “provide clear and consistent policies that reflect the seriousness of this global pandemic.”

Airlines have also made face coverings mandatory for employees.

In Canada, regulators started requiring that passengers wear a non-medical mask or face covering during the boarding process and flights last month, and the European Commission has said that it is working on a set of rules for the safe reopening of air travel.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

Long lines, lots of kids, and plenty to touch: How does Disney reopen its parks?

By Helen Coster and Lisa Richwine

(Reuters) – For a glimpse at how Disney recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, look no further than Shanghai, where the entertainment giant has staged a limited reopening of Shanghai Disney Resort. Adults, kids and senior citizens wear masks while wandering among staff and security guards who carry contact-less thermometers and hand sanitizer.

As some U.S. states lift stay-at-home orders, investors and park fans are watching to see how Walt Disney Co — which makes a third of its revenue from parks, experiences and products — reimagines the “happiest place on earth” for a world altered by the coronavirus.

The high-touch, high-volume, kid-centered nature of the parks, and Disney’s need to prevent damage to a brand synonymous with safety and families, will make reopening difficult, experts said.

Disney’s ability to reopen its parks in Asia, the United States and France will also be a powerful signal about how the world can get back to a semblance of normal as it deals with COVID-19.

“This is the greatest challenge that the industry has ever faced,” said Phil Hettema, founder of The Hettema Group, which designs theme park rides and other experiences.

Disney, which has not announced any plans to reopen the parks, declined to comment for this story.

Executive Chairman Bob Iger recently said checking guests’ temperature could become routine at Disney park entrances. Among other plans under consideration, according to a source briefed on Disney’s thinking: Rides like the Space Mountain roller coaster could stagger guests in each “rocket” to enforce social distancing. Guests could be notified via app or another technology when they can go on a ride or in a restaurant to eliminate lines.

Staffers, known as cast members, and guests could be required to wear masks. But in true Disney fashion, employees’ masks would be fun, not scary, the source said.

Disney on Thursday began online sales of face masks featuring Mickey Mouse, Baby Yoda and other characters and said up to $1 million in profits would go to charity.

Masks, now worn commonly across China, are ubiquitous in the shopping district outside Shanghai Disney, where workers disinfect a playground for 5- to 12-year-olds at noon and 3 p.m. daily. Temperature checks are mandated by local regulations, according to Shanghai Disney’s website.

Business and political leaders in Florida, home to Walt Disney World, have floated ideas such as limiting capacity at all theme parks during an initial re-opening phase.

The question that health experts and financial analysts are asking is whether any of these measures will be enough to protect employees, guests or Disney’s bottom line.

Social distancing could come at a steep price.

In April, UBS downgraded its rating on Disney and lowered its division profit estimates to $500 million in fiscal 2020 and just $200 million in 2021 compared to $6.8 billion in 2019.

Disney parks need to be running at roughly 50% of capacity to be profitable, according to the firm.

Investors will see a fuller impact of coronavirus when Disney releases its second-quarter results on May 5; Comcast said on Thursday that if its Universal Studios parks remain closed for the entire second quarter, the company would suffer an earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization loss of roughly $500 million.

Financial analysts have predicted reopen dates for Disney ranging from as early as June to Jan. 1. Guidelines will be set by governors in California and Florida, where Iger and Walt Disney World Resort President Josh D’Amaro sit on state reopening task forces. The rest is up to Disney.

Although Disney and other large venues face an unprecedented challenge protecting guests from an easily spread airborne virus, experts and a former executive pointed to its experience handling crowds.

More than 157 million people visited Disney parks in 2018, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

“If anybody can figure it out, Disney will,” said Dave Schmitt, founder of MR-ProFun, a consultant to theme parks.

Safeguards have limits. Temperature checks will not catch everyone infected, and most vaccines are not 100% effective, said Dr. Megan Murray, a global health professor at Harvard Medical School.

Even so, a vaccine would provide some reassurance for park-goers, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from April 15-21. While a fifth of respondents said they would attend an amusement, theme or water park whenever they reopen, about 30% would go if a vaccine was available. The poll, which surveyed 4,429 American adults, noted that a vaccine might not be available for more than a year.

Loyal fans are counting on Disney to get this right. Chicago resident Kelly Alexis, 50, has been to Disney resorts 35 to 40 times and plans to go to Disney World with her family in October if the park is open.

“It’s just the feeling that they do things so perfectly and they will take every precaution,” Alexis said. “They’re not going to want to have an epidemic where everyone gets sick at Disney. They would never let that happen.”

