Poland almost doubles troop numbers on Belarus border

WARSAW (Reuters) – Almost 6,000 Polish soldiers are now guarding the country’s border with Belarus in stepped up security measures in the face of a surge in migration, the defense minister said on Tuesday.

The deployment of fresh troops marks a significant expansion of the military presence on the border as only on Saturday Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak had put the number of soldiers at more than 3,000.

“Almost 6,000 soldiers from the 16th, 18th and 12th divisions are serving on the Polish-Belarusian border,” Blaszczak said in a tweet.

“The soldiers provide support to the Border Guard by protecting the country’s border and not allowing it to be illegally crossed.”

The Border Guard said that on Monday there were 612 attempts to cross the border illegally.

The European Commission and Warsaw say the flow of migrants has been orchestrated by Belarus as a form of hybrid warfare designed to put pressure on the European Union over sanctions it imposed on Minsk. Belarus has denied this.

Poland has declared a state of emergency in the region and plans to build a wall on the border.

Parliament has also passed legislation that human rights advocates say aims to legalize pushbacks of migrants across its borders in breach of the country’s commitments under international law.

As of Sunday, there had been around 9,600 attempts to illegally cross the border in October, the Border Guard said.

An increasing number of migrants have also been arriving in Germany and Polish media reported that the head of the German Police trade union has asked the interior minister to temporarily restore border controls with Poland to stop the flow of migrants.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer offered to send border control officers to Poland to help the country manage the influx of migrants along the border between the two EU countries, adding that Germany could also offer logistical support in a letter to his Polish counterpart.

Authorities in Brandenburg, the eastern German state that is housing most of the new arrivals, are calling for tougher action against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish and Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Ecuador’s president declares 60-day state of emergency over rising crime

By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) – Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso late on Monday declared a state of emergency in the Andean country as part of a crackdown on the consumption and trafficking of drugs.

Lasso, a conservative who took office in May, said the move was a response to rising homicide figures nationwide and other crimes related to narcotic seizures, which total 147 tonnes so far this year.

“In the streets of Ecuador there is only one enemy: drug trafficking,” Lasso said in a television broadcast. “When drug trafficking grows so do assassinations and homicides, robberies of homes, vehicles, goods and people.”

“Our military and police forces will be felt strongly in the streets,” he said.

The 60-day state of emergency will allow the military to join drug and arms confiscation operations in nine of the country’s 24 provinces, including Guayas, home to major city Guayaquil, Lasso said. Patrols will take place 24 hours a day.

In the rest of the country, police will increase patrols and control efforts in public places.

More than 70% of violent deaths in the province of Guayas are “in some way” related to drug trafficking, Lasso said.

Violent deaths have also risen within prisons. Last month 119 people were killed in disturbances in a prison in Guayaquil, which the government has blamed on fighting between drug gangs.

Lasso said he would sponsor legislation to support security forces in efforts to combat crime and create an entity to defend officers prosecuted for “simply doing their duty.”

“This government will pardon all those who have been unjustly convicted for doing their job,” the president said, asking judges to “guarantee peace and order, not impunity and crime.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia,; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Russian-annexed Crimea declares state of emergency over floods

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Authorities in Russian annexed Crimea declared a local state of emergency on Thursday after heavy rain caused flooding in parts of the peninsula’s east including the city of Kerch.

The flooding affected nearly 300 homes and a city hospital, the emergencies ministry said.

Whole streets were submerged in water in parts of the city. In one place a fire engine could be seen driving through deep water towards a submerged passenger bus in a video posted online. Some cars were almost completely under water.

“In terms of material damage, the situation is severe. But now commissions have been set up, a regional emergency has already been declared,” Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Russian authorities, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Kyiv wants the peninsula back.

