Pence, Harris to clash in VP debate amid White House virus outbreak

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris will square off on Wednesday in their only debate, as President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis and the ongoing pandemic continue to roil the U.S. presidential contest.

The televised clash comes at a precarious moment for the Trump-Pence re-election campaign, less than a week after the president announced he had contracted COVID-19 amid a White House outbreak that has infected numerous high-profile Republicans.

Late on Tuesday, the two sides were still arguing over Harris’ request for plexiglass barriers on stage to lessen the chance of infection. CNN reported that a member of the commission that oversees the debate said Pence would be permitted to appear without a barrier, while Harris would have one on her side of the stage if desired.

Both Pence and Harris, a U.S. senator, tested negative for the coronavirus on Tuesday. Current government guidelines call for anyone exposed to someone with COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days regardless of test results.

Pence’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said, “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their COVID response is a failure.”

With two septuagenarians at the top of the ballot, the debate could take on greater importance than in other years, when the vice presidential match-up was largely seen as an afterthought to the presidential debates. Both Pence and Harris will seek to demonstrate that they can step into the Oval Office if necessary to lead the country.

Trump, 74, returned to the White House on Monday after three days in a military hospital. It is unclear when he will again be able to campaign. Trump has said he plans to participate in the Oct. 15 presidential debate.

The pandemic is likely to dominate the proceedings. Biden, 77, and Harris, 55, have made Trump’s handling of the disease the central theme of their campaign, blaming Trump for deliberately downplaying the health risks and failing to endorse mask-wearing.

The 61-year-old Pence, who headed up the administration’s coronavirus task force, will defend Trump’s response to the virus, which has killed 210,000 Americans and decimated the U.S. economy even as other wealthy nations have managed to get the disease under control.

Viewers will have a constant reminder of the pandemic’s effect on daily life: Pence and Harris will be more than 12 feet apart on stage at the University of Utah, in addition to the plexiglass barrier

In preparation for the debate, Harris got help from former Democratic presidential primary rival Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is familiar with Pence’s past record when he was governor of the state.

The debate is unlikely to match the sheer chaos of the first presidential debate last week, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the two traded insults. Pence, who once hosted a radio show as a congressman, and Harris, a former prosecutor known for sharp questioning during Senate hearings, are both seen as polished communicators.

A Biden campaign official said Harris has prepared for Pence to attack her as too liberal, echoing Trump’s assertion that the moderate Biden will advance a “radical left-wing” agenda if elected.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff go into quarantine after coronavirus hits Coast Guard

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone into self-quarantine after the Coast Guard’s No. 2 tested positive for the novel coronavirus following a top-level meeting at the Pentagon last week, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that the military’s top brass – with the exception of the Coast Guard vice commandant, Admiral Charles Ray – had all tested negative so far and were still carrying out their duties.

But the disclosure risks adding to a sense of uncertainty about operations at the highest levels of the U.S. government after President Donald Trump himself contracted the illness, along with senior White House staff and other Republican leaders.

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement that all potential close contacts from Ray’s meetings at the Pentagon were tested Tuesday morning and that none of them exhibited symptoms.

“We have no additional positive tests to report at this time,” Hoffman said in a statement.

“There is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Ray attended meetings late last week with the U.S. military’s top brass, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, Trump’s top military advisor.

U.S. officials told Reuters that Milley was self-isolating, as was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The Coast Guard disclosed earlier on Tuesday that Ray had tested positive on Monday for the virus after feeling mild symptoms over the weekend.

It said Ray will be quarantining from home.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool)

Trump says will leave hospital on Monday, ‘Don’t be afraid of Covid.’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he will leave the U.S. military hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19 later on Monday, adding that he felt “really good.”

“I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” he said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

White House says Trump ‘not incapacitated’, working from isolation; Pence negative

By Jeff Mason

(Reuters) – The White House tried to reassure Americans on Friday that President Donald Trump was still working from isolation, after his bombshell announcement that he had caught the coronavirus threw the administration and presidential race into uncertainty.

Trump, who has played down the threat of the coronavirus pandemic from the outset, said he and his wife Melania had tested positive for the deadly virus and were going into quarantine.

Wall Street tumbled at news of one of the biggest health scares involving an American president for decades, with the S&P 500 plunging more than %1.5 at the opening.