(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York, Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, and Shanghai Newsroom; Additional reporting by Arriana McLymore in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker)

‘Elbow to elbow:’ North America meat plant workers fall ill, walk off jobs

By Tom Polansek and Rod Nickel

CHICAGO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) – At a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Alabama, workers recently had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, according to a meat inspector.

In Colorado, nearly a third of the workers at a JBS USA beef plant stayed home amid safety concerns for the last two weeks as a 30-year employee of the facility died following complications from the virus.

And since an Olymel pork plant in Quebec shut on March 29, the number of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus quintupled to more than 50, according to their union. The facility and at least 10 others in North America have temporarily closed or reduced production in about the last two weeks because of the pandemic, disrupting food supply chains that have struggled to keep pace with surging demand at grocery stores.

According to more than a dozen interviews with U.S and Canadian plant workers, union leaders and industry analysts, a lack of protective equipment and the nature of “elbow to elbow” work required to debone chickens, chop beef and slice hams are highlighting risks for employees and limiting output as some forego the low-paying work. Companies that added protections, such as enhanced cleaning or spacing out workers, say the moves are further slowing meat production.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, on Sunday said it is shutting a pork plant indefinitely and warned that plant shutdowns are pushing the United States “perilously close to the edge” in meat supplies for grocers.

Lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers across the globe from delivering produce to consumers. Millions of laborers also cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to keep goods moving.

The United States and Canada are among the world’s biggest shippers of beef and pork. Food production has continued as governments try to ensure adequate supplies, even as they close broad swathes of the economy.

The closures and increased absenteeism among workers have contributed to drops in the price of livestock, as farmers find fewer places for slaughter. Since March 25, nearby lean hog futures have plunged 35%, and live cattle prices shed 15%, straining the U.S. farm economy.

North American meat demand has dropped some 30% in the past month as declining sales of restaurant meats like steaks and chicken wings outweighed a spike in retail demand for ground beef, said Christine McCracken, Rabobank’s animal protein analyst.

Frozen meats in U.S. cold storage facilities remain plentiful, but supply could be whittled down as exports to protein-hungry China increase after a trade agreement removed obstacles for American meat purchases.

“There’s a huge risk of additional plant closures,” McCracken said.

JBS had to reduce beef production at a massive plant in Greeley, Colorado, as about 800 to 1,000 workers a day stayed home since the end of March, said Kim Cordova, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union that represents employees.

“There’s just not enough people,” Cordova said. She added that the union knew of at least 50 cases and two deaths among employees as of Friday.

Plant worker Saul Sanchez, known affectionately as “grandpa” among some co-workers, tested positive for the virus and died on April 7 at 78 years old, according to his daughter, Beatriz Rangel. She said he only went from home to work before developing symptoms, including a low fever.

“I’m heartbroken because my dad was so loyal,” Rangel said.

Brazilian owned JBS confirmed an employee with three decades of experience died from complications associated with COVID-19, without naming Sanchez. The company said he had not been at work since March 20, the same day JBS removed people older than 70 from its facilities as a precaution. He was never symptomatic while at work and never worked in the facility while sick, according to the company.

JBS said it was working with federal and state governments to obtain tests for all plant employees.

Weld County, where the plant is located, had the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in Colorado on Friday, according to the state. Health officials confirmed cases among JBS workers.

JBS said high absenteeism at the plant led slaughter rates to outpace the process of cutting carcasses into pieces of beef. The company disputed the union’s numbers on worker absences but did not provide its own. It took steps including buying masks and putting up plexiglass shields in lunch rooms to protect employees, said Cameron Bruett, spokesman for JBS USA.

“MY LIFE IS IN JEOPARDY”

At Wayne Farms’ chicken plant in Decatur, Alabama, some workers are upset the company recently made employees pay for masks, said Mona Darby, who inspects chicken breasts there and is a local leader of hundreds of poultry workers for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“My life is in jeopardy because we’re working elbow to elbow,” she said.

Wayne Farms, with annual sales exceeding $2 billion, is trying to obtain masks to distribute to employees, though supplies are limited, spokesman Frank Singleton said. He said he did not know of any instances where employees were charged for masks.

Workers at a Tyson Foods Inc chicken plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, bought their own masks when the facility ran out, said Kim Hickerson, who loads chicken on trucks there and is a union leader. Some are talking about quitting because they are scared of getting sick, he said.

“I just put it in God’s hands,” he said.

Tyson, the top U.S. meat producer, is working to find more personal protective equipment for employees, spokesman Worth Sparkman said. The company increased cleaning at facilities and sought to space out employees, which can both slow production, according to a statement.

