As cold weather arrives, U.S. states see record increases in COVID-19 cases

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Nine U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases over the last seven days, mostly in the upper Midwest and West where chilly weather is forcing more activities indoors.

On Saturday alone, four states – Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin – saw record increases in new cases and nationally nearly 49,000 new infections were reported, the highest for a Saturday in seven weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming also set new records for cases last week.

New York is one of only 18 states where cases have not risen greatly over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. However, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday he is moving to shut non-essential businesses as well as schools in nine neighborhoods, starting on Wednesday. The lockdown would require the governor’s approval.

Health experts have long warned that colder temperatures driving people inside could promote the spread of the virus. Daytime highs in the upper Midwest are now in the 50’s Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).

Montana has reported record numbers of new cases for three out of the last four days and also has a record number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals.

Wisconsin has set records for new cases two out of the last three days and also reported record hospitalizations on Saturday. On average 22% of tests are coming back positive, one of the highest rates in the country.

Wisconsin’s Democratic governor mandated masks on Aug. 1 but Republican lawmakers are backing a lawsuit challenging the requirement.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have the highest new cases per capita in the country.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is one of several prominent Republicans who have tested positive for coronavirus since President Donald Trump announced he had contracted the virus.

Because of the surge in cases in the Midwest, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities operated by Aspirus in northern Wisconsin and Michigan are barring most visitors as they did earlier this year.

Bellin Health, which runs a hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said last week its emergency department has been past capacity at times and doctors had to place patients in beds in the hallways.

The United States is reporting 42,600 new cases and 700 deaths on average each day, compared with 35,000 cases and 800 deaths in mid-September. Deaths are a lagging indicator and tend to rise several weeks after cases increase.

Kentucky is the first Southern state to report a record increase in cases in several weeks. Governor Andy Beshear said last week was the highest number of cases the state has seen since the pandemic started.

State health experts have not pinpointed the reason for the rise but point to fatigue with COVID-19 precautions and students returning to schools and colleges. Over the last two weeks, Kentucky has reported nearly 11,000 new cases and has seen hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients rise by 20%.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Supreme Court takes up energy companies’ appeal over Baltimore climate suit

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal by energy companies including BP PLC, Chevron Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC contesting a lawsuit by the city of Baltimore seeking damages for the impact of global climate change.

The justices will weigh whether the lawsuit must be heard in state court as the city would prefer or in federal court, which corporate defendants generally view as a more favorable venue. The suit targets 21 U.S. and foreign energy companies that extract, produce, distribute or sell fossil fuels.

The outcome could affect around a dozen similar lawsuits by U.S. states, cities and counties including Rhode Island and New York City seeking to hold such companies liable for the impact of climate change.

Baltimore and the other jurisdictions are seeking damages under state law for the harms they said they have sustained due to climate change, which they attribute in part to the companies’ role in producing fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The plaintiffs have said they have had to spend more on infrastructure such as flood control measures to combat sea-level rise caused by a warming climate. Climate change has been melting land-based ice sheets and glaciers.

The Supreme Court in 2019 declined the companies’ emergency request to put the Baltimore litigation on hold after a federal judge ruled that the case should be heard in state court. In March, the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision.

In the absence of federal legislation in the bitterly divided U.S. Congress targeting climate change, the lawsuits are the latest effort to force action via litigation.

The Supreme Court in a landmark 2007 ruling said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that could be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under Democratic President Barack Obama, the agency issued the first-ever regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. But efforts in Congress to enact sweeping climate change legislation have failed.

The court took action in the case three days before it begins its new nine-month term short one justice after the Sept. 18 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Donald Trump has nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

New York City moves to curb COVID-19 spread in new clusters

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City officials said on Wednesday they were working to address a rise in COVID-19 cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens that was raising “a lot of concern.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the new outbreaks, including a large cluster in three Brooklyn neighborhoods, accounted for about 20% of confirmed positive cases citywide.

