Women’s movement sweeps Latin America to loosen abortion restrictions

By Daina Beth Solomon and Cassandra Garrison

MEXICO CITY/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Several weeks pregnant and about to start a job away from home, Lupita Ruiz had no doubts about wanting to end her pregnancy, despite knowing she could face jail time for having an abortion under a law in her state of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

She asked friends for help until she found a doctor two hours from her town who agreed to do it in secret.

Five years later, lawmakers in Chiapas are set to consider an initiative to halt prosecutions of women who terminate their pregnancies, part of a movement sweeping Latin America to loosen some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.

Several out of more than 20 Latin American nations ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison. Most countries, including Brazil, the region’s most populous, allow abortion only in specific circumstances, such as rape or health risk to the mother.

Just Uruguay and Cuba allow elective abortions.

In Mexico, a patchwork of state restrictions apply, but the debate is shifting, Ruiz said.

“When someone talked about abortion, they were shushed,” said the 27-year-old activist, who helped draft the Chiapas initiative. “Now I can sit down to eat a tamale and have a coffee and talk with my mom and my grandma about abortion, without anyone telling me to be quiet.”

Change is palpable across the predominantly Roman Catholic region. A new Argentine president proposed legalization last month, Chilean activists are aiming to write broader reproductive rights into a new constitution, and female lawmakers in Mexico are resisting abortion bans.

The push can be traced to Argentina’s pro-abortion protests in 2018 by as many as one million women to back a legalization bill that only narrowly failed to pass – in Pope Francis’s home country.

Catalina Martinez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization, said Argentina’s example inspired protests across Latin America.

“It was an awakening,” she said.

Outrage at worsening gender violence in Latin America, where the number of femicides has doubled in five years, has also spread awareness of the abortion rights movement and fueled demands for recognition of women’s rights in a conservative, male-dominated society.

“Women are finally understanding that they are not separate issues,” said Catalina Calderon, director for campaigns and advocacy programs at the Women’s Equality Center. “It’s the fact that you agree that we women are in control of our bodies, our decisions, our lives.”

The rise of social media has afforded women opportunities to bypass establishment-controlled media and bring attention to their stories, Calderon said.

“Now they’re out there for the public to discuss and for the women to react, and say: ‘This does not work. We need to do something’,” Calderon said.

As in the United States, where conservatives have made gains in restricting a woman’s right to an abortion, there is pushback in Latin America against the calls for greater liberalization.

Brazil, under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, is making it even harder for women to abort.

The Argentine Episcopal Conference has said it does not want to debate abortion during the coronavirus crisis, and alluded to comments by the Pope urging respect for those who are “not yet useful,” including fetuses.

Yet trust in the Catholic Church, which believes life begins at conception, is fading, with many Latin Americans questioning its moral legitimacy because of sexual abuse by priests.

SPREADING ‘GREEN WAVE’

Argentina could be first up for sweeping change, with a bill submitted to Congress by center-left President Alberto Fernandez seeking to legalize elective abortions.

Approval for legalization has risen eight percentage points since 2014, according to an August Ipsos poll, with support split nearly evenly between those who favor elective abortion and those who are for it only in certain circumstances.

“The dilemma we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system,” Fernandez said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based reproductive health research organization, an estimated 29% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2015 to 2019 ended in abortion, encompassing 5.4 million women. The abortions are often clandestine, so figures are hard to determine.

The mass demonstrations in Argentina two years ago, known as the “green wave” protests, have reverberated.

Since mid-2018, lawmakers in Mexico have filed more than 40 proposals to end punishment for abortion, according to Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE.

In Chiapas, the de-criminalization effort is the first of its kind since a brief period in the 1990s when abortion was legalized during the left-wing Zapatista rebellion.

Although Chiapas does not on paper punish abortion with prison, it can jail women for the “killing” of their infants.

With Mexico’s first leftist government in a century in power, national lawmakers are considering two initiatives to open up restrictions and strip away criminal punishments from places like Sonora state, where abortion can be punished by up to six years in prison.

Only two federal entities, Mexico City and Oaxaca, allow elective abortions.

