World Coronavirus News: Live Coverage

The known global death toll has topped 200,000. Now, many countries are plotting their reopening. As the toll from the coronavirus cont...

The known global death toll has topped 200,000. Now, many countries are plotting their reopening.

As the toll from the coronavirus continues to climb steadily, countries are putting together the pieces for the next phase of their response after either gradually lifting stringent lockdown measures or announcing plans to do so.

Still, the official numbers offer a sense of the scale of the pandemic, which has spread at a relentless pace. The official global death count passed 100,000 on April 10, just over two weeks ago.

Many Americans are confronted with conflicting messages from local politicians eager to reopen businesses and public health officials urging them to stay home. And governors fear the lure of summer sunshine will make social distancing an even greater challenge.

Similar calculations were being made around the world, as countries once ravaged by the outbreak — like Italy, Spain and Britain — but now apparently past their initial peak in cases take tentative steps toward restarting public life.

Britain earned an unwelcome distinction over the weekend, becoming the fifth country to record more than 20,000 deaths from the virus, but officials say the nation may be turning a corner.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was discharged from the hospital this month after contracting the coronavirus, returned to work on Monday. He said that the country was “now beginning to turn the tide” in its outbreak, but that any reopening must be balanced with protective measures to avoid a potentially devastating “second wave” of infections.

In Italy, which has endured the longest lockdown in Europe and one of the world’s worst outbreaks, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has offered his plan for easing restrictions and reopening the economy starting next Monday.

And in New Zealand, retailers, restaurants, construction sites and schools will begin to reopen Tuesday, five weeks after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deployed a countrywide lockdown as part of an aggressive and highly successful response.

Only a single new case of the virus was reported on Monday, and Ms. Ardern described it as “currently” eliminated.

Ms. Ardern praised New Zealanders’ efforts while also warning that the easing of restrictions did not signal a return to normal.

“We’re opening up our economy,” she said, “but we’re not opening up people’s social lives.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, on his return to work after being released from the hospital, appealed on Monday for patience from the British public, giving no promises over when and how the country’s lockdown would be lifted.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street on his first full day of work, Mr. Johnson thanked the British people for their “sheer grit and guts” in dealing with the constraints, and said much progress had been made.

He called the coronavirus pandemic “the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war,” and added that with fewer hospital admissions there were real signs that the country was “beginning to turn the tide.”

But he cautioned that this moment of opportunity also held several risks, and warned that relaxing social distancing measures too soon could lead to a second wave of infections.

“I understand your impatience, I share your anxiety,” he said, adding that a rise in illness could bring not only more death but an “economic disaster” with the nation forced to reimpose restrictions.

Mr. Johnson looked fit and well as he spoke, and although he didn’t mention his own health, he did briefly acknowledge the personal impact of the virus.

“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor,” he said.

Mr. Johnson spent three nights in the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ Hospital in London, but was discharged this month and spent two weeks convalescing at his official country residence.

During Mr. Johnson’s absence, Britain continued under lockdown without any relaxation of the restrictive measures intended to stem the spread of the virus. But the government is under growing pressure from some lawmakers to at least explain a strategy for loosening measures and gradually reopening shops and perhaps schools.

Mr. Johnson made no promises on Monday about when that would happen, though he did pledge more transparency.

“We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made,” he said, “though clearly the government will be saying much more about this in the coming days.”

New Zealand’s retailers, restaurants, construction sites and schools will start to reopen Tuesday, five weeks after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deployed a “go hard and go early” approach that has led to a sharp decline in coronavirus infections.

The loosening of restrictions to a level three alert put an end to the country’s total lockdown after a week when the number of active infections in the country fell below 300. Only a single new case was reported on Monday.

The easing makes room for what some other countries already allow — such as carryout food, small shopping trips and outdoor exercise, but travel beyond where people live is still discouraged, and schools will be reopening only online at first.

Ms. Ardern praised New Zealanders’ efforts while also warning that eased restrictions did not signal a time to break out and celebrate.

“We’re opening up our economy, but we’re not opening up people’s social lives,” she said.

Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director general of health, said that transmission of the virus had been “eliminated,” meaning that health officials knew where all new cases were coming from, and were in position to test, track and trace any new outbreak.

Ms. Ardern said that the next phase of the process — to reach zero cases and total elimination — would require additional vigilance from both the public and public health professionals.

“To succeed we must hunt down the last few cases of the virus,” Ms. Ardern said. “This is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Face masks become mandatory for those using public transport and in most shops across Germany on Monday, as the country gradually reopens despite worries that the loosening of measures could be too much too soon.

Guidelines agreed to by federal and state governments allow states to make the final decision on reopening stores and schools as well as the rules on masks, leading to a hodgepodge of policies across the country.

In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, wearing a mask is mandatory at bus stops, train stations, banks, post offices and gas stations, while Berlin has decided not to require masks in shops. The timing of when new rules go into effect also differs state by state, as do the fines for those who do not comply with the measures.

Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week that loosening rules too quickly might be “foolhardy,” since new infections are usually detected days after the transmission has occurred.

“Let us not squander what we have achieved,” she told German lawmakers on Thursday.

The chancellor and state governors are to meet again on May 6 to discuss the progress and discuss any further loosening of the rules. To date, Germany has had at least 155,193 confirmed coronavirus infections and 5,750 deaths.

Masks also became compulsory in shops and on public transport in the Hungarian capital of Budapest on Monday. Elsewhere in Europe, other nations have begun chart out a gradual reopening.

