Fed says Powell has been working from home, observing mask and distance protocols

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has been working from home while also following masking and social distancing protocols when in public, and has not felt it necessary to take a coronavirus test, the Fed said Friday in response to inquiries following the news that President Donald Trump has contracted COVID-19.

A Fed spokesperson said in addition that Powell had not been in contact with anyone known to have tested positive for the virus.

Fed officials have been working remotely since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but Powell has traveled occasionally to Capitol Hill, most recently last week, for hearings on Fed policy and the response to the health crisis.

He typically has worn a mask during those appearances, and Fed officials in general have urged people to do the same as a way to tamp the spread of the disease and allow economic activity to safely resume.

News that Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and others had been infected with the coronavirus touched off a wave of announcements from other officials about their health status.

Powell has met infrequently with Trump during his time as Fed chair, though he has been holding frequent talks during the crisis with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. A Treasury spokesperson said Friday Mnuchin had tested negative.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

CDC asks Americans to avoid trick-or-treating, indoor Halloween parties

(Reuters) – Americans should avoid door-to-door trick-or-treating, attending crowded and indoor parties, and wearing costume masks this Halloween to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. health agency said that many traditional Halloween activities could be high-risk for spreading viruses and outlined several safer, alternative ways to participate in a note on holiday celebrations.

The guidance comes after new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labor Day holiday.

The health agency also said activities like attending haunted house settings, consuming alcohol or drugs and attending the fall festival that is outside one’s community were high risk and should be avoided.

CDC advised one-way trick-or-treating where participants are six feet apart and wearing Halloween-themed cloth masks.

Other low-risk activities include carving pumpkins and decorating one’s home, outdoor scavenger hunts and parties, virtual costume contests and hosting a movie night with household members.

The health agency recommended tailoring all Halloween activities based on whether coronavirus infections were spiking in a given area, adding that the new guidelines are not meant to replace any local or state mandates on the pandemic.

For Thanksgiving, CDC advised against long distance travel, attending crowded parades and going shopping in crowded shops.

(Reporting By Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

New York pushes ahead with more reopenings as COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest

By Maria Caspani and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced more reopenings in New York state as new coronavirus infections remained low in what was once the U.S. hot spot of the pandemic.

Next Wednesday, New York City malls will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and casinos statewide can reopen at 25% capacity, Cuomo said.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols,” Cuomo said. “Masks, enhanced air ventilation systems, and social distancing will be mandatory.”

The governor also waded into the hotly debated issue of indoor dining in New York City, saying during a conference call with reporters that the final decision rested with the state.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out on Wednesday in favor of allowing indoor dining in the city, which is home to a thriving restaurant industry that was battered by the pandemic.

“It’s time to allow indoor dining in New York City with reduced capacity and clear guidance to ensure social distancing and safety,” Johnson said in a statement.

Cuomo said he would like to see restaurants reopen for indoor dining in the city but that compliance and enforcement remained a major hurdle in doing so.

“We open restaurants, that’s going to complicate by the hundreds if not thousands the number of establishments that need to be monitored,” he said.

Indoor dining is allowed in New York state with the exception of New York City, where more than 300 restaurateurs recently filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $2 billion in damages, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, gyms in New York City opened for the first time in months. They must operate at 33% capacity, with floors rearranged so patrons can exercise more than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart.

SHIFTING TRENDS

New York has seen by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any U.S. state, more than 32,000, but its rate of new infections has dropped to among the lowest in the country.

Nationally, new cases of coronavirus have fallen for six weeks in a row, but infections are surging in the Midwest. Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting the highest percentage of positive test results in the country – over 20% in each state.

Iowa, with a population of more than 3.1 million people, saw over 8,300 new cases last week, up 116%. That compared with about 4,400 new cases in New York state, which has more than 19.4 million residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

Cases also rose 27% last week in Minnesota and 34% in Indiana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told state officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as early as October, according to documents made public by the agency on Wednesday.

The vaccines would be given first to healthcare workers, national security personnel and nursing homes, the agency said in the documents.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump White House restarts tours, with pandemic restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration will restart tours of the White House on Sept. 12 with new restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, according to an announcement released on Tuesday.

Tours at the usually bustling White House complex, where Trump lives and works, were suspended after COVID-19 began spreading throughout the country. At the same time, some White House officials have tested positive for the disease, which has killed more than 180,000 people in the United States, and media organizations have limited the number of journalists showing up each day.

On Thursday, though, Trump opened the White House to more of the public, hosting the last night of his Republican party’s national convention on its South Lawn. He gave his renomination acceptance speech in front of more than 1,000 people sitting close together, most of them without face coverings.

The resumed public tours will only take place on Friday and Saturday mornings, with roughly a fifth of the usual number of guests allowed in.

Guests must wear face coverings and follow dots on the floor to remain socially distant when they check in. Federal employees along the self-guided tour route will wear face coverings and gloves, and hand sanitizer will be available, according to the announcement.

The White House has generally welcomed the public, but access has been reduced over the years to protect its residents. Famously, President Andrew Jackson, who has served as an inspiration for Trump, hosted 20,000 people for his Inauguration Day party in 1829, serving whiskey in bathtubs on the lawn. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, visitors have had to reserve tours months in advance through a member of Congress and undergo background checks.