Wendy Briceno, a Sonoran lawmaker who has backed a nationwide legalization bill, said the initiatives have a good chance to pass if the debate centers on women’s health, especially given rising outrage over femicides.

In Chile, activists are celebrating a vote in October to write a new constitution as a chance to expand a 2017 law that permitted abortion to save a mother’s life, in cases of rape, or if the fetus is not viable.

Colombia, where the constitutional court has agreed to consider a petition to remove abortion from the penal code, could set an example, said Anita Pena, director of Chilean reproductive rights group Corporacion Miles.

Activists agree there is still a long way to go, with restrictive laws entrenched in many countries.

To Briceno, Brazil’s shift to the right under Bolsonaro, who has vowed to veto any pro-abortion bills, was a reminder to push even harder for abortion rights.

“No fight is ever finished,” she said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Cassandra Garrison in Buenos Aires, Natalia Ramos in Santiago; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Grant McCool)

Michigan, Washington state impose severe COVID-19 restrictions as U.S. infections soar

By David Shepardson and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Michigan and Washington state on Sunday imposed sweeping new restrictions on gatherings, including halting indoor restaurant service, to slow the spread of the coronavirus as total U.S. infections crossed the 11 million mark, just over a week after hitting 10 million.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered a ban on in-person high school and college classes as well as indoor dining service for three weeks starting on Wednesday as increasingly cold weather drives people indoors where the virus can spread more easily.

She banned public events at concert halls, casinos, movie theaters, skating rinks and other venues, while in-home gatherings will be limited to 10 people from no more than two households.

Whitmer, a Democrat, warned that without aggressive action, Michigan could soon suffer 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per week.

“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date,” she told a news conference. “The situation has never been more dire. We are at the precipice and we need to take some action.”

White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas reacted to the Michigan orders by urging state residents on Twitter to “rise up” against them. After this drew criticism from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Atlas said he “NEVER was talking at all about violence.”

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced a one-month ban on indoor services at restaurants and gyms, and a reduction of in-store retail capacity to 25%.

Indoor gatherings would be prohibited outside of one’s household and outdoor gatherings would be limited to five people in Washington state under Inslee’s order.

The new restrictions come as daily new infections in recent days have more than doubled from single-day highs reported during the previous U.S. peak in mid-July. The number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals also has reached an all-time high.

‘DANGEROUS PERIOD’

Earlier on Sunday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers called for urgent action to address COVID-19, warning that Republican President Donald Trump’s refusal to begin a transition of power could further jeopardize the battle against the rampaging virus. Biden’s advisers also said it would inhibit vaccine distribution planning and could jeopardize additional government financial aid before Biden, a Democrat, takes office in January.

“We are in a very dangerous period,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

Unless action is taken now, “we’re going to see these numbers grow substantially,” Osterholm warned. “Our future’s in our hands.”

Basic public health measures such as face covering to curb the spread have become politicized under Trump, who has eschewed mask mandates even after contracting COVID-19 last month, while Biden has backed their widespread use.

Still, some Republican governors in recent days have been forced to act, with North Dakota joining 35 other states over the weekend in mandating masks and Iowa this week requiring them in certain circumstances.

Forty U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases in November, while 20 saw a record rise in deaths and 26 reported record hospitalizations, according to a Reuters tally.

The latest 7-day average, shows the United States is reporting more than 144,000 daily cases and 1,120 daily deaths, the highest for any country in the world.

Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, on Sunday urged Congress to immediately pass COVID-19 relief legislation with new restrictions certain to take a toll.

“This could be a first example of bipartisan action post-election,” Klain told NBC. He said Biden has spoken to congressional Democratic leaders, but not to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to publicly acknowledge Biden as president-elect.

‘PASSING A BATON’

Klain said there had been no formal contact between Biden’s advisory panel and the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which requires transition authorization from the General Services Administration.

“It’s really important in the smooth handing over of the information,” top U.S. infectious disease expert and White House task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “It’s almost like passing a baton in a race, you don’t want to stop and give it to somebody, you just want to essentially keep going.”