Aksyonov was shown on a boat in Kerch, surveying the flooding in video circulated by the RIA news agency.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Elena Ostrovskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Utah governor declares new state of emergency as coronavirus spreads

(Reuters) – The governor of the U.S. state of Utah, Gary Herbert, declared late on Sunday a new state of emergency to address hospital overcrowding in response to weeks of stress on its hospital networks due to a surge of novel coronavirus cases.

“Due to the alarming rate of COVID infections within our state, tonight I issued a new state of emergency with several critical changes to our response”, Herbert said on Twitter.

“These changes are not shutting down our economy, but are absolutely necessary to save lives and hospital capacity,” he said.

The governor said the entire state was being placed under a mask mandate until further notice and casual social gatherings were being limited to household-only for the next two weeks.

All extracurricular activities were being put on hold, he said.

The total number of coronavirus infections in the United States rose past 10 million late on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally.

Utah has had 132,621 total confirmed cases and 659 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Robert Birsel)

A ghostly downtown Louisville braces for Breonna Taylor grand jury decision

By Bryan Woolston and Jonathan Allen

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) – The police department in Louisville, Kentucky, was restricting vehicle access downtown on Tuesday ahead of an expected decision by a grand jury on whether to indict the police officers involved in killing Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker, in a botched raid.

Although the timing of any decision remains unclear, on Tuesday morning courthouses, offices and restaurants were already boarded up in the mostly deserted blocks around the city’s Jefferson Square Park, the site of regular demonstrations by people protesting police brutality against Black people.

Concrete barriers ringed the area, with a handful of checkpoints manned by police who would only allow people with essential business to drive downtown. Pedestrians were free to walk the streets, but few did.

Taylor, 26, was killed shortly after midnight on March 13 when three plainclothes officers used a battering ram to force their way in to her Louisville home with a so-called no knock warrant. Fearing intruders, her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired a gun. The three officers fired their guns, striking Taylor five times.

Taylor’s death, alongside that of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, helped spark a nationwide wave of protests demanding racial justice and an end to the use of excessive force by law enforcement.

The Louisville Metro Police Department on Tuesday declared a state of emergency for its staff, cancelling days off and suspending some overtime pay agreements, according to a memo by Robert Schroeder, the interim police chief, published by local media.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Black Republican, has said his investigation into Taylor’s death is ongoing, but has declined to confirm media reports that he is convening a grand jury to vote on whether to bring criminal charges against the officers.

Mayor Greg Fischer, a white Democrat, said his office does not know when a decision will come down or what it will be, but said in a statement on Tuesday the traffic restrictions were to “keep everyone safe.”

“Our goal with these steps is ensuring space and opportunity for potential protesters to gather and express their First Amendment rights,” his statement said.

The city’s main federal courthouse has also been closed all week in an order by Chief Judge Greg Stivers of the Western District of Kentucky.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Louisville, Ky., and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Trump declares state of emergency as Michigan floodwaters recede

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) – Floodwaters that breached two dams in central Michigan began to recede on Thursday after displacing thousands of people while spreading to a Dow Chemical plant and an adjacent hazardous waste cleanup site.

U.S. President Donald Trump, acting at the request of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, issued an emergency declaration authorizing federal disaster relief to victims of severe storms that struck Michigan this week in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Flooding unleashed by two dam failures on Tuesday plunged parts of the riverfront city of Midland, about 120 miles (193 km) northwest of Detroit, under several feet of water and forced the evacuation of about 11,000 residents.

The torrent also posed a potential environmental hazard as floodwaters spilled into a Dow Chemical Co plant, mixing with the contents of a containment pond there, and swept a Superfund toxic cleanup site located just downstream.

Dow, a unit of Dow Inc <DOW.N>, said in a statement on Thursday that the brine solution in the pond posed no risk to residents or the environment, and no “product releases” from the plant were known to have occurred.

The rain-engorged Tittabawassee River rose to historic levels on Wednesday before starting to recede the next day, leaving a ravaged landscape of mud and debris. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

“This is unlike everything we’ve seen before. The damage is truly devastating,” Whitmer told a news conference on Thursday.

