Cuomo blasts Trump’s COVID-19 response as U.S. death toll tops 130,000

By Lisa Shumaker and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – As U.S. coronavirus cases surge and deaths topped 130,000, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo harshly criticized the White House’s COVID-19 response on Monday, accusing President Donald Trump of “enabling” the virus and downplaying its threat.

Infections are on the rise in 39 states, according to a Reuters tally, and 16 states have posted record daily case counts in July. The surge has prompted many local leaders to slow or roll back economic re-openings despite Trump’s insistence that the epidemic is being handled.

At a news conference on Monday, Cuomo, a Democrat who has clashed with the president over his efforts to tackle the health crisis, said Trump was “enabling” the virus if he failed to address the severity of the situation.

“Acknowledge to the American people that COVID exists, it is a major problem, it’s going to continue until we admit it and each of us stands up to do our part,” Cuomo said, directing his comments at the president.

During a speech at the White House on Saturday, Trump asserted without providing evidence that 99% of U.S. coronavirus cases were “totally harmless.”

Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, Texas, on Monday also criticized Republican Trump’s message.

“It’s incredibly disruptive and the messaging coming from the president of the United States is dangerous,” Adler told CNN.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Monday defended Trump, saying the president was not trying to play down the deaths.

“But it’s really to look statistically to know that whatever risks that you may have or I may have, or my, my children or my grandchildren may have, let’s look at that appropriately and I think that’s what he’s trying to do,” Meadows told reporters outside the White House.

RE-OPENINGS HALTED

Local leaders across the country are considering slowing down or rolling back business re-openings to curb spiking infection rates that are already overwhelming hospitals in some areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which currently has some 48,000 COVID-19 cases, issued an emergency order on Monday shutting down on-site dining at restaurants and closing ballrooms, banquet facilities, party venues, gyms and fitness centers, and short-term rentals.

“We can tamp down the spread if everyone follows the rules, wears masks and stays at least six feet (2 meters) apart from others. I am counting on you, our 2.8 million residents, to stop the spread so that we can get back to opening our economy,” Gimenez said in a statement.

After the announcement, some Miami chefs and restaurant owners said they felt they were facing the impossible predicament of balancing their businesses’ survival against the safety of their employees and guests.

“We’re burned out emotionally, we’re burned out financially, and we’re burned out from the trauma of seeing everything that’s happening,” said Karina Iglesias, a partner at two popular downtown Miami Spanish restaurants.

Nationally, cases are approaching 3 million, by far the highest tally in the world and double the infections reported in Brazil, the world’s second most-affected country.

Florida confirmed a record high 11,000 new cases in a single day, more than any European country reported in a day at the height of the crisis there.

Gimenez imposed an indefinite nightly curfew in Miami-Dade County on Friday and halted the re-openings of entertainment venues such as casinos and strip clubs.

In New York City, where the percentage of people testing positive for the virus has dropped to 1%, residents were allowed to enter nail and tanning salons on Monday as part of the city’s Phase III of reopening, but Mayor Bill de Blasio delayed the resumption of indoor dining indefinitely.

Soaring case numbers and packed hospitals in Texas have prompted some mayors and other local leaders to consider launching a new round of stay-at-home orders. Cities are getting together and lobbying the state’s governor to restore the authority to impose local anti-coronavirus measures, Austin Mayor Adler said.

“It’s something that we’re considering. It’s only to be used as a last resort,” Adler told CNN.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, Doina Chiacu, Peter Szekely, Gabriella Borter and Zachary Fagenson; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Howard Goller and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. tops 130,000 deaths from COVID-19 after record surge in cases

By Lisa Shumaker and Doina Chiacu

(Reuters) – The number of U.S. coronavirus deaths exceeded 130,000 on Monday, following a surge of new cases that has put President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis under the microscope and derailed efforts to restart the economy.

The overall rate of increase in U.S. deaths has been on a downward trend despite case numbers surging to record levels in recent days, but health experts warn fatalities are a lagging indicator, showing up weeks or even months after cases rise.

Nationally, cases are approaching 3 million, the highest tally in the world and double the infections reported in the second most-affected country Brazil. Case numbers are rising in 39 U.S. states, according to a Reuters analysis.

Sixteen states have posted new record daily case counts this month. Florida confirmed a record high 11,000 in a single day, more than any European country reported in a single day at the height of the crisis there.

As health experts cautioned the public not to gather in crowds to celebrate Independence Day over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump asserted without providing evidence that 99% of U.S. coronavirus cases were “totally harmless.”