Biden’s team this week planned to meet with Pfizer Inc., which last week released positive initial data on its experimental novel coronavirus vaccine, and other drugmakers, Klain said.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, head of Biden’s COVID team, told Fox News the coronavirus surge was “deeply alarming” but that a national lockdown was “a measure of last resort.”

“The better way to think about these safety restrictions is more a dial that we turn up and down depending on severity” in a given area, he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Shepardson; additional reporting by Michelle Price, Nathan Layne, Sarah N. Lynch, Linda So and Anurag Maan; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Diane Craft, Robert Birsel)

U.S. could reach 200,000 coronavirus deaths in September, expert says

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – The United States may see 200,000 deaths because of the coronavirus at some point in September, a leading expert said, while total U.S. coronavirus cases surpassed 2 million on Wednesday as governments relax restrictions.

Ashish Jha, the head of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told CNN in an interview on Wednesday that without drastic action, the number of U.S. deaths would march on.

“Even if we don’t have increasing cases, even if we keep things flat, it’s reasonable to expect that we’re going to hit 200,000 deaths sometime during the month of September,” Jha said. “And that’s just through September. The pandemic won’t be over in September.”

Jha added: “I’m really worried about where we’re going to be in the weeks and months ahead.”

Total U.S. coronavirus-related deaths totaled 112,754 on Wednesday, the most in the world. Jha said that was directly tied to the fact the United States was the only major country to reopen without getting its case growth to a controlled level – a rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus remaining at 5% or lower for at least 14 days.

He said the deaths were not “something we have to be fated with” and could be prevented by ramping up testing and contact tracing, strict social distancing and widespread use of masks.

Several U.S. states have seen coronavirus cases jump in recent days, causing great concern among Jha and other experts who say authorities are loosening restrictions too early.

New Mexico, Utah and Arizona each saw its number of cases rise by 40% for the week ended Sunday, according to a Reuters analysis. Florida and Arkansas are other hot spots.

Nationally, new infections are rising slightly after five weeks of declines, according to a Reuters analysis that showed total cases at 2,003,038.

Part of the increase is due to more testing, which hit a record high last Friday of 545,690 tests in a single day but has since fallen, according to the COVID-Tracking Project.

It is also likely a result of more people moving about and resuming some business and social activities as all 50 states gradually reopen after lockdowns designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Health officials urged anyone who took part in nationwide protests for racial justice to get tested. Experts fear that the protests, with no social distancing, that have occurred since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody could lead to another spike in cases.

But Vice President Mike Pence said he saw no sign of that.

“What I can tell you is that, at this point, we don’t see an increase in new cases now, nearly two weeks on from when the first protests took effect,” Pence said in an interview on Fox Business Network. “Many people at protests were wearing masks and engaging in some social distancing.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Explainer: What to look for in the Fed’s U.S. economic outlook

By Ann Saphir

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers on Wednesday will publish their first economic projections since the coronavirus pandemic set off a recession in February, estimates expected to signal a collapse in output this year and near-zero interest rates for the next few years.

They’ll also give shape to the range of views at the U.S. central bank about the expected speed of the recovery and any longer-term damage to the world’s biggest economy from a pandemic that has so far killed nearly 111,000 Americans and prompted unprecedented restrictions on commerce and movement to slow its spread.

Here is a guide to what the projections may show and what questions they may raise about the future of the U.S. economy as authorities lift those restrictions.

WHAT ARE THEY?

Every three months, each of the Fed’s 17 policymakers develops a set of multi-year forecasts for U.S. unemployment, inflation, economic growth and interest rates. The projections are published in summary form at the end of the policy-setting meeting. The Fed did not release a quarterly summary of economic projections in March, however, because of massive uncertainty about the spread of the novel coronavirus, the resulting lockdowns, and the economic fallout. Though plenty is still uncertain, one thing is clear: the projections on Wednesday will be starkly worse than the Fed’s largely favorable outlook in December. (Please see graphic )

DOES THIS HAVE ALL THOSE DOTS?

