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)

New Jersey, Arizona approve recreational marijuana, Florida raises minimum wage

By Peter Szekely and Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – Voters in New Jersey and Arizona legalized marijuana for recreational use on Tuesday, and in Oregon approved the country’s first therapeutic use for psilocybin, the hallucinogenic drug known as magic mushrooms.

The measures were among at least 124 statutory and constitutional questions put to voters this year in 32 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Here are some of the key results and projections from the ballots, which covered topics such as elections, abortion rights and taxes:

MARIJUANA

While voters in New Jersey and Arizona approved measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use, South Dakota was poised to allow the drug for both medical and recreational use: Its ballot measure that appeared headed to victory with 90 percent of precincts counted. A proposition legalizing medical marijuana also appeared headed for victory in Mississippi.

Since 1996, 33 other states and the District of Columbia have allowed medical marijuana, 11 had previously approved its recreational use and 16, including some medical marijuana states, have decriminalized simple possession, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

PSILOCYBIN, AKA MAGIC MUSHROOMSPsilocybin, a hallucinogen also known in its raw form as magic mushrooms, was approved by Oregon voters for therapeutic use for adults. Backers of the Psilocybin Services Act cited research showing benefits of the drug as a treatment for anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. The measure will set a schedule to further consider the matter and create a regulatory structure for it.

In a related measure, Washington, D.C., voters approved Initiative 81, which directs police to rank “entheogenic plants and fungi,” including psilocybin and mescaline, among its lowest enforcement priorities.

MINIMUM WAGE Voters in Florida approved a measure to amend the state constitution to gradually increase its $8.56 per hour minimum wage to $15 by Sept. 30, 2026.

CALIFORNIA GIG WORKERS California voters approved a measure that would exempt ride-share and delivery drivers from a state law that makes them employees, not contractors, according to Edison Research. The measure, Proposition 22, is the first gig-economy question to go before statewide voters in a campaign. Backers, including Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc, spent more than $190 million on their campaign, making the year’s costliest ballot measure, according to Ballotpedia.

ABORTION

Colorado voters rejected a measure to ban abortions, except those needed to save the life of the mother, after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

ELECTIONS

California approved a measure to restore the right to vote to parolees convicted of felonies.

TAXES

In California, a proposal to roll back a portion of the state’s landmark Proposition 13 law limiting property taxes was too close to call Tuesday night. The measure, Proposition 15 on the state’s 2020 ballot, would leave in place protections for residential properties, but raise taxes on commercial properties worth more than $3 million. With about 80% of precincts partially reporting at 12:30 a.m. Pacific Time, the measure was slightly behind, with 51.5% of voters opposed to it and 48.5% in favor.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Philippa Fletcher)

Coronavirus fuels historic legal battle over voting as 2020 U.S. election looms

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – The Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden has generated an unprecedented wave of election-related litigation, as both sides seek to shape the rules governing how votes are tallied in key states.

With 40 days left, the court clashes have spread to every competitive state amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled pitched battles over seemingly mundane issues such as witness signatures, U.S. mail postmarks and the use of drop boxes for ballots.

Trump’s unfounded attacks on voting by mail and delivery delays amid cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service have only intensified the urgency of the litigation.

A Reuters analysis of state and federal court records found more than 200 election-related cases pending as of Tuesday. Overall, at least 250 election lawsuits spurred by the coronavirus have been filed, according to Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who has been tracking the litigation.

The pandemic has turned what were once minor hurdles, such as witness signature requirements, into potentially major obstacles, while exacerbating existing concerns.

“In the past, long lines would be disenfranchising or deterring, but in this case they can be deadly,” said Myrna Perez, who directs the voting rights and elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats generally have sought to ease restrictions on mail ballots, which are surging as voters want to avoid the risk of visiting in-person polling sites.

“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure our election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to interfere in the democratic process,” Mike Gwin, a Biden spokesman, said.

