The latest on the coronavirus pandemic

WASHINGTON — Although the timing for the House’s return isn’t set, the outlines are emerging for a Democratic-driven bill to aid state and local governments and the Postal Service, and boost contact tracing to track the coronavirus.

Democratic leaders promise that the House will deliver legislation as early as next week to help state and local governments through the COVID-19 crisis, though the measure is still being drafted by committee chairs and party leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer said Wednesday that party leadership is hoping for bipartisan backing for the upcoming bill, the fifth effort to respond to the devastation COVID-19 has delivered to the economy and U.S. life. Ultimately, it will take arduous bipartisan negotiations to produce a bill but the right dynamic hasn’t caught fire yet.

Hoyer said he backs $500 billion in aid to state and local governments with a supplemental aid package for smaller cites left out of previous aid bills. He said the measure would bail out the Postal Service, contain funding for absentee voting this fall, and other priorities like advanced tracing to monitor the virus as states try to open up without sparking a second wave.

Hoyer said the House won’t return to Washington until there is a vote on the next coronavirus bill, saying “it could be as early as next week.”

For now, the House is staying away because of the pandemic, although the Republican-controlled Senate is open. Republicans there face internal divisions over spending and how ambitious to be in the upcoming round to respond to Depression-era jobless levels.

Read the full story about future relief legislation here.

Republicans move to strip teeth from Louisiana stay-at-home order

BATON ROUGE, La. — Republican lawmakers trying to unravel Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide stay-at-home order began moving legislation Wednesday that would keep the Democratic governor from enforcing restrictions enacted to combat the coronavirus.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he’s “hopeful” he’ll lessen coronavirus restrictions and enter the first phase of the White House’s reopening guidelines on May 16. The governor said he’ll announce his plan Monday based on the latest data. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Edwards’ decision to extend his stay-at-home order through May 15 provoked strong criticism from Republicans who prefer a parish-by-parish approach to loosening restrictions that have shuttered businesses and driven up unemployment.

In a rebuke to Edwards, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 9-7 to advance a proposal from House Republican leader Blake Miguez that would strip the governor of his ability to penalize businesses that don’t comply with his order, for 15 days from passage. The vote was a near party-line decision.

That means closure requirements for bars, theaters, gyms, salons, tattoo parlors and more; bans on sit-down restaurants; and limits on public gatherings of more than 10 people at churches and elsewhere couldn’t be enforced by Edwards during that time.

“The intent of this is to take the teeth out of his emergency order,” said Miguez, of Erath. He added: “We’ve flattened the curve. Now it’s time to start looking at reopening the economy.”

The effort would have to win support from the full House and Senate before taking effect. And it could be moot within days.

Edwards said Wednesday he’s “hopeful” he’ll lessen the restrictions and enter the first phase of the White House’s reopening guidelines on May 16. The governor said he’ll announce his plan Monday based on the latest data.

“We obviously know the importance of keeping the economy open,” Edwards said.

Dallas salon owner jailed for defying virus shutdown order

DALLAS — A Texas’ judge’s decision to jail a hair salon owner for defying restrictions meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus has drawn criticism from the governor and state attorney general.

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Salon owner Shelley Luther holds a citation and speaks with a Dallas police officer after she was cited for reopening her business. Hair salons have not been cleared for reopening in Texas. Associated Press/LM Otero

Shelley Luther was booked in the Dallas County jail on Tuesday afternoon following a video hearing during which she was found in contempt of court and sentenced to a week behind bars. The hearing occurred as Gov. Greg Abbott relaxed more coronavirus restrictions statewide, allowing barbershops and hair salons to reopen Friday.

Abbott, a Republican, said in a Wednesday statement that he thinks the punishment for violating his executive order was “excessive.”

“Compliance with executive orders during this pandemic is important to ensure public safety; however, surely there are less restrictive means to achieving that goal than jailing a Texas mother,” Abbott said.

Last month, Luther was issued a citation for keeping open her Dallas salon despite state and local directives that kept nonessential businesses closed. However, she continued to defy the order.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Luther said she kept the salon open because she needed the money.

Read the full story about the salon owner here.

Michigan’s Republican legislature sues governor over stay-at-home orders

Michigan’s Republican-led legislature filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that questions the extent to which she can use her emergency powers, WGTU reported.

The lawsuit comes just days after Whitmer extended a state of emergency amid Republican threats of legal action.

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, wearing a mask, addresses the state on May 1. Michigan Office of the Governor via Associated Press

The lawsuit claims Whitmer overstepped her authority with the extension because she didn’t seek approval from the state legislature, WGTU reported.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, both Republicans, held a news conference on Wednesday at which they claimed that Whitmer had excluded the legislature from decision-making and in sharing data, the outlet reported.

