NEW YORK (Reuters) – As some U.S. states look to start reopening their coronavirus-battered economies amid protests from supporters of President Donald Trump anxious to get back to work, hardest hit New York state began mandating the wearing of masks or face coverings in public to contain the pathogen’s spread.
New York, epicenter of the U.S. epidemic, on Saturday reported another 540 coronavirus-related deaths for April 17, the lowest daily tally since April 1. While that was down from 630 a day earlier, it still represented hundreds more families who lost a loved one to COVID-19, the highly contagious illness caused by the virus, in a single day in one state.
Thirty-six of the deaths occurred at nursing homes, which have been ravaged by the pandemic nationwide.
GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. – here
“It is the feeding frenzy for this virus,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during his daily coronavirus briefing.
Saturday ended another week in which millions of Americans went without paychecks. More than 20 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks alone as closures of businesses and schools and severe travel restrictions to try to curb the highly contagious virus have hammered the U.S. economy.
In a bit of welcome news, Walmart Inc said on Friday it would hire 50,000 more workers at its stores, clubs and distribution centers to meet a surge in demand for groceries and household essentials from consumers forced to stay home during the outbreak.
One business deemed essential to keeping Americans fed that has been hit hard by the epidemic is meat processing plants. Facilities in South Dakota, Georgia, Iowa and elsewhere have reported hundreds of infections among employees forced to work in close proximity, prompting some plants run by Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods to shift production or shut and sparking calls by unions for safer working conditions.
Even with huge companies such as Walmart and Amazon.com Inc hiring, some Americans who live in parts of states with lower infection rates have been made restless by restrictions that have more than 90% of the country under stay-at-home orders, leading to protests this week by flag-waving Trump supporters in the capitols of Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia.
The demonstrations, which featured large crowds of people neither practicing social distancing nor wearing protective face coverings, angered governors who have been trying to bring coronavirus outbreaks in their states under control.
Also angering those governors, all Democrats, were a series of Twitter posts on Friday by the Republican president – “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” – that appeared to be egging on the protests.
While Trump agitates to get the country back up and running sooner rather than later as he faces re-election in November, the Pentagon announced on Saturday it was extending travel restrictions for its personnel until the end of June.
Several states, including Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Florida, have said they aim to reopen parts of their economies, perhaps by May 1 or even sooner.
But health experts have cautioned that to avoid a second wave of infections as people return to work, extensive testing must be available to track infections, as well as contact tracing and antibody testing to learn who had been previously infected and might have some immunity.
‘A TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE’
Vice President Mike Pence said on Friday that the United States had the capacity to do a sufficient amount of testing for states to move into a phase one of reopening.
However, governors and health officials in the states say there is nowhere near enough test kits and equipment available to do that kind of widespread testing.
Cuomo on Saturday reiterated that federal funding was necessary for that magnitude of testing and to reopen the economy.
To help slow the virus’ spread, New York has mandated statewide wearing of masks for anyone out in public and unable to practice social distancing. The rules, which cover all those using public transport or for-hire vehicles, came into effect on Friday night.
Cuomo noted that while the number of patients needing intervention to help them breathe as the virus attacks their lungs has continued to decline, some 2,000 people were still being hospitalized with COVID-19 daily.
Still, there were signs of hope that the worst might be over, at least for New York.
“If you look at the past three days, you could argue that we are past the plateau and we’re starting to descend, which would be very good news,” Cuomo said.
Other parts of the country have yet to see infections and deaths peak.
The United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 700,000. The U.S. tally of lives lost to COVID-19 has also soared to more than 35,000. New York state accounts for nearly half those deaths.
“People are frustrated, we’re anxious, we’re scared, we’re angry,” Cuomo said. “This is a terrible experience, it’s disorienting, it threatens you to your core.”
Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus – here
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Maria Caspani in New York and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Daniel Wallis