Yes. The projections’ centerpiece is the so-called dot plot, a graphic representation of where each unnamed policymaker sees interest rates in coming years. This collection of rate-setters’ individual views has also occasionally functioned as a loose policy promise about the path of rates. This is one of those times. The Fed has signaled it will keep its key overnight lending rate near zero until the recovery is well underway. The dots, which will likely show most Fed policymakers expect no change in rates through 2022, “could be seen as a soft way of reinforcing that guidance,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JP Morgan.

HOW DEEP, HOW LONG?

With states in various stages of reopening after weeks or more of stay-at-home orders that precipitated the recession, the Fed policymakers’ forecasts will map their sense of how quick the recovery will be.

“The Fed likely forecasts a strong rebound in growth in H2, but the level of GDP will remain well below the pre-coronavirus level until late 2021” Oxford Economics’ Kathy Bostjancic wrote. Her view was widely echoed by other economists.

The U.S. unemployment rate, which fell unexpectedly to 13.3% in May, may be projected to end this year in double digits and remaining well above healthy long-run levels next year. The Fed will likely project inflation to undershoot its 2% target for the foreseeable future, Bostjancic and others say.

Importantly, the Fed’s summary of projections reflects what policymakers see as the most likely path for the economy, which for many does not factor in a second wave of infections – a key unknown for now.

But deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, continue to increase in many U.S. states, and public health officials have flagged the possibility of further spread after crowded Memorial Day celebrations in parts of the country in late May and ongoing mass protests against racial inequalities since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody in Minneapolis.

“The risk to our forecast, and likely the Fed’s, is skewed to the downside,” Bostjancic said.

LONG-TERM DAMAGE?

The economic projections being released on Wednesday will also offer insight into whether Fed officials see the pandemic as inflicting permanent damage on the economy. Nomura economist Lewis Alexander projects little change to the Fed’s earlier estimate that the economy can sustain about 1.9% yearly growth in the long run, along with 4.1% unemployment, though both could erode. More broadly, he said, “it is important to emphasize the significant amount of uncertainty” around the forecasts.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Beaches, parks busy as Europe heat wave and U.S. spring test new coronavirus rules

Beaches, parks busy as Europe heat wave and U.S. spring test new coronavirus rules
By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Summer weather is enticing much of the world to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns as centers of the outbreak from New York to Italy and Spain gradually lift restrictions that have kept millions indoors for months.

People are streaming back to beaches, parks and streets just as a heatwave hits southern Europe and spring-like temperatures allow Americans to shed winter coats. As they venture out again, most are keeping their distance and some are wearing masks. However, protests are also heating up from Germany to England to the United States, arguing the government restrictions demolish personal liberties and are wrecking economies.

Greeks flocked to the seaside on Saturday when more than 500 beaches reopened, coinciding with temperatures of 34 Celsius (93 Fahrenheit).

Umbrella poles had to be 4 meters (13 ft) apart, with canopies no closer than 1 meter as the country sought to walk the fine line between protecting people from COVID-19 while reviving the tourism sector that many depend on for their livelihoods.

“This is the best thing for us elderly … to come and relax a bit after being locked in,” Yannis Tentomas, who is in his 70s, said as he settled down on the sand.

White circles were painted on the lawn in Brooklyn’s Domino Park in New York City to help sunbathers and picnickers keep a safe distance. About half the people in the park appeared to be wearing some form of face-covering as they congregated in small groups on a warm Saturday afternoon with police officers in masks keeping watch.

In Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, health training worker Anne Chardon was carrying disinfectant gel and a mask but said she felt a sense of freedom again for the first time after weeks of confinement.

“It’s as if we were in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, all asleep, all frozen, and suddenly there’s light and space, suddenly we can experience again the little joys of every day, in the spaces that belong to us, and that we’re rediscovering.”

On the French Riviera, many who took a dip in the sea wore protective masks. Fishing and surfing were also allowed, but sunbathing was banned.

“We’re semi-free,” said one local bather sporting a straw hat as he strolled the rather empty pebbly beach in Nice.

(Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. -)

‘MAKE CORONA GO AWAY’

Bathers seeking relief from the heat in Tel Aviv in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan Valley mostly tried to stay apart.