Their main concerns are Whitmer’s interpretation of a 1945 law concerning emergency powers and a 1976 law about emergency declaration, WGTU reported. This is the second lawsuit against her this week, with another lawsuit filed by Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., who claims the governor’s actions violate his constitutional rights.

Mitchell told WDIV that he filed the lawsuit because he believes that there is a balance between maintaining public health and reopening Michigan’s economy.

Whitmer has issued 69 executive orders in 59 days, the outlet reported.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democratic, is also facing scrutiny from the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court after he extended his “Safer at Home” order to May 26.

Taiwan cheers return of fans to baseball games

Taiwan is hopeful that it is in the home stretch of containing the coronavirus, and the island’s baseball fans are cheering. Starting Friday, they can once again attend professional baseball games in person, a month after matches resumed with empty stadiums.

The games, though, won’t look exactly like before: Only 1,000 mask-wearing spectators will be allowed into stadiums at a time after having their temperatures taken. When buying a ticket, each person will be assigned a seat to make contact tracing easier if anyone at a game turns out to be infected.

Cardboard spectators had been taking the place of real ones at the Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Associated Press/Chiang Ying-ying

“Wear your mask properly and show our unity and discipline,” Taiwan’s professional baseball league wrote on Facebook, Reuters reported. “Let the world see the pride of Taiwan.”

In its battle with the coronavirus, Taiwan has found relative success. The island, which China views as a breakaway province, never went into total lockdown. Among its 23 million people, Taiwan has recorded 439 confirmed cases to date and six deaths, with only 100 active infections, according to Reuters.

Baseball games also returned to South Korea this week, though matches there will remain audience-less despite the country’s progress in curbing its coronavirus outbreak.

White House coronavirus task force will continue

President Trump on Wednesday said in a series of tweets that the work of the White House coronavirus task force would continue “indefinitely,” a day after Vice President Pence, who heads the panel, said it would probably wind down its work by the end of the month.

Trump had acknowledged on Tuesday that it’s “possible” more Americans will die as governors lift stay-at-home orders implemented to slow the spread of the virus, “but we have to get our country open.” There have been more 1.2 million reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States including more than 70,000 deaths, according to state health departments and tracking by The Washington Post.

ADP: More than 20 million jobs vanished in April

U.S. businesses cut an unprecedented 20.2 million jobs in April, an epic collapse with coronavirus outbreak closing the offices, factories, schools, construction sites and stores that propel the U.S. economy.

The Wednesday report from payroll company ADP showed the tragic depth and scale of job losses that left no part of the world’s largest economy unscathed. The losses will likely continue through May, with a recovery in hiring likely to begin in the months that follow, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“This is one for the record books,” Zandi said. ”The good news is that we’re at the apex of the job loss.”

Even though Zandi expects hiring to resume in June as states ease lockdowns, he cautioned that it will be a “slog” over several years to recover all the jobs lost in April.

The private industry report comes two days ahead of the official monthly job figures from the U.S. Labor Department. Economists believe the Friday report will reveal unemployment in the U.S. stands at a shocking 16%, up from 4.4% in March.

According to ADP, the leisure and hospitality sector shed 8.6 million workers last month. Trade, transportation and utilities let 3.4 million people go. Construction firms cut nearly 2.5 million jobs, while manufacturers let go of roughly 1.7 million people. The health care sector cut 1 million jobs, but education services eked out a gain of 28,000 as colleges and universities do not appear to have forced significant layoffs that could come later this year.

More than half of April’s job losses came from smaller companies with 500 workers or fewer. But larger employers cut 8.9 million jobs. Polling by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates that nearly eight in 10 households that suffered job losses expect to return to their previous employer.

Dallas salon owner jailed for defying virus shutdown order

DALLAS  — A hair salon owner in Texas was ordered to spend a week in jail after she continued to operate her business despite restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shelley Luther was booked in the Dallas County jail on Tuesday afternoon following a video hearing, during which she was found in contempt of court. The hearing occurred as Gov. Greg Abbott relaxed more restrictions statewide, allowing barbershops and hair salons to reopen Friday.

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Salon owner Shelley Luther holds a citation and speaks with a Dallas police officer after she was cited for reopening her business. Hair salons have not been cleared for reopening in Texas. Associated Press/LM Otero

Last month, Luther was issued a citation for keeping open her Dallas salon despite state and local directives that kept nonessential businesses closed.

In Tuesday’s hearing, Luther said she kept the salon open because she needed the money.