“The president is not incapacitated. He is actually working from the residence,” a senior White House official said.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife tested negative, a Pence spokesman said. The White House official said Pence would work from his own residence and his staff was being kept separated from Trump’s staff “out of an abundance of caution”.

But the official acknowledged that the president’s illness would force him to cancel travel plans with just 31 days left to go until the presidential election. Polls show Trump trailing his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!” Trump said in a tweet early on Friday morning.

Biden said on Twitter that he and his wife Jill wished Trump and the first lady a speedy recovery. “We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family,” he said.

Trump, 74, is at high risk because of his age weight. He has remained in good health during his time in office but is not known to exercise regularly or to follow a healthy diet.

Trump advisers acknowledged that they would have to rip up their plans for the final weeks of the election campaign. Trump has held in-person rallies with supporters who mainly decline to wear masks, and has mocked Biden for avoiding such events.

“It’s so early to kind of know what’s going to happen but clearly it changes the dynamic from us being able to travel and show enormous energy and support from the rallies, which has been part of our calculation,” a Trump adviser said.

Trump’s positive test also means that others at the highest levels of the U.S. government have been exposed and may have to quarantine, too. A White House official said early on Friday that contact tracing was under way.

Trump’s physician, Sean Conley, said he expected the president to carry out his duties “without disruption” while he recovers.

“The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence,” Conley wrote in a memo that was distributed to the press.

Leaders around the world wished Trump a speedy recovery.

On Thursday night, shortly after Trump predicted the pandemic’s end was in sight, news broke that Hope Hicks, a top adviser and trusted aide, had tested positive for the virus. Hicks traveled with the president on Air Force One on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Trump flew to New Jersey after White House officials learned of Hicks’s symptoms, and attended a fundraiser at his golf club and delivered a speech. Trump was in close contact with other people, including campaign supporters, at a roundtable event.

CHANGE IN THE RACE

The president’s condition is likely to bring the pandemic back to center stage in the race, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shifted the campaign’s focus.

Trump, who has been criticized for questioning the efficacy of wearing a face covering, produced a mask from his pocket in his first debate against Biden on Tuesday and said, “I wear masks when needed. When needed, I wear masks.”

The White House has had previous coronavirus scares. Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Miller, tested positive earlier this year and suffered symptoms before recovering. A military valet also came down with the virus.

But the White House lowered its precautions as Trump sought to project a return-to-normalcy message this summer. Temperature checks of everyone entering the White House complex stopped, and while coronavirus tests continued for people who came into close proximity to Trump, others on campus were not tested.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano and Aishwarya Nair; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by William Mallard, Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

Swiss add Paris, Vienna to list of areas for coronavirus quarantine

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has added the regions around Paris and Vienna to its list of areas with high COVID-19 infection rates requiring incoming travelers to enter quarantine for 10 days.

The government said it was adopting a regional approach for neighboring countries for the measures which will come into force on Sept. 14. As part of this, it named Ile de France and the Vienna region as areas with a raised risk of infection.

The government also put the Czech Republic and all of Spain on its list of entire countries with a quarantine requirement, which already includes the United States,  India and Brazil.

“It is not a good idea to go to high-risk areas,” Health Minister Alain Berset told a media conference, advising Swiss travelers to steer clear of places on the list.

Switzerland, which has had quarantine restrictions since July 6, said it was responding to a spike in infection numbers in the country.

Switzerland reported 528 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the highest daily rise in infections since early April.

As part of its new approach, the government said only regions of neighboring countries where the infection rate is above its limit of 60 cases per 100,000 people will be added to the list, rather then the entire country.

Border regions may be exempted from the list to take into account the close interaction with neighboring regions, it said.

Thousands of workers cross Switzerland’s borders with France, Germany and Italy daily to work in Geneva, Basel and the southern canton of Ticino.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Michael Shields)

New York gyms set to re-open to athletes, members shedding ‘quarantine 15’

By Aleksandra Michalska

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Before coronavirus shut down the United States, gym re-opening used to mean simply unlocking the front door and greeting the herds squeezed into spandex pants.

Now, as New York gyms gird to re-open as soon as Monday, exercise centers like Chelsea Piers Fitness in Manhattan are upgrading air filters to hospital grade, disinfecting sand on the beach volleyball court, spreading work-out equipment 6 feet apart, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

“Reopening is going to be intense. It’s going to be tough,” said Chelsea Piers trainer Oscar Herrera as preparations to re-open one of the largest gyms in New York City kicked into high gear.