Trump, visiting a newly reopened Ford Motor Co <F.N> automobile factory in Detroit on Thursday, said a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team was on the scene of the dam breaks to help assess damage and bring the situation under control.

Mark Bone, a Midland County commissioner, said floodwaters must ebb further before it was safe for evacuees to return home.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission directed Boyce Hydro LLC, operator of the stricken dams, to establish an independent investigation of the breaches. The agency in 2018 revoked the hydropower-generating license for one of the dams, accusing Boyce of deficiencies.

Boyce said in statements that it had been in conflict with federal and local authorities in recent years over how much water the dams should release and the levels of a nearby lake.

The company also said that since losing its license, it was unable to secure funding for dam improvements and received no government assistance.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumamker)

Speed of coronavirus deaths shock doctors as New York toll hits new high

By Nick Brown and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York state, epicenter of America’s coronavirus crisis, set another single-day record of COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, as veteran doctors and nurses voiced astonishment at the speed with which patients were deteriorating and dying.

The number of known coronavirus infections in New York state alone approached 150,000 on Wednesday, even as authorities warned that the official death tally may understate the true number because it omits those who have perished at home.

“Every number is a face, ” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ordered flags flown at half-staff across New York in memory of the victims.

“This virus attacked the vulnerable and attacked the weak, and it’s our job as a society to protect the vulnerable.”

Doctors and nurses say elderly patients and those with underlying health conditions are not the only ones who appear relatively well one moment and at death’s door the next. It happens to the young and healthy, too.

Patients “look fine, feel fine, then you turn around and they’re unresponsive,” said Diana Torres, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the center of the nation’s worst outbreak. “I’m paranoid, scared to walk out of their room.”

Nearly 430,000 cases of COVID-19, the highly infectious lung disease caused by the coronavirus, were confirmed in the United States as of Wednesday afternoon, including more than 14,700 deaths. For the second straight day the virus killed at least 1,900 in a 24-hour period.

Cuomo said 779 people had died in the past day in his state. New Jersey reported 275 had died there. Both totals exceeded one-day records from just a day earlier.

Despite the grim figures, Cuomo said overall trends still appeared positive. Cuomo cited a drop in new hospitalizations and other data as evidence that New York’s social-distancing restrictions were “bending the curve,” helping to gain some control over the infection rate.

New York is one of 42 states where governors have issued “stay-at-home” orders and closed all non-essential workplaces.

While public health experts say such measures are vital for controlling the contagion, the restrictions have strangled the U.S. economy, leading to widespread layoffs, upheavals on Wall Street and projections of a severe recession.

Cuomo said the loss of life would likely continue at current levels or increase in days ahead as critically ill patients die after prolonged bouts hooked up to ventilators.

SCALING BACK TOLL

U.S. deaths due to coronavirus topped 14,700 on Wednesday, the second highest reported number in the world behind Italy, according to a Reuters tally.

New York state accounts for over a third of the U.S. total.

Officials have warned Americans to expect alarming numbers of coronavirus deaths this week, even as an influential university model on Wednesday scaled back its projected U.S. pandemic death toll by 26% to 60,000.

“We are in the midst of a week of heartache,” Vice President Mike Pence said during a White House briefing on Wednesday, but added, “we are beginning to see glimmers of hope.”

Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at Presbyterian Hospital’s Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, heralded encouraging numbers that suggested a turning tide in Wednesday’s edition of his daily newsletter to staff.

There were more discharges of patients than admissions for two days running, he said, adding: “Hosanna!”

But that comes as cold comfort to some healthcare workers on the front lines, who told Reuters they have treated patients while experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus themselves without being able to get tested.

In Michigan, one of the few hospital systems conducting widespread diagnostic screenings of staff, found more than 700 workers were infected – over a quarter of those tested.