Public tours of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol remain suspended, according to their websites.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)

New Jersey to make face masks mandatory outdoors as U.S. outbreak widens

By Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Wednesday he would sign an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings outdoors to prevent a resurgence of the novel coronavirus whenever social distancing is not possible.

More than 15,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New Jersey, ranking it second after neighboring New York state in the total number of deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

A Democrat, Murphy told MSNBC that requiring the public to wear masks outdoors was critical to controlling the spread of the virus in the state, an early hot spot where rates of the virus have started to creep up again.

“There’s no question that face coverings are a game-changer,” he said, acknowledging that it would be hard to enforce the order but saying the state needed to build on the progress made in its battle against the virus.

“We’ve gone through hell in New Jersey. We’ve lost over 13,000 people, we’ve brought our numbers way down. We can’t go through that hell again.”

The order, when formally announced later in the day, would be one of the most stringent coronavirus restrictions on public activity in the United States. Many states require use of masks in public indoor areas and recommend they be used outside.

Murphy is taking action as infections skyrocket in many other states, including California, Florida and Texas, and health officials warn of a coming spike in the death toll from the virus, which has killed more than 131,000 Americans.

The U.S. outbreak crossed a grim milestone of over 3 million confirmed cases on Tuesday, roughly equivalent to 1% of the population, as more states reported record numbers of new infections.

In New Jersey, some people voiced surprise that face coverings were not already mandatory.

“I figured that was already the rule – it’s confusing that it’s not clear and I try pretty hard to keep up,” said Calia Nochumson, a 42-year-old high school teacher from Maplewood, New Jersey. She said she was disappointed to see so few people wearing face coverings during a recent trip to the beach.

Ohio is ordering people in seven counties to wear face coverings in public starting on Wednesday evening.

TRUMP PUSHES RETURN TO SCHOOL

President Donald Trump, who owns a golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, has eschewed the idea of wearing a face mask and has exhorted Americans to return to their daily routines since the end of mandatory lockdowns imposed in March and April.

The Republican president, seeking a second White House term in a Nov. 3 election, threatened on Wednesday to cut off federal funding to schools that fail to open in the autumn due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” Trump posted on Twitter.

It was unclear what specific aid Trump had in mind. States are responsible for primary and secondary education under the U.S. Constitution but the federal government provides some supplementary aid.

SURGE IN NEW CASES

Nineteen states have reported record increases in cases this month and about 24 states have reported disturbingly high infection rates as a percentage of diagnostic tests conducted over the past week.

In Texas alone, the number of hospitalized patients more than doubled in just two weeks, and the number of available hospital intensive care unit beds for adults in Florida has fallen sharply in recent days.

Additional hospitalizations could strain healthcare systems in many areas, leading to an uptick in lives lost. The U.S. death toll rose by 962 on Tuesday, the biggest one-day rise since June 10, according to a Reuters tally.

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory lockdowns in March and April reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill and put millions of Americans out of work.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

Amazon to use AI tech in its warehouses to enforce social distancing

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc on Tuesday launched an artificial intelligence-based tracking system to enforce social distancing at its offices and warehouses to help reduce any risk of contracting the new coronavirus among its workers.

The unveiling comes as the world’s largest online retailer faces intensifying scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers and unions over whether it is doing enough to protect staff from the pandemic.

Monitors set up in the company’s warehouses will highlight workers keeping a safe distance in green circles, while workers who are closer will be highlighted in red circles, Amazon said.

The system, called Distance Assistant, uses camera footage in Amazon’s buildings to also help identify high-traffic areas.

Amazon, which will open source the technology behind the system, is not the first company to turn to AI to track compliance with social distancing.

Several firms have told Reuters that AI camera-based software will be crucial to staying open, as it will allow them to show not only workers and customers, but also insurers and regulators, that they are monitoring and enforcing safe practices.

However, privacy activists have raised concerns about increasingly detailed tracking of people and have urged businesses to limit use of AI to the pandemic.

The system is live at a handful of buildings, Amazon said on Tuesday, adding that it planned to deploy hundreds of such units over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Ramakrishnan M. and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Some scold, others cheerlead: U.S. states tackle reopening differently

By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The two most populous U.S. states took markedly different approaches to reopening on Monday with New York scolding local governments for not enforcing social distancing and California encouraging counties to restart economies if they met criteria.

Scenes of merrymakers gathering outside bars prompted the governor of New York, the state hardest hit along with New Jersey by the coronavirus pandemic, to urge local officials and businesses on Monday to strictly enforce reopening guidelines.

“To the local governments I say, ‘Do your job,'” Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters. Over the weekend he criticized New York City street crowds outside bars and asked people to adhere to six feet (two meters) of distance from others.

Both Cuomo and neighboring New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said they were keeping open the option of reimposing restrictions if officials fail to stop large public gatherings that risk leading to a second wave of infections.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has left it up to individual counties on when to reopen once they meet state guidelines. He reminded county officials of the risks of not restarting economies, as well as reopening them.