Workers have lost their trust in Olymel after an outbreak of the coronavirus closed a plant in Yamachiche, Quebec, according to union spokeswoman Anouk Collet. “They do not feel that the company took all the measures they could have taken to keep them safe,” she said.

Company spokesman Richard Vigneault said the plant will reopen on Tuesday with new measures in place, such as separating panels, masks and visors.

Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW union, said meat plant workers are increasingly weighing concerns about their own safety and their responsibility to produce food.

“If we don’t take care of the food supply, the American people are going to panic,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Edward Tobin)

U.S. to seize exports of masks and gloves amid coronavirus crisis

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will seize exports of key protective medical gear until it determines whether the equipment should be kept in the country to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, two federal agencies announced on Wednesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will hold exports of respirators, surgical masks and surgical gloves, according to a joint announcement made with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will then determine if the equipment should be returned for use in the United States, purchased by the U.S. government or exported.

President Donald Trump issued a memorandum on Friday that directed federal agencies to use any authority necessary to keep the highly sought-after medical supplies in the United States.

Governors, mayors and physicians have voiced alarm for weeks over crippling scarcities of personal protective gear for first-responders and front-line healthcare workers, as well as ventilators and other medical supplies.

The move to seize exports will include N95 respirator masks, which filter airborne particles and are used to protect against COVID-19, the potentially lethal respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The U.S. manufacturing company 3M Co, a leading producer of the masks worldwide, said on Monday that it had reached a deal with the Trump administration that would allow it to continue to export the masks to Canada and Latin America despite the new restrictions. The company had said days earlier that ceasing exports to those regions would have “humanitarian implications.”

A federal regulation that outlines FEMA’s procedures for seizing and vetting the exports will go into effect on Friday and remain in place until Aug. 10, according to a draft version posted online.

FEMA will aim to make decisions about exports quickly and seek to minimize disruptions to the supply chain, the draft regulation said.

Some state and local government officials have accused FEMA in recent days of confiscating shipments of masks and other supplies coming from overseas.

An official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who requested anonymity to discuss the matter earlier this week said half of the protective gear brought to the United States on U.S. government flights can be redirected to high-need areas around the country, but disputed the idea that the equipment had been seized.

FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. health officials consider face masks for Americans to slow coronavirus, but ‘not there yet’

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. health officials said on Tuesday they are discussing whether to recommend that the general public wear face masks as a way to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus, but that it was too soon to take that step.

The wide use of masks outside the healthcare setting, which has been employed in other countries with some success, is under active consideration by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the White House coronavirus task force will discuss it on Tuesday, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

“The thing that has inhibited that bit is to make sure that we don’t take away the supply of masks from the healthcare workers who need them,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN.

The coronavirus outbreak in the United States has prompted more Americans to don surgical or other cotton masks or even makeshift masks when they leave home to buy groceries or get some exercise.

Meanwhile, healthcare workers across the country are facing acute shortages of personal protective equipment including N95 respirator masks and surgical masks as they treat an onslaught of highly contagious patients.

When the country gets into a situation where there are enough masks, Fauci said, there will be very serious consideration of broadening the recommendation on face masks.

“We’re not there yet, but I think we’re coming close to some determination, because if in fact a person who may or may not be infected wants to prevent infecting someone else, one of the best ways to do that is with a mask,” Fauci said.

The consideration of wider use of masks stems from the likelihood that people who have no idea they are infected are spreading the virus because they either have no symptoms or have not begun to experience symptoms.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams cautioned that wearing surgical-type cotton masks may not protect healthy Americans from contracting coronavirus and may even put them more at risk, since people who wear masks were likely to touch their face to make adjustments.

“Wearing a mask improperly can actually increase your risk of getting disease. It can also give you a false sense of security,” Adams told Fox News.

The CDC is looking at data involving the cotton masks, Adams said.

“The data doesn’t show that it helps individuals,” he said. “If you’re sick, wear a mask. If you have a mask and it makes you feel better then by all means wear it. But know that the more you touch your face the more you put yourself at risk.

“There may be a day when we change our recommendations – particularly for areas that have large spread going on – about wearing cotton masks,” Adams said. “But again, the data’s not there yet.”

The idea is being pushed by some health experts, including Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In a pandemic roadmap for the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Gottlieb advocated that the public “initially be asked to wear fabric nonmedical face masks while in the community to reduce their risk of asymptomatic spread.”

President Donald Trump said at the White House coronavirus briefing on Monday, “it’s certainly something we could discuss.”