While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said gyms could reopen with restrictions as early as Monday, hopes of quickly reopening in New York City were dealt a setback by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said none would reopen before Sept. 2.

State restrictions include limiting admittance to one-third of capacity, temperature checks and wearing masks at all times. Gyms must maintain sign-in sheets to help contact tracers.

New York will join at least 43 states and Washington, D.C., in permitting gyms to reopen to some extent since the coronavirus pandemic forced shutdowns beginning in March, said Meredith Poppler, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a nonprofit trade group.

Last year, 3 million part-time and full-time employees worked in as many as 50,000 health and fitness clubs in the United States, she said.

In New York City alone, some 2,111 gyms employ 86,551 workers.

“We estimate the industry lost $700 million per week during the height of the shutdown, and $7 billion lost through July 1,” Poppler said.

Tempers flared over gym shutdowns among those who regularly pump iron to boost health and happiness and shed gained weight, often called the “quarantine 15”. In Bellmawr, New Jersey, two owners of Atilis Gym were arrested last month for defying state shutdown orders and their business license was revoked.

At the enormous exercise center located on a Manhattan pier jutting into the Hudson River, Chelsea Piers member Faye Stenning, founder of Grit Coaching, said she was thrilled the gym would be reopening.

“Fitness is a huge part of people’s lives,” Stenning said.

(Reporting by Aleksandra Michalska; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Britons rush home from France to beat new quarantine rules

By Alistair Smout and Tangi Salaün

LONDON/CALAIS, France (Reuters) – British travelers rushed home from summer holidays in France on Friday, booking planes, trains, boats and even private jets to get home before a 14-day quarantine comes into force in response to rising coronavirus infections there.

The government announced late on Thursday that it would impose a quarantine from 0300 GMT on Saturday on arrivals from France, giving an estimated 160,000 UK holidaymakers there just over 24 hours to get home or face self-isolation on return.

The sudden rule change dealt a fresh blow to tourists, airlines and tour operators. The pandemic has left many travel groups cash-strapped and fighting for survival.

Many British tourists headed towards the French port of Calais hoping to catch a ferry or a shuttle train home in time.

“We’ve changed our plans when we heard the news last night. We decided to head back home a day early to miss the quarantine,” one British woman at a service station on the motorway to Calais said after her week in southern France.

Queues of cars built up in Calais through Friday afternoon. Ferry companies were adding extra crossings to help more people get home, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the Port of Calais, told Reuters.

PrivateFly, a British-based jet provider, said it had seen three times the normal number of enquiries and bookings.

The new quarantine rules apply to France, the second-most popular holiday destination for Britons, as well as to the Netherlands and the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Spain, Britons’ favorite holiday destination, came under British government quarantine rules on July 26.

“We’ve also had a number of enquiries from clients booked to travel to these destinations in the coming weeks to change their travel plans in order to avoid quarantine zones,” PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell said.

France warned it would reciprocate, dealing a further blow to airlines’ hopes of an August recovery given they may have to cancel yet more flights.

Airline and travel shares tumbled. British Airways-owner IAG was down 6% and easyJet, which said it would operate its full schedule for the coming days, fell 7%.

TIGHTENING QUARANTINE

When Europe first went into lockdown in March, Britain was criticized for not restricting arrivals from abroad. But since June, it has introduced strict quarantine rules for arrivals from countries with infection rates above a certain level.

This contrasts with an easing of rules at home, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered the gradual reopening of the economy to resume, weeks after pausing it.

Transport minister Grant Shapps said the government needed to balance the need to open the economy and to contain the virus. The UK recorded 1,441 COVID-19 cases, the highest daily tally since June 14, official data showed on Friday.

Shapps told BBC Radio he sympathized with travelers but that they should not be entirely surprised, given the fluid situation around the pandemic.

“Where we see countries breach a certain level of cases … then we have no real choice but to act,” he told Sky News.

Airlines UK, an industry body representing BA, easyJet and Ryanair, called on Britain to implement more targeted quarantines on the regions with the highest infection rates and to bring in a testing regime.

An EU study showed that imported cases of COVID typically only account for a small share of infections when a pandemic is at its peak, but are more significant once a country has the disease under control.