The continued test kit shortages – even for the workers most at risk – is “scandalous” and a serious threat to the patients they treat, said Dr. Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

‘BIG BANG’

At the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would like to reopen the U.S. economy with a “big bang” but not before the death toll is on the downslope.

Trump did not offer a time frame, but his chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said on Tuesday a resumption of commerce was possible in four to eight weeks.

Louisiana is “beginning to see the flattening of the curve” with the number of new coronavirus cases reported in the past 24 hours – 746 – lower than recent days, Governor John Bel Edwards said. Louisiana had been one of the nation’s hot spots.

California, like New York, had one of its highest single-day death tolls with 68 people dying of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, Governor Gavin Newsom said. The state may not see its infection curve flattening until the end of May, requiring weeks more of social distancing, officials say.

New York City officials said a recent surge in people dying at home suggests the most populous U.S. city may be undercounting the loss of life.

“I think that’s a very real possibility,” Cuomo told his daily news briefing.

So far New York City’s announced death toll has reflected only laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses, mostly at hospitals. At least 200 people are believed to be dying at home in the city every day during the pandemic, authorities said.

Pence warned that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were cities of “particular concern” as a possible future flash points in the epidemic.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Nick Brown, Jonathan Allen, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani, Brad Brooks, Susan Cornwell, Nathan Layne, Lisa Lambert, Stephanie Kelly, and Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Will Dunham and Bill Tarrant; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Michael Perry)

‘Dilly-dallying around’: Testy U.S. Senate nears coronavirus relief vote

By David Morgan and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tempers boiled over in the U.S. Senate on Monday as lawmakers moved toward another vote on a far-reaching coronavirus economic stimulus package even though Republicans and Democrats said they were still at odds over details that had stalled the package over the weekend.

Both sides said they were close to an agreement on the massive bill, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said carried a $2 trillion price tag. But they remained at odds over provisions to help businesses, as well as the amount of money to provide to hospitals and state and local governments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several other Republicans angrily accused Democrats of trying to take advantage of the crisis to advance their political agenda with unrelated provisions. McConnell said the Senate, controlled by President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, would hold another procedural vote on the package after it fell short on Sunday.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to the media after a meeting to wrap up work on coronavirus economic aid legislation, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

“This is not a juicy political opportunity. This is a national emergency,” McConnell said as the Senate opened its session.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer suggested the vote would again fall short unless the measure included more guardrails to avoid misuse of the $500 billion earmarked to help struggling industries.

“Our goal is to reach a deal today and we’re hopeful, even confident that we will meet that goal,” Schumer said. He said the upcoming vote would be “irrelevant” if negotiations were not complete.

Republican Senator John Thune angrily accused the Democrats of “dilly-dallying around.”

“The country is burning and your side wants to play political games,” Thune said.

Mnuchin said the two sides made progress on Monday morning.

“We knocked off a bunch of things on the list already and we’re closing in on issues,” Mnuchin told reporters after exiting Schumer’s office. He did not give specifics.

U.S. stocks fell on Monday as the coronavirus forced more U.S. states into lockdown, eclipsing optimism from an unprecedented round of policy easing by the Federal Reserve.

The bill represents a third effort by Congress to blunt the economic toll of the pandemic that has killed at least 428 people in the United States and sickened more than 34,000, leading state governors to order nearly a third of the nation’s population to stay at home and putting much business activity on hold.

The measure includes financial aid for ordinary Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries, including airlines.

Republicans said Democrats were seeking to add unrelated provisions, such as expanded tax credits for wind and solar power and increased leverage for labor unions.

Democrats said Republicans were also trying to add provisions that would exclude nonprofit groups from receiving small-business aid, and extend a sexual abstinence-education program that is due to expire in May.

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, released her own version, which would add billions of dollars to help states conduct elections by mail.

Republicans normally hold a slim 53-47 majority in the chamber, short of the 60 votes they need to advance most legislation.