“We’re seeing a serious uptick in multiple neighborhoods simultaneously and it’s something we have to address with a very aggressive public health effort right away,” de Blasio told reporters, adding that the Sheriff’s Office and the New York Police Department would help tackle the spread.

Dr. Mitch Katz, the CEO of New York City’s public healthcare system, said the city would distribute masks, gloves and hand sanitizer while officials will ask religious leaders to reinforce key public health messages.

Robocalls in English and Yiddish and sound trucks will urge residents to physically distance and wear a face covering, Katz said. Brooklyn is home to many Orthodox Jews, a community that has been hard-hit by the coronavirus and where compliance with restrictions has been at times problematic.

After becoming the global epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, the city’s positive test results have fallen to below 1%.

However, in the borough of Queens, positive cases have risen to 2.24% in Kew Gardens and 3.69% in Edgemere-Far Rockaway. In Brooklyn, officials are concerned about Williamsburg, with a 2% positive rate, and a southern part of the borough that includes Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst that officials are calling the Ocean Parkway Cluster, where the positive rate is 4.71%, the health department said.

Overall, there has been a slight uptick in coronavirus cases in New York City over the last two months. On Sept. 14, the city reported 380 new cases, the highest since July 20.

However, the average percent of tests coming back positive has remained virtually unchanged since August, according to city data.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

New York City mayor announces more furloughs to counter budget shortfall

(Reuters) – Over 9,000 New York City employees will be furloughed for five days between October and March to save about $21 million as the city battles a severe budget shortfall from the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday.

“It’s a difficult one because it will affect real people and their lives, it will affect their families,” de Blasio told reporters.

The furloughs will impact city employees in managerial positions and non-union employees, he said.

Last week, de Blasio announced that everyone in the mayor’s office, including the mayor himself, will be furloughed for one week without pay beginning Oct. 1.

The coronavirus outbreak had caused the city to lose $9 billion in revenue and forced a $7 billion cut to the city’s annual budget, de Blasio said.

“What would really solve this? A federal stimulus – and it’s shocking that it still hasn’t happened,” the mayor said, adding he was also still in negotiation with the state to obtain greater borrowing power.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Diane Craft)

U.S. Justice Dept. weighs stripping federal funds from cities allowing ‘anarchy’

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Monday threatened to revoke federal funding for New York City, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, saying the three liberal cities were allowing anarchy and violence on their streets.

“We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.

Spokespeople for the mayors’ offices in all three cities could not be immediately reached for comment.

Many cities across the United States have experienced unrest since the May death of George Floyd. In some cases the protests have escalated into violence and looting.

The federal government has mounted a campaign to disperse the racial justice protests, including by sending federal agents into Portland and Seattle and encouraging federal prosecutors to bring charges.

Last week, the Justice Department urged federal prosecutors to consider sedition charges against protesters who have burned buildings and engaged in other violent activity.

Monday’s threat to revoke federal funds was the government’s latest escalation in its quest to curb the protests.

It comes after President Donald Trump earlier this month issued a memo laying out criteria to consider when reviewing funding for states and cities that are “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction in American cities.”

The criteria to make the president’s list include things such as whether a city forbids the police from intervening or if it defunds its police force.

In all three cities, the Justice Department said the leadership has rejected efforts to allow federal law enforcement officials to intervene and restore order, among other things.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

New York City again delays in-person learning at public schools

NEW YORK (Reuters) – With only four days’ notice, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the start of in-person learning at public schools for a second time for most students on Thursday as the city grapples to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

While virtual lessons via the internet are already underway, in-person learning had previously been delayed from Sept. 10 to Monday, Sept. 21, for those students who opted in.

Now, only pre-kindergarten children and students with special learning needs will start on Monday, the mayor said at a news conference. Elementary school students will begin Tuesday, Sept. 29. Middle school and high school students will start Oct. 1.

“This is a huge undertaking,” said de Blasio, who oversees the largest school district in the United States, serving more than 1.1 million children. “It is difficult. It’s challenging.”