“After we get back into gear, people could – I could see something like that happening for a period of time, but I would hope it would be a very limited period of time,” Trump said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Trump says he might lock down New York as health workers call for more supplies

By Alexandra Alper and Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Saturday he might prohibit travel in and out of the New York area to limit the spread of the coronavirus from its U.S. epicenter, as healthcare workers in the hard-hit region said they did not have enough masks and medical equipment.

With the number of known cases soaring past 115,000, the highest tally in the world, Trump said he might impose a quarantine on New York, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut to protect other states that have yet to bear the brunt.

“They’re having problems down in Florida. A lot of New Yorkers are going down. We don’t want that,” Trump told reporters.

Since the virus first appeared in the United States in late January, Trump has vacillated between playing down the risks of infection and urging Americans to take steps to slow its spread.

Trump has also been reluctant to invoke emergency powers to order U.S. companies to produce much-needed medical supplies, despite the pleas of governors and hospital workers.

He also appeared to soften his previous comments calling for the U.S. economy to be reopened by mid-April. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

It was not clear whether Trump would be able to block road, air and sea travel out of a region that serves as the economic engine of the eastern United States, accounting for 10 percent of the population and 12 percent of GDP.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had no details on a possible quarantine order.

“I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know how that would be legally enforceable, and from a medical point of view I don’t know what you would be accomplishing,” Cuomo told reporters. “I don’t even like the sound of it.”

Some states have already imposed limits on interstate travel. New Yorkers arriving in Florida and Rhode Island face orders to self-isolate if they intend to stay, and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice asked New Yorkers to avoid citizens in his state.

New coronavirus cases in China leveled off after the government imposed a strict lockdown of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease.

The body count continues to climb in Italy, where authorities have blocked travel across the country and prevented people from leaving their houses for all but essential reasons.

In the United States, the number of cases stood at 119,327 on Saturday afternoon with at least 1,992 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. The number of cases in the United States eclipsed those of China and Italy on Thursday.

TOO LATE FOR A LOCKDOWN?

Trump said any New York-area lockdown would only apply to people leaving the region. It would not cover truckers making deliveries or driving through the area, he said.

U.S. courts would likely uphold a presidentially imposed quarantine, but Trump would not be able to enlist local police to enforce it, said Louisiana State University law professor Edward Richards.

“The logistics of deciding who is an essential person or essential cargo could shut down the ability to transport essential personnel and supplies,” he said.

Even if it were possible, a New York-area lockdown might come too late for the rest of the country.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Southern California was on track to match New York City’s infection figures in the next week.

In New Orleans, where Mardi Gras celebrations late last month fueled an outbreak, the number of coronavirus patients “have been staggering,” said Sophia Thomas, a nurse practitioner at DePaul Community Health Center.

American healthcare workers are appealing for more protective gear and equipment as a surge in patients pushes hospitals to their limits.

Doctors are also especially concerned about a shortage of ventilators, machines that help patients breathe and are widely needed for those suffering from COVID-19, the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Hospitals have also sounded the alarm about scarcities of drugs, oxygen tanks and trained staff.

On Saturday, nurses protested outside the Jacobi Medical Center in New York, saying supervisors asked them to reuse their masks, putting their own health at risk.

“The masks are supposed to be one-time use,” one nurse said, according to videos posted online.

One medical trainee at New York Presbyterian Hospital said they were given just one mask.

“It’s not the people who are making these decisions that go into the patients’ rooms,” said the trainee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Gabriella Borter and Brendan Pierson in New York, and Joel Schectman, Andy Sullivan and Michelle Price in Washington; and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Americans divided as states postpone abortions over coronavirus

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The U.S. states of Texas and Ohio have ordered abortions be postponed as non-essential procedures to free up resources to fight coronavirus, a move critics said on Tuesday was political.

Officials in the two states, which already have severe restrictions on abortions, said postponing elective procedures would allow beds and staff to be focused on coronavirus cases.

Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the nation’s coronavirus task force, asked the nation’s hospitals last week to cease elective surgeries to free up capacity and staff, amid dire shortages of masks and gloves.

Texas officials said the measure would apply to abortions that were not necessary to save the mother’s life or health.

“No one is exempt from the governor’s executive order on medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures, including abortion providers,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement.

Ohio’s Attorney General told facilities to stop performing abortions that require personal protective equipment, such as gowns and masks, according to documents obtained by local media.

The United States has reported some 50,000 coronavirus cases, including almost 600 deaths, leading officials to order nearly a third of the population to stay home.

Abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in American society, with the Supreme Court due to rule in June on a major case which challenges a Louisiana law that could make it harder for women to obtain the procedure.