“We hope that the hot water, weather, make corona go away,” said Lilach Vardi, a woman who came to swim in the Dead Sea in Israel, as a lifeguard tried to fry an egg in a pan in the scorching sand nearby.

In Tunisia, which reported no new COVID-19 cases over four consecutive days last week, people flooded into the streets and recently reopened shops with little social-distancing.

Muslims are nearing the Eid al-Fitr holiday ending the holy month of Ramadan when many celebrate with new purchases.

“I stayed at home for two months and almost went crazy,” said one woman at Tunis’ Manar City Mall. “I’m surprised by the crowd but I need to buy clothes for my children for Eid.”

But throughout the world, small pockets of protesters bristled at any restrictions. In the U.S. states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, protests demanding states reopen faster have drawn demonstrators armed with rifles and handguns, which can be carried in public in many parts of the country.

Thousands of Germans took to the streets across the country on Saturday to demonstrate against restrictions imposed by the government, and Polish police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Warsaw.

In London’s Hyde Park, police arrested 19 people on Saturday for deliberately breaking social distancing guidelines in protest at the rules, on the first weekend since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a slight loosening of England’s lockdown.

The scene elsewhere in the city was much calmer on Sunday as children climbed trees, kicked footballs, and threw Frisbees in Greenwich Park. Couples and larger groups sunned themselves on the open lawns, mostly observing social distancing as they chatted and drank beer.

“We’re really happy to be out,” said Niko Privado, who brought his three brightly colored Macaws to the park, each tethered to a portable perch. “It’s only the second time we’ve been able to take them out (since the lockdown),” he said, watched by his wife and daughter.

Nearby, however, a woman working at an ice cream van said business was far from brisk despite the crowds and warm weather.

“It’s very bad — only three to four people every hour,” said Zara Safat. “It’s social distancing and they don’t want to wait in long queues.”

(Graphic: World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive – )

BEACH VOLLEYBALL AND BEERS

In Australia, hotels and clubs reopened offering a limited number of thirsty patrons their first cold tap beer in months, as long as they had a meal, and some cafes and restaurants opened to small numbers of customers.

Parks again saw picnics and community sport, as long as it was not body contact. Beaches, previously closed or open only for swimmers and surfers, hosted volleyball games.

Unlike the huge outdoor crowds prior to Australia’s lockdown, most people adhered to social distancing as the country eases restrictions in stages.

“It’s fair to say that there has been, in a sense, a great NSW bust-out – people (are) rewarding themselves for many weeks of sacrifice, having themselves locked inside,” said New South Wales (NSW) state Health Minister Brad Hazzard.

“But I also do want to remind people this virus is extremely dangerous and we are all, every one of us, sitting ducks for this virus. We don’t know where this virus might break out.”

Australia is mid-way through its phased reopening and the next few weeks will determine if it continues, with health officials concerned of a second wave of coronavirus infections as people return to work and continue socializing.

(Graphic: Where coronavirus cases are rising in the United States – )

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus and Reuters TV; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Restaurants in parts of California can open for sit-down dining

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Restaurants in a half-dozen California counties can host sit-down dining, and shopping malls throughout the state can open for curbside pickup as coronavirus restrictions ease, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday.

Offices can also open with some restrictions, Newsom, a Democrat, said in his daily press briefing. But his latest plan for reopening the world’s fifth-largest economy still does not allow nail salons, tattoo parlors or gyms.

“It’s a mistake to over-promise what reopening means,” said Newsom, who has hesitated to loosen restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus even as other states have done so.

On Tuesday, leading U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned Congress that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed more than 80,000 people in the United States and brought the economy to its knees.

In California, the modest loosening of stay-at-home rules imposed in March comes as infections in the most-populous U.S. state appear to be stabilizing. But the state allows local governments to keep imposing stricter guidelines, and health officials in high-density areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have not yet supported easing restrictions.

Similarly, counties with few or stabilized cases can apply to the state for permission to open more businesses, including restaurants serving sit-down meals, and allow customers inside shopping malls, retail stores and swap meets. Schools can open with modifications.

Six Northern California counties, Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Nevada, Placer and Shasta, received that permission on Tuesday.