At least five states have already bucked the downward trend in the national death rate, a Reuters analysis showed. Arizona had 449 deaths in the last two weeks of June, up from 259 deaths in the first two weeks of the month. The state posted a 300% rise in cases over the full month, the most in the country.

Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, Texas, on Monday criticized the Republican Trump’s comment over the weekend that the virus was mostly harmless.

“It’s incredibly disruptive and the messaging coming from the president of the United States is dangerous,” Adler told CNN. “One of the biggest challenges we have is the messaging coming out of Washington that would suggest that masks don’t work or it’s not necessary, or that the virus is going away on its own.”

Soaring case numbers and packed hospitals in Texas have prompted some mayors and other local leaders to consider launching a new round of stay-at-home orders. Cities are getting together and lobbying the state’s governor to restore the authority to impose local anti-coronavirus measures, Adler said.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Monday defended Trump’s comment over the weekend, saying the president was not trying to play down the deaths.

“But it’s really to look statistically to know that whatever risks that you may have or I may have, or my children or my grandchildren may have, let’s look at that appropriately and I think that’s what he’s trying to do,” he told reporters outside the White House.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has forecast between 140,000 to 160,000 coronavirus deaths by July 25 in projections that are based on 24 independent forecasts.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, Doina Chiacu and Gabriella Borter; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump weighs executive orders on China, manufacturing, immigration, aide says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is considering several executive orders targeting China, manufacturing and immigration, his chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters at the White House on Monday, though he offered few details.

“It’s dealing with a number of executive orders that may go all the way from dealing with some of the immigration issues that we have before us, to some of the manufacturing and jobs issues that are before us, and ultimately dealing with China, in what we need to do there in terms of resetting that balance,” Meadows said.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has tried to rescind a program that shields from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children – a group often called “Dreamers.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last month blocked Trump’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy put in place by former President Barack Obama, which protects roughly 649,000 immigrants from deportation.

Earlier on Fox News, Meadows said, “We’re going to look at a number of issues as it relates to prescription drug prices, and we’re going to get them done when Congress couldn’t get them done.”

It was not clear what any executive order on China or manufacturing would entail.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Catherine Evans and Nick Zieminski)

Seattle police clear protest zone after flares of violence

By Lindsey Wasson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Seattle authorities moved on Wednesday to dismantle a protest zone that the city’s police chief derided as “lawless and brutal” and which had prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to call for action against demonstrators.

Officers, clad in helmets and extra protective gear, entered the “autonomous zone” early and by mid-morning had arrested 31 people for failure to disperse, assault and other alleged crimes, according to the police department’s Twitter feed.

Police moved to retake the zone after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared the gathering around the police department’s East Precinct and Cal Anderson Park an “unlawful assembly,” the police chief, Carmen Best, said in a statement that highlighted a recent spate of shootings and the deaths of two teenagers.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr commended Best in a statement for distinguishing between the right to protest and violent crime in “restoring the rule of law.” Barr did not mention Durkan, a Democrat who has been a target of the Republican president’s ire.

Harry “Rick” Hearns, a protester who said he volunteered to provide armed security at CHOP for 24 straight days, told Reuters he supported the police crackdown “1,000 percent.” He blamed the violence on outsiders who he said had marred an otherwise successful month long occupation.

“We don’t represent violence. People brought that to us,” said Hearns, 59.

Police were walking in and out of the East Precinct on Wednesday, re-establishing control. Weeks earlier, they abandoned the building following clashes with protesters in the wake of the May 25 killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of that city’s police.

Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide wave of largely peaceful demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, giving rise in Seattle to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone east of downtown.

“The CHOP has become lawless and brutal. Four shootings — two fatal — robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several-block area,” Best said.

Trump has been demanding that local authorities eject the protesters, whom he labeled “domestic terrorists.” Conservative pundits have pointed to the zone in Seattle to support an argument that protests across the country were less peaceful than they were being portrayed.

Black armored vehicles and baton-wielding officers patrolled the perimeter of the area that was barricaded with spray-painted plywood, some marked with phrases like “All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and “RIP E Precinct.”

Bicycle police employed three dozen bikes to create a barricade at East Pike and 12th Avenue, allowing city crews to take down protesters’ tents. Some officers sipped Starbucks’ coffee, evidence the operation had met no serious resistance.

The zone had become less crowded and active over the past several days. Crowds that came by the thousands to listen to speeches about police brutality and marvel at street art commemorating Black lives had disappeared, as had medic stations and multiple free food tents.

Businesses in the area, a trendy neighborhood of hipster bars and boutiques, have been pushing for a tougher stance by authorities. Attorneys have filed two class action lawsuits against the City of Seattle, including one aimed at preventing the establishment of “lawless autonomous zones” in the future.