Newsom told a news briefing on Monday people could not be “locked away for months and months and months,” especially those among the 5.5 million Americans who have lost their jobs since mid-March. He said some had also lost health coverage and were among the many people suffering severe mental and physical health problems during the pandemic.

In enforcing coronavirus restrictions, he said the state and counties could not “see lives and livelihoods completely destroyed without considering the health impact of those decisions as well.”

“As we mix, as we reopen, inevitably we’re going to see an increase in the total number of cases; it’s our capacity to address that that is so foundational,” said Newsom.

NEW FORECAST

California is one of four states that is projected to see the biggest spike in deaths in the months ahead, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

Its new forecast on Monday forecast over 200,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States through the beginning of October, mainly due to reopening measures underway.

The IHME, whose estimates are cited by many health experts, projected Florida will see its deaths nearly triple to 18,675 deaths from 6,559 on June 10, while California can expect to see deaths increase by 72 percent to 15,155 from 8,812, it said.

Georgia and Arizona also have sharp increases in deaths forecast by the institute.

New York and New Jersey between them account for more than a third of the nearly 116,000 U.S. deaths, but deaths and hospitalizations have been on the decline of late. Both have followed strict health guidelines for reopening businesses when all measures of infection drop – new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and positive rates among those getting tested.

Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration director who has advised the White House on the coronavirus, said on Monday that flare-ups needed to be addressed with aggressive contact tracing and targeted responses.

“We’re not going to be able to shut down the country again this summer. We’re probably not going to be able to shut down the country again this fall,” he said on CNBC.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Andrew Hay; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Think inside the cardboard box for your post-lockdown work station

By Stuart McDill

WELLINGBOROUGH, England (Reuters) – Want to get back to work? Put your staff in a cardboard box.

That is the advice of a British company making social distancing screens from recycled cardboard to help businesses open up after lockdown while keeping staff safe.

“As people have started to come back to work we’ve switched to making a range of distancing-at-work products such as free-standing screens, counter screens and desk partitions,” Iain Hulmes, Chief Executive at Pallite, told Reuters.

The company, 70 miles (112km) northwest of London, used to make recyclable cardboard pallets and boxes for industry but has now developed an entirely new range of products to cope with new workplace demands in the wake of the pandemic including wall screens, desk and table dividers with clear polyester film windows, free-standing signs and even pop-up desks for homeworkers.

“One of our workers at home found that she was struggling to work at home so we created a pop-up desk. That desk has sold over 5000 units in just five weeks with nothing but 5 star reviews,” Hulmes said.

Three sizes of desks, all made from laminated honeycomb paper, can hold 50kg of weight and can be assembled in less than a minute. A desk for an adult costs 26 pounds.

Not far from Pallite’s Wellingborough factory is Concept Conversions who sent all their staff home for the lockdown apart from four people all working in separate rooms.

Director, Ralph Allen, says he is trying to have some fun with themes and colors while using Pallite social distancing measures to keep his staff safe as they return to the office.

“It’s pretty extreme to put your staff into cardboard boxes so the reason for cutting the windows and trimming them in those colours was because I’ve got a Manchester United supporter sitting at my desk and I support Liverpool. Well, that could become Liverpool again couldn’t it?” he said referring to the red trim.

(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Mexico overtakes U.S. coronavirus daily deaths, sets records

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico overtook the United States in daily reported deaths from the novel coronavirus for the first time on Wednesday, with the health ministry registering a record 1,092 fatalities it attributed to improved documenting of the pandemic.

Latin American has emerged in recent weeks as a major center for coronavirus. Brazil, where the virus has hit hardest in the region, also reported a record number of deaths on Wednesday.

The Mexican government had previously predicted the pandemic would peak in early May and under U.S. pressure has begun reopening its vast auto industry, which underpins billions of dollars of business through cross-border supply chains.

However, plans to further relax social distancing measures this week were put on hold in recognition of the fact that infections had not yet begun coming down.

Wednesday saw a record 3,912 new infections, with the number of daily deaths more than twice the previous record of 501.

The total number of known cases in Latin America’s second-largest economy is now 101,238 and its tally of deaths is 11,729, making it the seventh country with most deaths from the virus, according to the John Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell attributed the sharp jump in numbers to a new mortality committee established by the Mexico City government to better identify which deaths in the capital were caused by the virus.

“Over the past 20 or 25 days, we have had various cases that were slowly passed on to the registry, for various reasons,” he said. “A technical committee has specifically been carrying out complementary methods.”

The committee was established after growing criticism that Mexico’s very limited testing rate meant most cases and deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, were not being registered. A Reuters investigation concluded that fatalities could be 2.5 times higher than reported.

Mexico’s government has previously admitted the real number of fatalities was higher than the official count.

It was not clear if the inclusion of more deaths registered by the Mexico City committee would push daily numbers higher in future.

Mexico, with just over a third of the population of the United States, is at an earlier stage of the pandemic curve than its neighbor and the government has acknowledged that deaths could eventually surpass 30,000.

U.S. daily reported deaths were 1,045 on Wednesday, government data showed.

(Reporting by Mexico City Newsroom; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)