To reopen, restaurants must retool their dining rooms to accommodate social distancing, closing areas where customers congregate or touch food, and stop setting tables with shared condiments such as mustard containers. Menus must be disposable and table-side food preparation is no longer allowed.

California’s slow pace of reopening has been criticized by lawmakers in Republican-leaning rural parts of the state, and a conservative lawyer filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday contesting the state’s restrictions on beauty salons.

Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco-based attorney and the former vice chair of the California Republican Party, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Professional Beauty Federation of California in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.

She has also challenged Newsom’s order closing houses of worship, saying that while she supported the initial efforts to slow the virus’ transmission, the shutdown had gone on for too long.

“The premise was never lock everybody down, deprive them of their livelihoods, their properties, their dreams, everything they built,” she said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin)

Texas, Ohio join array of U.S. states reopening their economies

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Texas and Ohio pushed ahead on Friday with a phased relaxation of restrictions that U.S. states put in place weeks ago to curb the coronavirus pandemic, as Georgia took another step toward a full restart by allowing all businesses to reopen.

With White House guidelines for reopening having expired on Thursday, half of all U.S. states were forging ahead with a patchwork of strategies to allow businesses, from restaurants and retailers to construction and manufacturing, to emerge from a month of dormancy.

In Texas, one of the most populous U.S. states, all retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls could resume activity on Friday while limiting capacity to 25% of their listed occupancy, on orders of Governor Greg Abbott.

Ohio will start by allowing non-essential surgeries on Friday and then move to open construction and manufacturing on Monday, and retail shops and many consumer services on May 12, Governor Mike DeWine said earlier this week.

States are feeling enormous pressure to reopen businesses and restore social life, despite a lack of wide-scale virus testing and other safeguards urged by health experts, as the outbreak appears to have waned across many parts of the country.

No companies are required to reopen and it was unclear how many business owners and their employees would return to work, and how many patrons would venture back into stores and restaurants.

U.S. Labor Department data released on Thursday showed some 30 million Americans had sought unemployment benefits since March 21. The jobless toll amounts to more than 18.4% of the U.S. working-age population, a level not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

GEORGIA LEADS WAY

States, mostly in the South, the Midwest and mountain West, have moved to relax restrictions since Georgia led the way late last week. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said late on Thursday he was relaxing his state’s month-long shelter-in-place orders, allowing all businesses to reopen on Friday.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said late on Thursday he was concerned about states and communities “leapfrogging” over the first phase of federal guidelines for reopening.

“Obviously, you could get away with that, but you’re making a really significant risk,” Fauci told CNN.

Phase One of the White House “Opening Up America Again” guidelines recommends states and regions satisfy a series of criteria including a 14-day decline in cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, a robust testing program and the healthcare capacity to handle a possible surge.

They also recommend that Americans “maximize physical distance” and avoid social settings of more than 10 people and that employers encourage telework whenever possible and a gradual return to the workplace.

Large venues that include sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship can operate under “strict physical distancing protocols,” the guidelines state.

The number of coronavirus cases is still climbing in many parts of the country, although peaks appear to have been reached in New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and other places.

Arizona, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin all reported a record number of new cases on Thursday, though greater testing could account for some of the increases, revealing infections present but previously undetected.

Several states, including Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia, posted new highs in their daily death tolls.

As of late on Thursday, the number of known infections nationwide had climbed to well over 1 million, including nearly 63,000 deaths, far exceeding the tally of American war dead from all the years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York, Doina Chiacu in Washington and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)

As U.S. states ease restrictions, projected coronavirus death toll rises

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As Georgia lifted a ban on eating in restaurants and a handful of other U.S. states began easing other restrictions aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic, scientists warned the death toll would climb if governors reopen businesses prematurely.

The outbreak could take more than 74,000 U.S. lives by August, compared with an earlier forecast of 67,000, according to the University of Washington’s predictive model, often cited by White House officials and state public health authorities.

The university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said late on Monday that the number of U.S. deaths caused by the virus was not abating as quickly as previously projected after hitting a daily peak on April 15 with about 2,700.

IHME director Christopher Murray said the death toll would climb if states reopen their economies too early.

