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)

In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage

By Luke Baker, Matthew Tostevin and Devjyot Ghoshal

LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI (Reuters) – In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.

Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.

While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.

“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.

Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.

Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.

South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.

Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help.

“I am more and more convinced the greatest battle of our time is against the ‘religion of privacy’. It literally could get us all killed,” he added.

EXTRAORDINARY CRISIS

As the virus has spread from China across the world, with more than 1.4 million people infected and 82,000 dead, governments have passed laws and issued executive orders.

The first priority of the measures is to protect public health and limit the spread of the disease.

“It’s quite an extraordinary crisis, and I don’t really have trouble with a government doing sensible if extraordinary things to protect people,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, a leading civil rights lawyer.

The U.S.-headquartered International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has set up a database to track legislation and how it impinges on civic freedoms and human rights.

By its count, 68 countries have so far made emergency declarations, while nine have introduced measures that affect expression, 11 have ratcheted up surveillance and a total of 72 have imposed restrictions on assembly.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In Hungary for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party dominates parliament, has been granted the right to rule by decree in order to fight the epidemic, with no time-limit on those powers and the ability to jail people for up to five years if they spread false information or hinder efforts to quell the virus.

The Hungarian government said the law empowered it to adopt only measures for “preventing, controlling and eliminating” the coronavirus. Spokesman Zolan Kovacs said nobody knew how long the pandemic would persist, but that parliament could revoke the extra powers.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, an emergency law has been drafted to give additional powers to Hun Sen, who has been in office for 35 years and has been condemned by Western countries for a crackdown on opponents, civil rights groups and the media. The law is for three months and can be extended if needed.

The Cambodian government did not respond to a request for comment. Hun Sen defended the law at a news conference this week, saying it was only required so that he could declare a state of emergency, if needed, to stop the virus and saving the economy.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former coup leader who kept power after a disputed election last year, has invoked emergency powers that allow him to return to governing by decree. The powers run to the end of the month, but also can be extended.

“The government is only using emergency power where it is necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat.

In the Philippines, the head of police said President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shoot lockdown violators was a sign of his seriousness rather than indicating people would be shot.

Neither the presidential spokesman nor the cabinet secretary responded to a request for comment.

PUBLIC HEALTH

For Roth and other human rights advocates, the dangers are not only to fundamental freedoms but to public health. They say restrictions on the media could limit the dissemination of information helpful in curbing the virus’s spread, for instance.

Indian premier Narendra Modi, criticised in the media for a lack of preparedness including inadequate protective gear for health workers, has been accused by opponents of trying to muzzle the press by demanding that it get government clearance before publishing coronavirus news, a request rejected by India’s supreme court.

The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment, while the Armenian government said it had no immediate comment. Both have said they want to prevent the spread of misinformation, which could hamper efforts to control the outbreak.

Carl Dolan, head of advocacy at the Open Society European Policy Institute, warned about the tendency for some governments to keep extraordinary powers on their books long after the threat they were introduced to tackle has passed.

Dolan proposed a mandatory review of such measures at least every six months, warning otherwise of a risk of “a gradual slide into authoritarianism”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, John Mair in Sydney, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)

‘We are at war’: France imposes lockdown to combat virus

By Michel Rose and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday ordered stringent restrictions on people’s movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and said the army would be drafted in to help move the sick to hospitals.

France had already shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and put ski resorts off limits, but Macron said measures unprecedented in peacetime were needed as the number of infected people doubled every three days and deaths spiraled higher.

In a somber address to the nation, the president said that from Tuesday midday (1100 GMT) people should stay at home unless it was to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise or for medical care.

Anyone flouting the restrictions, in place for at least the next two weeks, would be punished.

“I know what I am asking of you is unprecedented but circumstances demand it,” Macron said.

“We’re not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.”

He said tougher action was needed after too many people ignored earlier warnings and mingled in parks and on street corners over the weekend, risking their own health and the wellbeing of others.

In France the coronavirus has killed 148 people and infected more than 6,600.

ARMY MOBILIZED

Under the new measures, soldiers would help transport the sick to hospitals with spare capacity and a military hospital with 30 intensive care beds would be set up in the eastern region of Alsace, where one of the largest infection clusters has broken out.

Macron said he was postponing the second round of local elections on Sunday. Because the government’s sole focus needed to be fighting the pandemic, he said he was suspending his reform agenda, starting with his overhaul of the pension system.

The government would, when necessary, legislate by decree to fight the coronavirus, he said.

Coronavirus infections and fatalities in France and Spain have been surging at a pace just days behind that of Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe where hospitals in the worst-hit northern regions are stretched to breaking point.

Seeking to offer further reassurance to businesses, Macron said the government would guarantee 300 billion euros worth of loans. The loan guarantee plan would be submitted to parliament in coming weeks and would be retroactive, a finance ministry source said.

Rent and utility bills owed by small companies would also be suspended to help them weather the economic storm, he added.

“No French company, whatever its size, will be exposed to the risk of collapse,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and Benoit Van Overstraten; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)