(Writing by Sarah Young; Additional reporting by Kate Holton; David Milliken and Richard Lough; Editing by Nick Macfie, Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

UK will be ‘ruthless’ over quarantine, Johnson says when asked about France

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was prepared to be ruthless with even its closest partners over COVID-19 quarantine rules, after he was asked whether France would be removed from the government’s safe-travel list.

Britain has in recent weeks imposed a 14-day quarantine period for arrivals from countries like Spain and Belgium, responding to rising infections and fears of a second wave of the virus, having initially declared them safe for travel.

“We’ve got to be absolutely ruthless about this, even with our closest and dearest friends and partners around the world,” Johnson told reporters on a visit to Northern Ireland.

“We will be looking at the data a bit later on this afternoon … looking at exactly where France and other countries are getting to, and you know we can’t be remotely complacent about our own situation.”

The French health ministry reported 2,524 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday – the highest since its lockdown restrictions.

That has prompted speculation it could be the next European country added to Britain’s list – a move that would affect the large number of British tourists travelling there during English school holidays.

For UK holidaymakers, France is the second most-visited country behind first-choice destination Spain. Almost 13 million Britons traveled to France in 2017, data from Statista showed.

Britain usually welcomes about 3.5 million visitors from France each year according to the same data, making France the second biggest market for tourists coming into the UK behind the United States.

(Reporting by William James; editing by David Milliken and Stephen Addison)

New York City erects quarantine checkpoints to curb coronavirus

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City will put up COVID-19 quarantine checkpoints at key entry points to ensure that travelers from 35 states on New York state’s travel advisory comply with the state’s 14-day quarantine mandate, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday.

“Travelers coming in from those states will be given information about the quarantine and will be reminded that it is required, not optional,” de Blasio told a news briefing. He added that, under certain circumstances, fines for not observing the quarantine order could be as high as $10,000.

The Sheriff’s Office, in coordination with other law enforcement agencies, will begin deploying checkpoints at major bridge and tunnel crossings into New York City on Wednesday.

“This is serious stuff and it’s time for everyone to realize that if we’re going to hold at this level of health and safety in this city, and get better, we have to deal with the fact that the quarantine must be applied consistently to anyone who’s traveled,” de Blasio said.

Once the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, New York has taken strong steps to prevent a resurgence of cases that has emerged elsewhere.

In Illinois, where COVID-19 cases have risen for six weeks in a row, Chicago Public Schools will start the new academic year conducting all classes remotely, school officials said on Wednesday.

Teachers in the district, the country’s third largest with 350,000 students, had resisted a plan by city leaders to launch a hybrid model in which parents could choose to have their children attend in-person instruction in pods of 15 pupils twice a week.

The Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike over safety concerns if city leaders did not go to all-remote learning.

“Nothing about this crisis has been easy,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “Every day has been another step into uncharted territory.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

There is no ‘zero risk’ in easing travel restrictions, WHO says

By Bhargav Acharya and Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – There is no “zero risk” strategy for countries easing international travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and essential travel for emergencies should remain the priority, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In a long-awaited update to its guidance on travel, the United Nations global health agency said cross-border trips for emergencies, humanitarian work, the transfer of essential personnel and repatriation would constitute essential travel.

“There is no ‘zero risk’ when considering the potential importation or exportation of cases in the context of international travel,” it said in the updated guidance posted on its website on Thursday.

A surge of new infections in many parts of the world has prompted some countries to reintroduce some travel restrictions, including testing and quarantining incoming passengers.

The WHO had said in June it would update its travel guidelines before the northern hemisphere summer holidays.

The WHO’s guidance can be used by governments and industries to help shape policies, but is not enforceable.

The updated travel advice is little changed from previous guidance, which also included infection control advice applicable to other settings such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding touching the face.

The WHO urged each country to conduct its own risk-benefit analysis before lifting any or all travel restrictions. Authorities should take into account local epidemiology and transmission patterns, it said, as well as national health and social distancing measures already in place.

Countries that choose to quarantine all travelers on arrival should do so after assessing the risks and consider local circumstances, the WHO said.

“Countries should continuously plan for and assess their surge capacities for testing, tracking, isolating and managing imported cases and quarantine of contacts,” it said.

The WHO said this week that international travel bans cannot stay in place indefinitely, and countries will have to do more to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus within their borders.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Writing by Kate Kelland, editing by Diane Craft, Marguerita Choy, Grant McCool and Timothy Heritage))