Republicans say they are trying to prevent illegal voting, although experts say voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

“Democrats are working to shred election integrity measures one state at a time, and there’s no question they’ll continue their shenanigans from now to November and beyond,” said Matthew Morgan, general counsel for the Trump campaign.

A flurry of court decisions this month have delivered several Democratic wins, although many remain subject to appeal. In the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, officials will count ballots that arrive after Nov. 3, as long as they were sent by Election Day.

Several pending cases, including in competitive Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could have a major impact on those states’ elections.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in after the state’s highest court rejected their bid to limit drop boxes and disqualify late-arriving ballots. The Trump campaign is pursuing a separate federal lawsuit over some of the same issues.

In Texas, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has sued officials in Harris County to stop them from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters. The county, which includes Houston, is the state’s most populous, with nearly 5 million residents.

Republicans prevailed in several earlier cases.

In Florida, a federal appeals court blocked hundreds of thousands of ex-felons from voting in November. In Texas, where only those 65 years and older can vote by mail without having to provide a valid reason such as disability, a series of court rulings have stymied Democratic efforts to extend that right to all residents.

SUPREME COURT BATTLE TO COME?

The influx of cases may also be a preview of what is to come after Nov. 3, when new fights could arise over which ballots should be counted.

Both campaigns have assembled armies of lawyers in preparation.

The Biden campaign has lined up hundreds of attorneys and has brought in top lawyers like former U.S. Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger and former Attorney General Eric Holder as advisers.

Marc Elias, the Democratic attorney who has coordinated many election lawsuits this year on behalf of left-leaning groups, is heading a team focused on state-by-state voter protection.

Trump’s campaign, for its part, has filed multiple challenges to states like Nevada and New Jersey that plan to mail a ballot to every voter.

Some Democrats are concerned that if Republicans succeed in getting a successor to the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election, it will ensure Trump wins any dispute that ends up at the high court.

The Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 to stop the Florida recount handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush, the only time the high court has decided the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Trump has seemingly laid the groundwork for a post-election fight, repeatedly asserting without evidence that voting by mail will yield a “rigged” result.

On Wednesday, the president said explicitly that he wanted to have Ginsburg’s successor in place because he expects the election to end up at the Supreme Court.

Levitt, the law professor tracking the cases, said he still trusted that judges would reject challenges not backed by evidence.

“Filing a case costs a few hundred dollars and a lawyer, and can often be useful for messaging,” he said. “But courts of law demand evidence that the court of public opinion doesn’t.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Disha Raychaudhuri; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest and Northeast, deaths fall for third week

(Reuters) – Several states in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast have seen new COVID-19 cases increase for two weeks in a row, though nationally both new infections and deaths last week remained on a downward trend, a Reuters analysis showed.

The United States reported more than 287,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 6, down 1.4% from the previous week and marking the seventh straight week of declines. More than 5,800 people died from COVID-19 last week, the third week in a row that the death rate has fallen.

Nevertheless, 17 states have seen cases rise for at least two weeks, according to the Reuters tally of state and county reports. They include Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin, where between 10% and 18% of people tested had the new coronavirus.

In the Northeast, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York also reported increases in new cases for at least two weeks, though the positive test rate ranged from a low of 0.9% in New York to a high of 4.3% in Delaware — below the 5% level the World Health Organization considers concerning.

In some states, testing has increased as schools reopened. New York City, for instance, is testing 10% to 20% of students and staff every month. The University of Illinois is testing students twice a week.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 fell for a fifth week to 5.5%, well below a peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The United States tested on average 741,000 people a day last week, up 5% from the prior week, but down from a peak in late July of over 800,000 people a day.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

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‚Äôs 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)

U.S. COVID-19 deaths exceed 180,000, cases continue to fall

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus topped 180,000 on Thursday after a surge of new cases in June and July, many of them in hotspots like California, Florida, and Texas.