Lencho Williams, who was roused by police from the CHOP encampment on Wednesday, said protesters would regroup. He said the movement had become disorganized when three original demands — defund the police, fund the Black community and amnesty for demonstrators — morphed into 12.

“We’re going to be back. If not tomorrow, the next day. You can’t stop a revolution. Black lives matter now and forever,” said Williams, 32.

(Reporting by Lindsey Wasson in Seattle, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernadette Baum, David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump backs work incentives as part of next stimulus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he supports another coronavirus stimulus bill but wants it to include incentives for Americans to go back to work, setting up a clash with Democrats in Congress over jobless benefits.

“We want to create a very great incentive to work. So, we’re working on that and I’m sure we’ll all come together,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

The remarks indicate the Trump administration will oppose an effort by Democrats in Congress to renew a $600 supplement to weekly jobless benefits set to expire at the end of July that was contained in earlier coronavirus relief legislation.

Many Republicans have argued that the supplemental benefit encourages workers to remain unemployed and they would prefer to provide a benefit for workers returning to the job.

Trump said the structure of the last round of financial aid to struggling Americans created a disincentive for people to return to work.

“It was an incentive, not to go to work. You’d make more money if you don’t go to work – that’s not what the country is all about,” Trump said in the interview. “And people didn’t want that. They wanted to go to work, but it didn’t make sense because they make more money if they didn’t.”

Administration officials have said they will calibrate their response in terms of further stimulus based on economic data set to roll in over the next couple of weeks. Negotiations over another relief bill are not expected to pick up until Congress returns from a break for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

Mexican president to hold bilateral talks with Trump on July 8

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will hold bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on July 8 in Washington, where he will underline his commitment to trade and investment, Mexico’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has not left his country since taking office in December 2018, and paying his first foreign visit to Trump is politically risky because the U.S. Republican president is widely disliked in Mexico.

The Mexican president has described the planned visit, which is intended to celebrate the start of a new North American trade deal on July 1, as a matter of economic necessity.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Lopez Obrador would hold bilateral talks with Trump on the afternoon of July 8. Trilateral matters that include Canada will be on the agenda on the morning of July 9, he added.

Mexico wanted to stress its commitment to trade, investment and social welfare at the Washington summit, Ebrard told a news conference, standing alongside Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador floated the idea of talks in Washington to mark the July 1 start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is replacing the 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mexico has urged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take part in the meeting, and Ebrard said he expected Canada’s government to detail its plans soon.

So far, Canada had not responded to the invitation to participate in Washington, Lopez Obrador said.

Many Mexicans have held Trump in low regard since he described Mexican migrants as rapists and drug runners in his 2015-16 election campaign and vowed to make Mexico pay for his planned border wall.

He has also made repeated threats against Mexico’s economy to pressure its government to stem illegal immigration.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign minister said a move toward the proposed annexation of occupied West Bank land was unlikely on Wednesday, the start date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for discussing such a move.

“It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White party that is a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty.”

Netanyahu and his senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz are at odds over the timing of any unilateral annexation move.

After meeting U.S. envoys on Tuesday to discuss annexation within the framework of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Netanyahu said such talks would continue for several days.

Trump’s proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

“There are very robust conversations with Israel on the Trump plan,” a U.S. official told Reuters after White House adviser Avi Berkowitz concluded his trip to Israel.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and have rejected Trump’s plan, saying it would deny them a viable state.

Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the West Bank, as well as security needs.

In an editorial published in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing remarks he made in parliament on June 16. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michael Perry and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. coronavirus cases rise by 47,000, biggest one-day spike of pandemic

By Paul Simao and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – New U.S. COVID-19 cases rose by more than 47,000 on Tuesday according to a Reuters tally, the biggest one-day spike since the start of the pandemic, as the government’s top infectious disease expert warned that number could soon double.

California, Texas and Arizona have emerged as new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic, reporting record increases in COVID-19 cases.

“Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate committee. “I am very concerned because it could get very bad.”

Fauci said the daily increase in new cases could reach 100,000 unless a nationwide push was made to tamp down the resurgent virus.

“We can’t just focus on those areas that are having the surge. It puts the entire country at risk,” he said.

Fauci said there was no guarantee of a vaccine, although early data had been promising: “Hopefully there will be doses available by the beginning of next year,” he said.

COVID-19 cases more than doubled in June in at least 10 states, including Texas and Florida, a Reuters tally showed. In parts of Texas and Arizona, hospital intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients are in short supply.

More than 126,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions have lost their jobs as states and major cities ordered residents to stay home and businesses closed. The economy contracted sharply in the first quarter and is expected to crater in the second.