“I couldn’t feed my family, and my stylists couldn’t feed their families,” Luther testified, saying she had applied for a federal loan but didn’t receive it until Sunday.

Dallas County Judge Eric Moye said during Tuesday’s hearing that he would consider levying a fine instead of jail time if Luther would apologize and not reopen until she was allowed to do so. Luther refused.

“Feeding my kids is not selfish,” she told Moye. “If you think the law is more important than kids getting fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut the salon.”

Moye wrote in his judgment of contempt: “The defiance of the court’s order was open, flagrant and intentional.” He noted that despite being given the opportunity to apologize Luther has “expressed no contrition, remorse or regret” for her actions.

Pence says officials discussed curtailing elderly alumni attendance at college sports events

Vice President Pence said Wednesday that White House officials had asked college athletic representatives to consider curtailing the attendance of elderly alumni at sporting events as a strategy to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among the higher-risk group.

Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, shared that the conversation had taken place in a syndicated radio interview during which host Hugh Hewitt pressed him on whether age-based restrictions might be part of a strategy for reopening the country. (Hewitt is also an opinion columnist for The Washington Post.)

Hewitt asked Pence if he could anticipate guidance from the government, for example, that airline flights be restricted to those age 45 and under “so that people might feel better about traveling with groups that are naturally more resilient in the face of this virus.”

“I think that’s a very interesting question,” Pence said. “And you know, when we had conversations with the commissioners of the major university and college athletic associations not long ago, we talked about that they might consider asking some of the elderly alumni to consider taking a pass on some sporting events should they restart in the summer or in the fall.”

Pence added that such decisions should ultimately be left to state governors and businesses.

Hewitt also suggested that age-based restrictions could be imposed on summer pool openings, an idea that Pence did not address directly. He instead pivoted to talking about the importance of “being able to enjoy the outdoors in the sunlight” and expressed hope that “we could be in a very different place by shortly after Memorial Day or early June.”

UK’s prime minister ‘bitterly’ regrets nursing home epidemic toll

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson “bitterly” regrets the coronavirus epidemic raging in Britain’s nursing homes.

The U.K.’s confirmed death toll stands at 29,427, the highest in Europe. While the number of deaths in hospitals is falling, deaths in nursing homes have not shown the same decline.

Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons it was too early to make international comparisons of death tolls but conceded that “there will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions.”

Facing Parliament for the first time since recovering from COVID-19, Johnson confirmed he’ll announce a road map out of the country’s lockdown on Sunday, with some measures taking effect the next day. But he cautioned that any easing of restrictions would be gradual in order to avoid a second spike in coronavirus cases.

Spain national state of mourning

MADRID — Spanish Prime Minster Pedro Sánchez says that his government will declare a national state of mourning for the more than 25,800 deaths the European nation has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sánchez is appearing before Spain’s Parliament on Wednesday to ask for a fourth two-week extension of the state of emergency that has allowed his government to apply a strict lockdown that has reined in a savage COVID-19 outbreak. It appears he will have the support despite losing the backing of the main opposition party.

Spanish health authorities reported 244 new deaths over the previous 24 hours on Wednesday, taking the toll of virus fatalities to 25,857.

The figures, which are in line with the overall slowdown of the outbreak in Spain, don’t include thousands more who have died in nursing homes before they could be tested.

Spain also reports that its total number of confirmed infections surpassed 253,000.

Sánchez said that he would specify when the national mourning will be held as the country emerges from a lockdown that has reduced the infection rate to under 1%. Some small shops slowly started to reopen this week.

“We have won a partial victory against the virus thanks to the sacrifice of all,” Sánchez said. “But raising the state of alarm now would be a complete error.”

Coronavirus prompts move to return elephants to the wild

BANGKOK — A foundation in northern Thailand wants to help elephants who have lost their jobs at parks due to tourists disappearing on account of the coronavirus.

So the Save Elephant Foundation has established a project to have the animals return to their homes in natural habitats where they won’t be so dependent on handouts.

Animal protection organizations warn that their situation is desperate, with 1,000 to 2,000 elephants at venues all over the country at risk of starving.

The animals’ owners have been left with insufficient income to afford the beasts’ daily diet of as much as 300 kilograms (660 lbs) of grass and vegetables.

Pope highlights plight of migrant farm workers

ROME — Pope Francis is calling for migrant farm workers to be treated with dignity, issuing an appeal as Italy weighs whether to legalize undocumented agricultural workers amid a shortage of seasonal farm labor due to the coronavirus emergency.

Francis said he had been struck by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on migrant farm workers, who even before the pandemic lived hand-to-mouth with day jobs that paid 25 euro ($27). While migrants are not testing positive in great numbers, they have seen their precarious, off-the-books work dry up because of Italy’s lockdown.