With President Donald Trump’s administration forecasting an unemployment rate of more than 16% for April and residents chafing under stay-at-home orders, states from Alaska to Mississippi are seeking to restart their battered economies despite a lack of large-scale virus testing.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Monday he would allow the state’s stay-at-home order to expire and begin reopening businesses including restaurants and retail shops in phases beginning on Friday.

The White House released a blueprint on Monday that put the onus on states to implement testing and rapid response programs, despite pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others for federal help. It said states were responsible for identifying, and overcoming barriers to, efficient testing.

The U.S. government’s role was to “act as supplier of last resort,” the blueprint said. It would provide guidelines for easing restrictions and administering diagnostic tests, while providing technical assistance on how to best use testing technologies and align supplies with anticipated lab needs.

U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from hard-hit Washington state, on Tuesday criticized the Republican Trump’s testing blueprint as “nothing new.”

“It doesn’t set specific, numeric goals, offer a timeframe, identify ways to fix our broken supply chain, or offer any details whatsoever on expanding lab capacity or activating needed manufacturing capacity,” she said in a statement.

“Perhaps most pathetically, it attempts to shirk obviously federal responsibilities by assigning them solely to states instead,” she said.

After crowds jammed beaches over the weekend in California, Governor Gavin Newsom said social-distancing enforcement would be stepped up.

Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, urged Americans on Monday to go on sheltering in place and maintain social distancing until authorities lift their orders.

“We’re beginning to understand more and more that there may be an inverse relationship for how severe the disease is and your age. So younger people could actually be infected and not know they are infected and unintentionally pass the virus on,” she told Fox News on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Maria Caspani, Editing by Howard Goller)

Protests highlight growing U.S. unease over coronavirus lockdowns

By Joseph Ax and Doina Chiacu

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. debate intensified on Monday over when to lift restrictions to control the coronavirus outbreak, with protesters gathering in state capitals to demand an end to lockdowns and officials urging caution until more testing becomes available.

Stay-at-home measures, which experts say are essential to slow the spread of the virus, have ground the economy to a virtual standstill and forced more than 22 million people to apply for unemployment benefits in the past month.

Demonstrations have flared in recent days across the country to demand an end to the lockdowns, with more planned on Monday. Thousands gathered outside the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, last week to protest against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Tim Walters, who was part of a “Reopen Maryland” protest over the weekend in which hundreds of people drove through the state capital Annapolis, said concerns about the virus must be kept in perspective and weighed against the economic toll of lockdowns.

“There is a lot of frustration about who decides what is essential. And people are hurting,” said Walters, a management consultant for a group he estimated had 20,000 members on Facebook. Walters’ group is not associated with another protest planned in Annapolis on Monday.

In Pennsylvania, where Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has promised to veto a Republican-backed bill that would force him to reopen some businesses, a large protest was expected in the state capital Harrisburg.

“Anyone who has been impacted by this shutdown in a negative way is welcome and we want them to be heard regardless of their party affiliation,” said Stephen LaSpina, an organizer of the protest. He added that protesters would be encouraged to stay in their cars and maintain social distancing.

President Donald Trump, a Republican seeking re-election in November, has said state governors should have the final say but has favored an early end to the lockdowns, and many protesters in the past week have sported pro-Trump signs and campaign gear.

Republican lawmakers in several states have also backed the protests.

Joe Buchert, 48, a retired police officer who lives in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, attended the Harrisburg protest because he thinks the governor has overreached.

“The Democratic governors are just trying to kill the economy to hurt Trump,” said Buchert, who was wearing a red Trump 2020 hat.

In Washington, lawmakers in Congress were near an agreement for extra money to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic, a top Republican lawmaker said. The Trump administration sought to add $250 billion to a small-business loan program established last month as part of a $2.3 trillion coronavirus economic relief plan. That fund already has been exhausted.

Click for a GRAPHIC tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.

FEARS OF RESURGENCE

Health experts and lawmakers on the front lines of the battle to curb the pandemic have warned that the country could face a second and even deadlier wave of infections if the lockdowns end prematurely.