‘TRUMP FAILED US’

The European Union has excluded Americans from its “safe list” of countries from which the block will allow non-essential travel beginning on Wednesday.

The fresh rise in cases and hospitalizations has dimmed hopes that the worst of the human and economic pain had passed, prompting renewed criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

His rival, Democrat Joe Biden, on Tuesday said that Trump’s “historic mismanagement” of the pandemic cost lives and inflicted more damage than necessary to the U.S. economy.

“It didn’t have to be this way. Donald Trump failed us,” the 77-year-old former vice president said in a speech in Delaware, where he unveiled an updated plan to tackle the pandemic calling for more testing and the hiring of 100,000 contract tracers.

In the past week California, Texas and Florida have moved to close recently reopened bars, which public health officials believe are likely one of the larger contributors to the recent spikes.

On Tuesday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut added travelers from California and seven other states to those who must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Texas and Florida were named last week.

South Carolina also has also emerged as a hot spot, reporting a record single-day increase of 1,755 cases on Tuesday.

In Texas, where the number of new cases jumped to a one-day record of 6,975 on Tuesday, Houston hospitals said beds were quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Marc Boom, chief executive of Houston Methodist Hospital, told CNN on Tuesday that his hospital beds have seen a “very significant” increase in COVID-19 patients, although the death rate has lowered.

Boom said he was worried about Independence Day celebrations this weekend, when Americans traditionally flock to beaches and campgrounds to watch fireworks displays.

“Frankly it scares me,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Trevor Hunnicutt, Simon Lewis, Saumya Joseph, Brad Brooks, Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani and Paul Simao; Writing by Nathan Layne and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Pullin)

U.S. Supreme Court allows public money for religious schools in major ruling

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the separation of church and state in a major ruling on Tuesday by endorsing Montana tax credits that helped pay for students to attend religious schools, a decision paving the way for more public funding of faith-based institutions.

In a 5-4 decision with the conservative justices in the majority and the liberal justices dissenting, the court backed a Montana program that gave tax incentives for people to donate to a scholarship fund that provided money to Christian schools for student tuition expenses.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, represented the court’s latest expansion of religious liberties, a priority of its conservative majority in recent years.

The court sided with three mothers of Christian school students who appealed after Montana’s top court invalidated the tax credit for violating the state constitution’s ban on public aid to churches and religious entities.

Roberts wrote, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The justices faulted the Montana Supreme Court for voiding a taxpayer program merely because it can be used to fund religious entities, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution’s protection for the free exercise of religion.

President Donald Trump’s administration supported the plaintiffs in the case. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans. Christian conservatives are an important voter bloc for Trump, who is seeking re-election on Nov. 3.

Thirty-eight states have constitutional provisions like Montana’s barring public aid to religious entities. Opponents have said these provisions were the product of anti-Catholic bias and resulted in impermissible discrimination against religion.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that the ruling risks “entanglement and conflict” over where to draw the line between allowing free exercise of religion while protecting against government endorsement of religion, both of which are required under the Constitution.

The decision followed the court’s major 2017 religious rights ruling in favor of a Missouri church, Trinity Lutheran, that challenged its exclusion from state playground improvement grants generally available to other nonprofit groups. The court ruled in that case that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states whose constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Churches and Christian groups in the United States have sought for years to widen access to taxpayer money for religious schools and places of worship, testing the limits of U.S. secularism.

The Montana tax credit program, created in 2015, provided up to $150 as an incentive for donations to groups that fund scholarships for tuition to private schools including religious schools. In practice, most of the money went to Christian schools. The one such scholarship organization currently operating provides $500 payments to schools, primarily to help lower-income students attend.

The dispute began when state tax officials limited the program to non-religious schools to comport with the state constitution’s prohibition on “direct or indirect” public aid to any church or “school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

Lead plaintiff Kendra Espinoza and two other mothers of students at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, Montana challenged the exclusion, saying state officials infringed their religious rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program entirely in 2018 because it could be used to pay for religious schools. Most private schools in Montana are Christian.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump has no problem with masks, believes it’s a personal choice: McEnany

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump believes the decision to wear a mask to help prevent spreading the deadly coronavirus, currently infecting record numbers of people in many places in the United States, is personal, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday.

“Its his choice to wear a mask. It’s the personal choice of any individual as to whether to wear a mask or not,” McEnany said, when asked about a new mandate to wear masks in Jacksonville, Florida, where part of the Republican nominating convention will be held.

“He encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety. But he did say to me he has no problem with masks and to do whatever your local jurisdiction requests.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chris Reese)