There were some signs of an improving outlook. Last week, deaths fell 17% from the prior week and below an average of 1,000 a day for the first time in weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

However, while U.S. metrics on cases, deaths, hospitalizations and test positivity rates were declining, health experts warned there could be another surge as schools reopen and colder weather forces more gatherings indoors.

This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people exposed to COVID-19 but not symptomatic may not need to be tested. This contradicted earlier guidance from the CDC, shocking doctors and politicians and prompting accusations that it may have been based not on sound science but on political pressure from the Trump administration.

The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut slammed the CDC’s move as “reckless” and “not based on science,” and said they will not change testing guidelines in their states.

“CDC and HHS have not shared their scientific rationale for this change in policy, which substitutes sound science-based public health guidance with the president’s misinformation,” they said in a joint statement. “Health experts recommend testing close contacts of individuals with COVID-19 to identify and prevent asymptomatic spread. This type of robust testing by our states has been a key factor in our success so far to flatten the curve in the tri-state area.”

On Wednesday, the top U.S. government infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told CNN he was having surgery during discussion of the change and expressed worry about the CDC’s move.

U.S. confirmed cases are now over 5.8 million – the highest total in the world. The U.S. death toll is also the world’s highest.

On a per capita basis, the United States ranks 12th in the world for the number of deaths, with 54 deaths per 100,000 people, and tenth in the world for cases, with 1,774 cases per 100,000 residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

U.S. consumer confidence dropped in August to its lowest in more than six years, as households worried about the labor market and incomes, casting doubts on the sustainability of the economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

The ebb in confidence followed the expiration of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit supplement on July 31.

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked over the size and shape of a fifth coronavirus-response bill, on top of the approximately $3 trillion already enacted into law.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and David Gregorio)

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)

Suspect in slaying of federal judge’s son found dead, media reports say

(Reuters) – The suspect in the shooting of the son and husband of a federal judge in New Jersey was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Monday, ABC News and other media reported.

The suspect, a white male, had a case before the judge, Esther Salas, in 2015, ABC reported. He was found in his car in Sullivan County, New York, about two hours north of New York City.

Steven Nevel, a spokesman for the New York State police, confirmed an investigation of a death in the county but declined to provide further details.

The FBI has been conducting a manhunt related to the Sunday afternoon shooting at the North Brunswick, New Jersey, home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas. Her son, Daniel Anderl, 20, was killed.

The FBI said it was looking for one suspect in the case.

Judge Salas was home at the time of the shooting but was in the basement and was not injured, according to media reports and Marion Costanza, a friend of the family who lives three homes away.

Investigators have preliminary information that someone dressed as a FedEx driver arrived at the family home at about 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), ABC News reported on Sunday, citing multiple law enforcement sources.

The motive behind the killing remained unclear. Among her cases, Salas presided over the sentencing of members of the Grape Street Crips, a gang charged with selling drugs and other crimes in 2015, and federal fraud convictions of co-stars of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” reality TV show.

Salas, 51, was nominated to her seat by President Barack Obama in 2010, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve on the District Court of New Jersey. Salas could not be immediately reached for comment.

Her husband, Mark Anderl, 63, was an assistant prosecutor in Essex County before becoming a defense attorney. He and his partner, David Oakley, handle a variety of felonies, including homicide, sexual assault and fraud cases, according to their website.

Neither Anderl nor Oakley could be reached for comment.

Daniel Anderl, the son, was shot as he came down the stairs of the home to help his father, who had opened the door to the gunman, according to some media reports.

“He ran down the stairs. Instead of running away he ran to help his father,” Costanza said, noting that Daniel had wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a lawyer. “I want people to know what a good kid he was.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey were among political leaders who expressed concern about the incident on Twitter.

Menendez said he knew Judge Salas well and had recommended her appointment to the federal bench.

“My prayers are with Judge Salas and her family, and that those responsible for this horrendous act are swiftly apprehended and brought to justice,” Menendez wrote.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)