The United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 753,000 infections and over 40,500 deaths, nearly half of them in the state of New York, according to a Reuters tally.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday it could take weeks if not months before the country’s most populous city reopens due to a lack of widespread testing, even as officials elsewhere began rolling back restrictions on daily life.

De Blasio, whose city is at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, said New York needed to be conducting hundreds of thousands of tests a day and to see hospitalizations decline further before reopening the economy.

“The federal government is not stepping up … I think I might be the first person in history to ask Donald Trump to speak up,” De Blasio told a news conference. Earlier, the mayor told MSNBC the virus could boomerang if testing capacity was not ramped up.

De Blasio’s warning on testing echoed comments by several governors over the weekend disputing Trump’s assertions that there were enough tests for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Trump’s guidelines to reopen the economy recommend a state record 14 days of declining case numbers before gradually lifting restrictions.

Residents in Florida were allowed to return to some beaches after Governor Ron DeSantis approved the relaxing of some restrictions.

Charlie Latham, mayor of Jacksonville Beach, said the beach there was reopened with limited hours, and it went well with no arrests for people violating social distancing rules which barred chairs and blankets.

“We thought that the public was ready to maintain the social distancing standards and to exercise good judgment. And it’s paid off, it’s paid off really well,” Latham told Fox News.

 

(Reporting by Joey Ax, Barbara Goldberg and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York, Jarrett Renshaw in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Howard Goller)

Easter season goes virtual as coronavirus locks out tradition

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – One Catholic priest in rural coastal Ireland delivered socially-distanced blessings from a moving vintage “popemobile”.

Another in Germany taped pictures of his parishioners to empty pews and televised his Mass.

With many churches closed or affected by coronavirus lockdown restrictions for the Easter season, Christians of various denominations around the world have come up with novel ways to keep the faith.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, has been, as he put it, “caged” in the Vatican. He has been encouraging his flock via scaled-down Holy Week services transmitted live on television and over the internet.

Most of them have been held in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, which can hold up to 10,000 people, and an empty St. Peter’s Square, which has drawn more than 100,000 in past years.

Holy Week – which includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – is the most solemn period in the Christian liturgical calendar.

“We are celebrating Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus, under very difficult circumstances,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s apostolic administrator in the Holy Land, said outside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Only a few clerics were allowed inside the church for what otherwise would have been a packed service.

Despite the grim reality of the coronavirus crisis, many pastors have not allowed it to dampen the hope inherent in the Easter message of life triumphing over death.

Since his parishioners couldn’t come to him, Irish priest Malachy Conlon geared up – literally – and went to them on Holy Thursday.

He drove an open-top “popemobile” once used by Pope John Paul around northeastern coastal villages, blessing from a safe distance people who gathered on the side of the road as he passed.

“There were huge crowds, it was a moving turnout,” he said after the six-hour drive.

“I’ve never received such a torrent of messages as I have this evening, people deeply appreciative and feeling connected to one another, despite all of the distancing.”

PICTURES PASTED ON EMPTY PEWS

On Palm Sunday in the German city of Achern, Father Joachim Giesler pasted pictures of his parishioners on empty pews and said Mass for a few people, including a television crew.

Kerstine Bohnert watched the broadcast with her family.

“Attending church service through TV or online streaming you do have the feeling that you are part of it, we see the priest like we do when we attend church, we see the pictures of others when the camera tilts and recognise other people and we are happy to take part,” she said.

It was such a hit with the homebound parishioners that Giesler will do it again on Easter Sunday.

The pandemic has cut across all Christian denominations, creating a sense of unity brought on by crisis.

For nearly 250 years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Easter sunrise service of the Home Moravian church included about 300 musicians playing through the town.

This year, instead of the tradition dating back to 1772, a pastor and a handful of musicians from the Protestant denomination will hold a service broadcast on television and the internet.

“This was a difficult decision to make, and this Easter will

be different for all of us,” Church elder Reverend Chaz Snider wrote in a letter to the faithful.

“But we have faith in God who brings hope out of fear. So set your alarm, brew a cup of coffee, and join us on your back porch as we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and Ayhan Uyanik and Claire Watson in Germany; Editing by Frances Kerry)