US states grapple with reopening as virus forces millions more jobless claims
Reuters, , Thursday 30 Apr 2020

More than two dozen US states moved ahead with plans to relax restrictions on business and social life, hoping to reverse the economic blows of the coronavirus that caused another 3.84 million Americans to file jobless claims last week.

With White House guidelines for social distancing expiring on Thursday, states have been grappling with when and how to revive their economies while keeping residents safe with stay-at-home and social-distancing policies.

Some states planned to ease restrictions without the "Opening Up America Again" safeguards that the White House itself had recommended, including declines in the infection rate and expanded virus testing.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a White House task force member, warned states not to move too fast, a refrain of many public health officials since states, led by Georgia, started easing restrictions.

"You can't just leap over things to a situation where you're really tempting (the virus) to rebound. That's the thing I get concerned about. I hope they don't do that," he told NBC's "Today" show.

The number of coronavirus cases is still climbing in many parts of the country, although peaks already have been reached in New York, the US epicenter of the outbreak, and other places.

Indiana, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania reported record daily death tolls on Wednesday and the total number of US deaths topped 61,000 with well over 1 million confirmed cases as of Thursday.

The sense of urgency with which states were looking to reopen was highlighted on Thursday by Labor Department data showing that 3.839 million people filed claims for unemployment benefits in the week ended April 25.

That was down from 4.442 million the prior week, but still lifted the number of people who sought unemployment benefits to around 30 million since March 21. That represents roughly 18.4% of the working age population.

Data on Wednesday showed that the US economy in the first quarter suffered its sharpest contraction since the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

New Industries Hurt

The numbers suggested that layoffs were spreading to industries not directly hurt at first by business closures and disruptions related to the coronavirus.

Florida on Wednesday became the latest state, and one of the largest, to announce steps to ease restrictions that crippled business activity.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," Governor Ron DeSantis said as he unveiled his phase-one plan due to start on Monday to relax mandatory workplace closures and stay-at-home orders imposed four weeks ago.

Earlier in the week his Texas counterpart, Greg Abbott, another governor closely aligned with their fellow Republican, President Donald Trump, announced a similar reopening strategy due to take effect this Friday.

In California, however, Governor Gavin Newsom was expected to announce the closure of all beaches and parks in the state after crowds jammed beaches last weekend, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

A Democrat, Newsom has said that curbside retail, manufacturing and other "lower-risk workplaces" should reopen in California within weeks as testing and contact-tracing improve.

In Michigan, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer requested an extension to a state of emergency due to expire on Thursday. Republican lawmakers in Michigan oppose the extension.

Hundreds of demonstrators, including militia group members carrying firearms and people with pro-Trump political signs, gathered on the steps of the Michigan state Capitol in protest against Whitmer's action.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said his state would hire thousands of people to trace the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus. He also announced a halt to New York City subway service from 1 to 5 a.m. to disinfect trains.

Hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus declined slightly on Wednesday in New York, the worst hit of the 50 US states with more than a third of all deaths.

Fauci, the top US infectious-disease official, shared more promising news on Gilead Sciences Inc's experimental antiviral drug remdesivir, which has shown an improved recovery rate for patients of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Fauci said it was possible that millions of doses of the drug could be available by January as the Food and Drug Administration is reportedly set to grant emergency approval to remdesivir.

“We want to go quickly, but we want to make sure it’s safe and it’s effective. I think that’s doable if things fall in the right place," Fauci said.