As U.S. economy falters, state governors mull May 1 reopening

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governors of about 20 U.S. states spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic may start reopening their economies by President Donald Trump’s May 1 target date, a top U.S. health official said on Wednesday, as fresh data illustrated the economic and human toll brought by the crisis.

FILE PHOTO: Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield testifies about coronavirus preparedness and response to the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency was prepared to assist those states in the process of lifting restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

“There are a number of states – 19, 20 states – that really have had limited impact from it. So I think we will see some states that are – the governors feel that they’re ready – we’re poised to assist them with that reopening,” Redfield said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

States and local governments have issued “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders affecting about 94% of Americans to curb the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

The restrictions have battered with U.S. economy, with mandatory business closures aimed at curbing the pathogen’s spread leaving millions of Americans unemployed. With evidence that the outbreak is slowing in hard-hit states like New York, political leaders have engaged in an acrimonious debate over when to try to reopen the economy without paving the way for a deadly second wave of infections.

Fresh government data released on Wednesday gave another glimpse at the economic damage. Retail sales dropped by 8.7% in March, the government reported, the biggest decline since tracking began in 1992. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

In addition, output at U.S. factories declined by the most since 1946 as the pandemic fractured supply chains.

Economists believe the economy entered recession in March.

“The economy is almost in free fall,” said Sung Won Sohn, a business economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The U.S. death toll – already the world’s highest in the world – has surged relentlessly. The number of U.S. deaths stood at 28,700 on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, with more than 610,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. On Tuesday, the number of U.S. deaths rose to a single-day high.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, the state considered the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, said 752 died there in the previous day – down slightly from the previous day but still high – even as hospitalizations declined.

“We need to build a bridge toward a reopening of the economy,” Cuomo told a news briefing. “We are going to a different place – a new normal.”

TOLL FOR HEALTHCARE WORKERS

Healthcare workers have faced unique health threats while working on the front lines trying to tackle the pandemic. Reuters has identified more than 50 nurses, doctors and medical technicians who have died after being diagnosed with COVID-19 or showing symptoms of it. At least 16 were in New York state.

“The emergency room is like a war zone,” said Raj Aya, whose wife Madhvi Aya – a physician’s assistant in Brooklyn – was one of the healthcare workers who died in New York.

But in one sign of ebbing hospitalizations, staffing agencies that have deployed thousands of healthcare workers in recent weeks to jobs in New York City and other hot spots have said some of them are no longer needed.

Demand for “travel nurses” had jumped during March and early April in New York, New Orleans and other cities.

Anthony Fauci, Trump’s top infectious diseases adviser, said the ability of states to reopen would largely depend on regional issues, including population density and other factors. States would at a minimum need to identify and isolate coronavirus patients and conduct extensive contact tracing or else risk a surge in cases, he said.

Medical workers respond at Maimonides Medical Center during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

“There is going to be a great deal of variability,” Fauci told NBC’s “Today” program in an interview aired on Wednesday. “It probably would be a rolling entry into it,” with some states keeping shelter-at-home restrictions in place and others relaxing them.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced a $170 million initiative to feed residents in need. He also directed supermarkets and grocery stores in the most populous U.S. city to require their customers to wear face coverings while shopping.

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., extended the public health emergency for the U.S. capital through May 15 and required masks for hotel workers and guests, people using taxis or rideshares and food sellers.

Reporting Lucia Mutikani, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani, Lisa Shumaker, Gabriella Borter, Kristina Cooke and Jessica Resnick-Ault; Writing by Will Dunham and Maria Caspani; Editing by Frank McGurty and Alistair Bell

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