But the coronavirus threat has affected their ranks. Republican Senator Rand Paul said he tested positive for the virus on Sunday, and several others have self-quarantined as a precautionary measure. Republicans only mustered 47 votes in a procedural vote on Sunday.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

Wall Street empties out as New York City declares state of emergency

Reuters
By Imani Moise and Elizabeth Dilts Marshall

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Working from home went from optional to mandatory across Wall Street this week as financial firms reported their first confirmed cases of coronavirus and the outbreak triggered a state of emergency in New York City.

JPMorgan Chase & Co <JPM.N>, Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> and Morgan Stanley <MS.N> each announced similar programs on Thursday for working remotely to stem the spread of the pandemic. JPMorgan and Goldman told employees the staff would be split roughly in two for a weekly rotation in which half the workers will work from home and half go to the office.

JPMorgan’s plan applies to New York-area employees while Goldman’s plan was for most staff across North America and Europe, excluding some sales, trading and critical staff.

JPMorgan, the largest U.S. lender, informed New York-area employees in an internal memo seen by Reuters. The bank later confirmed the program, set up in response to a request from the state government.

The bank plans that by the end of this month, only 25% to 50% of team members will work from home, the memo said.

The plan applies to most corporate employees based in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City, New Jersey, but not to branch workers or traders.

Goldman Sachs told employees that most staff across North America and Europe would start working from home or one of the bank’s business continuity centers on a rotating schedule starting Monday, according to another memo viewed by Reuters.

Morgan Stanley told all staff who do not have to work in the firm’s offices to work from home, apart from some sales and trading staff, who are working from secondary trading locations.

The bank also banned all travel, domestic or international, not deemed business critical.

Barclays PLC <BARC.L> and Credit Suisse Group AG <CSGN.S> also informed their investment bankers on Wednesday of a similar rotating schedule, sources said.

A spokesman for Credit Suisse declined to comment and a Barclays representative was not immediately available.

The banks also have ramped up other precautionary efforts like office deep-cleaning after firms like Barclays and BlackRock Inc <BLK.N> reported their first confirmed cases.

On Thursday a Manhattan-based Royal Bank of Canada <RY.TO> employee tested positive, a bank representative said. The Canadian bank has also reported two other confirmed cases in one of its offices near Toronto.

As of Thursday there were more than 129,000 cases of coronavirus globally and 4,750 people have died, according to a Reuters tally.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio declared a state of emergency in the city on Thursday as the number of confirmed cases climbed to 95, up from 12 at the beginning of the week.

Citigroup has put signs around its New York City headquarters asking visitors and employees not to sit on certain chairs to practice social distancing.

Another Wall Street investment bank ran overnight disaster tests on its remote working systems this week to prepare for having more bankers work from home.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” said a bank source familiar with the contingency planning efforts.

(Reporting by C Nivedita in Bengaluru and Imani Moise and Elizabeth Dilts Marshall in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)

FBI arrests three alleged neo-Nazis ahead of Virginia gun rally

(Reuters) – The FBI has arrested three suspected members of a neo-Nazi group who had weapons and hopes of starting a U.S. race war, just days before a planned gun-rights rally in Virginia that was expected to draw thousands of people, officials said on Thursday.

The arrests came the day after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, saying investigators had seen groups making threats of violence.

The men were arrested in Maryland and were expected to make an appearance in federal court later Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Several thousand gun rights supporters are planning a large rally in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, on Monday in response to the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature’s push to stiffen gun laws.

Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

According to a criminal complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the men arrested were Brian Mark Lemley Jr.; Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist; and William Garfield Bilbrough.

They are accused of interstate commerce of weapons and, in the case of Lemley and Bilbrough, harboring illegal aliens.

The three are allegedly members of the neo-Nazi group The Base. In the court filing, the FBI said it had monitored encrypted chats among the group’s members, in which they discussed creating a white ethno-state and carrying out acts of violence against minorities.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)