Francis said Wednesday at the end of his general audience that migrant workers in Italy are “very harshly exploited.”

He said: “It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected. … May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern.”

Farm lobby groups and some Italian ministers have warned that spring and summer harvests are at risk because Italy’s usual seasonal workers, many of whom live in Eastern Europe, are stuck at home because of virus travel restrictions.

Italy’s agriculture minister, from the center-left Italy of Values party, has proposed legalizing them, backed by the interior minister and minister for the south who also wants to legalize Italy’s army of foreign domestic workers who care for the elderly at home. But the majority 5-Star Movement is divided on the issue.

Virus cases spike in Africa

JOHANNESBURG — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa has shot up 42% in the week ending Tuesday, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The number of cases is expected to surpass 50,000 later Wednesday, and the number of deaths could top 2,000. All but one of Africa’s 54 countries, tiny Lesotho, has reported virus cases.

The World Health Organization has warned that Africa could become the next epicenter of the pandemic. Severe shortages of testing kits mean the number of actual cases across the continent is unknown.

In Somalia, aid groups are warning that the number of virus cases is far higher than the 835 reported. The country has one of the world’s weakest health systems. Twelve African nations now have more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

EU predicts recession of ‘historic proportions’

BRUSSELS — The European Union predicted Wednesday “a recession of historic proportions this year” due to the impact of the coronavirus with a drop in output of more than 7%, as it released its first official forecast of the damage the pandemic is inflicting on the bloc’s economy.

The 27-nation EU economy is predicted to contract by 7.5% this year, before growing by about 6% in 2021. The group of 19 nations using the euro as their currency will see a record decline of 7.75% this year, and grow by 6.25% in 2021, the European Commission said in its Spring economic forecast.

More than 1.1 million people have contracted the virus across Europe and over 137,000 have died, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Unclear outbreak data, low testing rates and the strain on health care systems mean the true scale of the pandemic is much greater.

How quickly things can change. On Feb. 13, the commission had predicted “a path of steady, moderate growth” this year and next of 1.2%. At that time, uncertainty over U.S. trade policy and a Brexit trade deal plus tensions in Latin America and the Middle East were the main threats.

The coronavirus outbreak in China was noted at the time as “a new downside risk” but the commission’s assumption less than three months ago was “that the outbreak peaks in the first quarter, with relatively limited global spillovers.”

French advised to vacation at home this summer

PARIS — France’s government is warning the French that they shouldn’t expect to travel far for their vacations this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, a deputy minister at the French Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday that the external borders of Europe’s visa-free Schengen area, incorporating 26 nations, will remain closed “for several weeks, for several months.”

He said that for summer vacationers, “a trip of several thousand kilometers (miles) is, for sure, excluded.”

The comments are the latest warning from the French government that vacationers need to scale back their expectations this summer. The government is advising people to vacation in France instead, in part to help the tourism sector battered by the pandemic.

In Sweden, medical staff must pay tax on free lunches donated to them

STOCKHOLM — Swedish media say that the Scandinavian country’s tax authorities have, under the current laws, ordered medical staff to pay taxes for the free lunches they have been getting. Or donors to report their gifts to the taxman.

The southern Sweden daily Sydsvenskan says three restaurants in Lund, one of the region’s largest cities, have offered free lunches.

“It feels saddening,” Asa Loven, co-owner of the Stamstallet eatery in Lund, told the daily.

In Sweden, if an employer receives lunches for the employees, it should be reported as a taxable benefit, the Swedish Tax Agency told Sydsvenska.

In Goteborg, Sweden’s second largest city, a restaurant donated food to healthcare professionals directly to health staff. However, the state agency said the giving part should report it, as it is taxable, the local newspaper Goteborgs-Posten wrote.

Yngve Gripple, a spokesman at the Swedish Tax Agency, told Goteborgs-Posten that the legislature needed to be changed if free lunches should not be taxed.

Merkel to consider further relaxation of restrictions

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting Wednesday with the governors of the country’s 16 states to discuss further loosening restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

With the number of new cases in Germany averaging around 1,000 in recent days, pressure to relax the rules further has grown. Business leaders in particular have warned that the economy could suffer long-term damage from the lockdown, which has been light compared to some other European countries.

German media reported Wednesday that a draft plan would give states significant room to reopen all schools, hotels and restaurants, but require them to clamp down swiftly on any big outbreaks.

The dpa news agency and weekly Der Spiegel reported that authorities would need to reimpose restrictions on any county that reports 50 new cases for every 100,000 inhabitants within the past week.

 


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