U.S. considers new ways of working, living as some states ease coronavirus restrictions

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Georgia on Monday started allowing residents to dine inside restaurants or watch a movie at a theatre, as more U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi take steps to ease coronavirus restrictions despite the warnings of health experts.

Colorado, Montana, Texas and Tennessee were also set to reopen some businesses to start reviving their battered economies. Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown at least 26 million Americans out of work.

In Georgia, restaurants and theatres on Monday joined hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, which were allowed to reopen last week with physical distancing restrictions.

One restaurant chain, Waffle House, was imposing seating arrangements in Georgia that will keep patrons at least two metres apart, stricter sanitization measures and a requirement that employees wear masks, CEO Walt Ehmer told WSB-TV.

“I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families,” Ehmer said. “I think it’s going to give them some hope.”

Operating manager Barry Lennon cleans up the table of customer Duke Scott in the empty dining room of the J. Christopher’s restaurant on Monday in Brookhaven, Ga. As of Monday, restaurants around Georgia are allowed to offer dine-in service. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a fresh surge of infections just as physical distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

Meanwhile, the number of known infections in the United States kept climbing on Monday, topping 980,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 55,600.

Officials in some of the hardest-hit states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have been emphasizing for weeks that more testing and contact tracing for the virus needed to be in place before they could implement road maps for restarting their economies.

Contact tracing involves tracking down and testing people who may have been around anyone already infected.

“Testing is the way forward, and it’s been a long fight just to get the testing,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a briefing on Monday.

He said a new “self-swab” test, which allows patients to administer it to themselves under the supervision of medical personnel, will be available this week at sites run by New York public hospitals.

Protesters demonstrate against safer-at-home orders at the Colorado Capital in Denver on Sunday. Some counties there have implemented stricter measures than the state, which had announced an easing for some businesses starting Monday. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theatres to follow.

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‛Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colo., told Reuters.

Colorado’s experience is not uniform. A few counties, including Denver’s, have stay-at-home orders that extend into May.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump on Monday slammed U.S. cities and states seeking billions more dollars in federal aid to offset huge losses from the coronavirus outbreak as members of Congress spar over the next round of potential economic relief.

Democrats want more aid to help cities and states left out of the nearly $3 trillion US in economic relief already enacted during the crisis. But some Republicans have balked at the price, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, said he would back state bankruptcy before giving them more U.S. funding.

McConnell attempted to clarify that statement in a radio interview on Monday, saying he was simply “pointing out [states] have their own fiscal problems that predate the coronavirus.” He also said there will most likely be another state and local funding bill, “but we need to make sure that we achieve something that will go beyond simply sending out money.”

Congress has allocated $150 billion for state and local governments, but governors requested another $500 billion and cities and counties want $250 billion to cover the costs of responding to the outbreak and replace lost revenue.

Executive says food supply chain is ‘vulnerable’

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Monday said she hoped Smithfield’s Sioux Falls pork processing plant can reopen soon, a day after U.S. labour regulators urged the meat industry to adopt certain measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus among workers.

“They have some mitigation measures to put in place, but I think in a matter of days it could be opened, as long as everybody continues to work together and get it done,” Noem told Fox News in an interview.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, has shut down several U.S. plants due to a rash of coronavirus cases among employees, raising concerns about the nation’s meat supply and worker safety.

Its cases in Sioux Falls triggered a so-called hot spot of U.S. coronavirus cases. Noem, a Republican, was among the small number of governors who did not issue stay-at-home orders.

WATCH | Clusters of cases also seen in Canadian meat processing plants:

COVID-19 outbreaks at three meat processing plants in Alberta and B.C. have forced the facilities to temporarily close, raising concerns about meat prices and supply.   5:13

On Sunday, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new interim guidelines with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that call for meat industry workers to be at least two metres apart, have their temperatures checked and wear face masks.

Tyson Foods Inc chairman John Tyson, whose company has also had to close some facilities, on Sunday said in an open letter that closures could lead to meat shortages.

“This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable,” he wrote.

New York cancels presidential primary

New York state on Monday cancelled its presidential primary over concerns voting was an unnecessary risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing an angry response from the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who has suspended his White House bid but hoped to remain on the ballot.

With former vice-president Joe Biden the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Douglas Kellner, one of two of the party’s commissioners on the New York State Board of Elections, said it would be “unnecessary and frivolous” to hold an effectively uncompetitive election in a state that is the epicentre of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.

The state’s primary had already been delayed from late April to June 23.

A Sanders’s campaign official said the decision was “an outrage, a blow to American democracy,” and called for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to overturn the decision.

“While we understood that we did not have the votes to win the Democratic nomination, our campaign was suspended, not ended, because people in every state should have the right to express their preference,” said senior adviser Jeff Weaver.

The DNC does not oversee state primaries, but reviews changes to how states allocate delegates.

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