The anti-abortion group Americans United for Life (AUL) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments on Tuesday that Ohio and Texas were “doing the right thing”.

“The sheer selfishness on display by abortionists refusing to close shop even for a brief time to funnel every possible resource to the brave medical providers … is simply unconscionable,” said AUL’s head Catherine Glenn Foster.

Several professional obstetric and gynecological groups have said delays to abortions could be risky.

“It’s essential that people seeking abortion can make time-sensitive decisions about their care and have access to providers without politicised interference,” said Heather Shumaker of the National Women’s Law Center, a rights group.

Abortions in the United States are usually performed in outpatient settings or at home using drugs to end pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

U.S. states, cities desperate for coronavirus help, military prepares

By Stephanie Kelly and Doina Chiacu

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. governors and mayors on Monday became more desperate in their pleas for help from the federal government to fight coronavirus as the military prepared to set up field hospitals in New York and Seattle to ease the strain on creaking health services.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to approve an economic relief package and appealed for ventilators and medical equipment, even asking for help from private citizens.

“Anyone out there who can help us get these supplies, we have only days to get them in place. That is the reality,” de Blasio told CNN. New York, the most populous U.S. city, is now at the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.

Karine Raymond, a nurse at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in New York’s Bronx borough, said most nurses were unable to get specialized N95 masks and even simpler surgical masks were in short supply. Nurses are being told to wear them for as long as possible, she said.

“We are the be all and end all and lifeline to these patients, and yet we are being contaminated and cross contaminating,” Raymond said.

As health authorities struggled to cope with the rising number of sick people and the U.S. Senate failed to advance an economic stimulus package, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. military is preparing to deploy field hospitals to New York and Seattle.

The planned hospitals, essentially tent facilities that can be rapidly set up, can only handle a limited number of patients and are less suited to treating highly infectious people who need to be isolated. But they can relieve pressure on hospitals by treating patients with illnesses other than COVID-19.

The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to convert hotels and dormitories into treatment facilities for sick patients as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases nationwide topped 40,000 on Monday, more than 500 of whom have died.

New York’s de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to provide more help.

“I want to appeal to everyone in the House and Senate, you have got to help cities, towns, countries, states, public hospitals, private hospitals. You’ve got to get all of them direct relief,” he said.

A far-reaching economic package for the coronavirus crisis failed to advance in the Senate after Democrats said it contained too little money for hospitals and not enough restrictions on a fund to help big businesses. Democrats predicted a modified version would win passage soon.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they are aware that failure to agree on the bill could have a devastating effect on states, cities and businesses, and trigger further heavy losses in U.S. stock markets.

The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out an unprecedented new array of programs aimed at blunting the “severe disruptions” to the economy caused by the coronarvirus outbreak.

The central bank will back the purchases of corporate bonds and direct loans to companies. It will expand its asset holding by as much as needed to stabilize financial markets and roll out a program to get credit to small and medium-sized business.

The steps briefly lifted U.S. stock index futures more than 3% but share prices quickly dropped back into the red, putting the S&P 500 <.SPX> on pace for its worst month since World War Two.

With the addition of Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and Massachusetts on Monday, 15 out of 50 U.S. states have now imposed restrictions on people’s movements to curtail the virus, putting the country on a track similar to those of the most devastated European countries such as Italy and Spain.

The population affected by the state lockdowns amounts to more than 150 million people out of a U.S. total of about 330 million.

STAY AT HOME

In what appeared to send a conflicting message about the federal government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus health crisis, a senior White House advisor said that President Donald Trump is considering measures to reopen the U.S. economy.

Trump issued guidelines a week ago that he said aimed to slow the spread of the disease over 15 days. Late on Sunday, he tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” adding that at the end of the 15-day shutdown period, “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

Trump senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow followed up on Monday, telling Fox News: “The president is right … We’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

A lack of coordinated federal action was causing chaos for states and municipalities, and even putting them in competition with each other for resources, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Illinois said.

The states “are all out looking for the same thing,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told CNN on Monday.

Leaving states to fend for themselves has put them in bidding wars with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other U.S. states and even against other countries, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said.

“We’re competing against each other on what should be a national crisis where we should be coming together and the federal government should be leading, helping us,” Pritzker told the “Today” program.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on Washington to put in place the federal defense production act to eliminate this “ad hoc” system. Trump on Sunday defended his decision to hold off using this power, on the grounds that nationalizing businesses “is not a good concept.”

General Motors Co <GM.N> and medical equipment maker Ventec are speeding up efforts under a partnership code-named “Project V” to build ventilators at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Dan Levine and Nathan Layne; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)