Most other major school districts in the United States have scrapped plans to resume in-person learning for now. Efforts in New York City, which in the spring was the U.S. epicenter of the global pandemic, are being closely watched.

The mayor was joined by leaders of teachers’ unions, who had expressed concerns about efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. De Blasio has sought to reassure school staff that ventilation systems are being upgraded, nurses are being hired, protective equipment is being stockpiled and access to testing is being improved.

“If we’re going to do this, we must make sure that we get this right,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said at the news conference.

De Blasio said a total of 4,500 additional educators have been hired.

The city had previously agreed with the unions that there would be monthly coronavirus testing of students and staff, with systems in place to send home classrooms or shut down entire schools if new COVID-19 cases are found.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

New York mayor furloughs himself, staff for week to ease pandemic budget gap

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Everyone in the New York City mayor’s office, including the mayor himself, will be furloughed for one week without pay beginning Oct. 1 to close a budget shortfall created by the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday.

The coronavirus outbreak had caused the city to lose $9 billion in revenue and forced a $7 billion cut to the city’s annual budget, de Blasio told reporters.

The furloughs will save only about $1 million, the mayor said, but may serve as a useful symbol as he continues to negotiate with labor unions representing municipal employees over broader payroll savings. De Blasio plans to work without pay during his own week-long furlough, the New York Times reported.

“It was not a decision I made lightly,” he told reporters. “To have to do this is painful for them and their families, but it is the right thing to do at this moment in history.”

With the furloughs and other savings, the mayor’s office budget this fiscal year will be 12% smaller than it was last year, de Blasio said, though he did not provide absolute totals.

The policy will affect 495 staff, the Times reported, and the week-long furloughs will be staggered among them between October and March 2021. De Blasio has warned he may have to lay off 22,000 city employees if savings cannot be found in the negotiations with the labor unions.

He is also seeking greater borrowing power from state lawmakers in Albany, New York state’s capital, who have been resistant so far.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)

Transportation chief says aid needed by November to avoid big NYC subway and bus cuts

By Axel Threlfall

(Reuters) – New York’s coronavirus-hit Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will have to start implementing a dramatic job and service reduction plan in November if it does not receive billions of dollars in federal aid, the agency’s chairman said on Thursday.

Speaking in a virtual Reuters Newsmaker event, Patrick Foye said the MTA’s upcoming board meeting in November was the cutoff date for pulling the trigger on a plan to lay off 8,400 workers and cut city subway and bus service by up to 40 percent.

“That is the point at which we would have to begin implementing the service reductions and layoffs,” Foye said, adding that the MTA would also shelve a $51.5 billion capital plan to fix and upgrade North America’s biggest transportation system.

“If we are not able to make those investments, there will be a deterioration in service, as occurred in New York City in the 70’s and 80’s, and we don’t want to go back there,” Foye said.

Foye and John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, warned in an opinion article this week in the New York Times that the MTA faced a “five-alarm fire” and called on the U.S. Senate to approve funds to save it.

In July, the MTA unveiled a four-year financial plan that estimated a $16.2 billion deficit by 2024, with more than a third of those losses coming next year, a signal that it does not see ridership, hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, rebounding significantly anytime soon.

The agency, which runs New York City buses and subways and two commuter railroads that connect the city with suburbs, is losing $200 million in revenue a week and estimates it needs another $3.9 billion in federal aid to get through the end of this year and a total of $10.3 billion through 2021.

In addition to the plunge in revenue, the MTA has had to spend more to clean subway cars, stations and buses to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Subway service, which formerly ran for 24 hours, was closed down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to make that cleaning possible, another hit to ridership.

Even with congressional negotiations on further federal assistance at a standstill, Foye said he still held out hope that the Republican-controlled Senate would approve additional funding for the MTA before the Nov. 3 national election.

“If reason prevails and the national interest is pursued by the Senate, the Republican leadership in the Senate and Washington, the MTA will be financed,” Foye said.

Foye said he was not optimistic there would be any progress this year on congestion pricing, a program that charges vehicles entering Manhattan a fee. The program was supposed to account for $15 billion of the MTA’s capital spending plan, but its rollout has been slowed by the federal government not determining what environmental review is needed.

Foye described the withholding of aid from the MTA and the New York City region as a “punitive” act by Washington, echoing concerns by cities and states run by Democrats that they are being targeted by Republican President Donald Trump.

Foye suggested that the election of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has been a frequent rider on Amtrak passenger trains and a supporter of public transportation, might lead to better outcomes for the MTA.

“I believe that he’s got a different view of the importance of mass transit and public transit,” Foye said.

(Reporting by Axel Threlfall; additional reporting by Nathan Layne and Tina Bellon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump administration sending rapid COVID tests to states, CDC bars evictions

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – The Trump administration will send most of its newly purchased 150 million rapid COVID-19 tests to U.S. states for schools and critical services, a White House official said on Tuesday, as New York City pushed back reopening classrooms in a deal with union leaders.

The moves came as The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday issued a sweeping order temporarily halting landlords across the nation from evicting millions of tenants in what it said was an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

The order covers all 43 million U.S. residential renters as long as they meet income eligibility requirements, although an administration official said the government does not expect an “overwhelming” use of the program.

The daily number of infections has been in decline across most of the United States in recent weeks, with 36,263 reported on Monday, less than half of the mid-July peak, according to a Reuters tally.

Exceptions include Midwest states such as South Dakota, where hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders gathered for a rally in August, and Iowa.

A total of more than 183,000 people have died so far from complications of COVID-19, including 32,647 in New York and nearly 16,000 in New Jersey, the U.S. states with the highest death tolls.

In announcing that the “overwhelming majority” of 150 rapid antigen tests purchased from Abbot Laboratories would be sent to state governors, U.S. Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Admiral Brett Giror said top priorities included day care centers and first responders.

The portable tests can deliver results within 15 minutes and will sell for $5. They require no additional equipment, and can use a less invasive nasal swab than traditional lab tests.

President Donald Trump has pushed for schools across the country to reopen classrooms, but many districts have ordered students to stay home and learn online.

Among them are Los Angeles and San Diego Counties, the second and third-largest school districts in the nation respectively.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said an agreement had been reached with reluctant teachers union leaders to reopen school buildings to students on September 21 as part of his plan for a mix of in-class and remote learning.

“What we’ve agreed to is to make sure that the health measures are in place, to make sure there is time for the appropriate preparation for our educators,” de Blasio said at a news briefing.

Earlier this week New Jersey and California eased some restrictions imposed in the face of the pandemic, allowing restaurants to begin limited indoor dining.

New York City’s mayor has ruled out allowing restaurants to serve diners indoors anytime soon.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Vishwadha Chander, Carl O’Donnell, Peter Szekely, Maria Caspani and David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael Perry)

New York City schools to delay class start under safety deal with unions

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City public schools, the largest U.S. school system, will delay the start of classes by 11 days to Sept. 21 under an agreement with education unions that had pushed for additional coronavirus safety measures, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

Unions, led by the United Federation of Teachers, had expressed concern that the city was rushing into its Sept. 10 scheduled start of the school year without taking adequate steps to protect teachers, students and staff from infections.

But in announcing the agreement, de Blasio was joined by union leaders who said their health and safety concerns had been met.

“What we’ve agreed to is to make sure that the health measures are in place, to make sure there is time for the appropriate preparation for our educators,” de Blasio said at a briefing.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew last month threatened to strike, which would be illegal under state law, unless schools implemented a rigorous COVID-19 testing plan and other safety measures.

Joining de Blasio, however, Mulgrew hailed the agreement.

“Our medical experts have stamped this plan, and we now can say that the New York City public school system has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in America,” said Mulgrew whose union represents 133,000 teachers and other education workers.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)