After curbing one of the highest per capita rates of coronavirus infection in Europe, Switzerland allowed a limited number of businesses to reopen on Monday at the start of what authorities have billed as a three-step program to relax its national lockdown.

Salons, garden centers and florists are returning to work as the authorities ease controls on businesses that do not involve close personal contact or crowds of people. A restriction limiting funerals to immediate family has also been lifted. Switzerland is not enforcing the public wearing of masks, but a ban on gatherings of more than five people remains in place.

More than 29,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Switzerland, and at least 1,337 have died of the virus, official statistics show, levels of infection largely eclipsed by the scale of the crises in neighboring Italy and Spain. But the cautious relaxation of controls reflects a rate of infection measured per million of population that ranks fifth in the world — higher than the United States, Britain or France.

The Afghan government announced on Monday that it was releasing 12,000 prisoners, in addition to 10,000 already in the process of being released, as the pandemic spreads across the country and prisons remain overcrowded.

The virus is spreading rapidly across Afghanistan, which is in the midst of a war between the government and the Taliban. The United Nations said on Monday that the fighting had killed 533 civilians and wounded 766 others in the first quarter of the year.

The country of roughly 32 million has officially registered 1,703 coronavirus cases, but those numbers are a low estimate, as testing is extremely limited.

The prisoner release, once complete, would set free more than 60 percent of the country’s 36,000 inmates. Rashid Totakhel, the head of Afghanistan’s prison authority, said the country was holding more prisoners than the capacity for 18,000 inmates.

“It should be implemented immediately,” Mr. Totakhel said about the latest decree on the release.

Excluded from the count are 5,000 Taliban members who are expected to be freed as part of the peace deal between the government and the insurgent group. The Afghan government and the insurgents are locked in disagreements over their releases. While the Taliban want their members released at once, the Afghan government has been releasing them in waves of 100 or less.

Kenya has demoted a top scientist in charge of overseeing the country’s coronavirus testing, raising concerns and prompting criticism about the timing of the government’s directive.

Dr. Joel Lutomiah, the deputy director for the Center for Virus Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, was dismissed from the role after test results were delayed, according to local news reports. Scientists at the institute, however, said that he was fired for standing up to government officials and demanding more funding during this crucial period.

Established in 1979, the institute plays a vital role in tackling diseases — including malaria and H.I.V. — and is the top testing facility in Kenya for the coronavirus. Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta said the institute was involved in efforts to find a vaccine for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Kenya has so far announced 363 cases and 14 deaths from the virus.

The government has defended its decision to fire Dr. Lutomiah from the leadership role, saying the move was intended to improve the timely release of test results. Kenya’s preparedness and response to the coronavirus has been seen in a mostly positive light so far, with the government conducting thousands of tests, suspending international flights a week after reporting its first case and imposing a partial lockdown on counties reporting high cases.

But several scientists and activists said on Monday that they were appalled by the decision, with some calling it “unwise.” John Githongo, head of the grass-roots advocacy group Inuka Kenya, wrote on Twitter that it was “a case of disastrous timing.”

A heat wave over the weekend in Southern California foreshadowed the likely challenges that lay ahead for governors and mayors trying to sustain social distancing efforts as spring turns to summer.

Despite pleas from state and local leaders to stay home, tens of thousands of people flocked to beaches that were open in Orange County on Saturday. Photographs of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach showed large crowds staking out patches of sand with beach towels and umbrellas. The Orange County Register reported that as many as 40,000 people went to Newport Beach on Friday.

In neighboring Los Angeles County, all beaches remained closed.

“We won’t let one weekend undo a month of progress,” Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “While the sunshine is tempting, we’re staying home to save lives. The places we love — our beaches, hiking trails — will still be there when this is over. And by staying home, we’re making sure our loved ones will be too.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Americans should expect social distancing guidelines to continue for months. “Social distancing will be with us through the summer,” she said on Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo encouraged continued social distancing, but said during his daily briefing on Sunday that it was unreasonable to expect people to stay inside all the time when summer arrives, especially in the most populous part of the state.

“We need summer activities in downstate New York,” Mr. Cuomo said. “You can’t tell people in a dense urban environment all through the summer months: ‘We don’t have anything for you to do. Stay in your apartment with the three kids.’ That doesn’t work. There’s a sanity equation here also that we have to take into consideration.”

States have struggled to navigate competing demands to keep residents safe and the economy open. A handful, including Alaska, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, have begun partly reopening some businesses, like hair salons, gyms and bowling alleys.

The reopenings have led to criticism, particularly in Georgia where several African-American leaders, including the mayors of Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, slammed the decision by Gov. Brian Kemp to allow gyms, barbershops, tattoo parlors and spas to reopen on Friday.

On Twitter, Mr. Trump suggested he was not going to fire the health secretary, saying “Alex is doing an excellent job!”

Under pressure from religious institutions, Iran’s government announced on Sunday that it would reopen some 127 religious sites, including shrines and mosques, in about a week around the country, which has endured one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

President Hassan Rouhani said that Friday Prayer, canceled since the middle of March, would resume at the reopened sites but that protocols would have to be observed.

As Iran started gradually lifting restrictions in the past two weeks and reopening businesses in an attempt to salvage its battered economy, the calls to open religious shrines grew louder. The announcement coincides with the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast and gather nightly for communal prayers and sermons.

The closing and opening of religious sites, particularly the two prominent Shia shrines in Qom and Mashhad, have been a source of contention between health officials and the religious authorities. Iran’s coronavirus outbreak started in the city of Qom and spread across Iran and to multiple neighboring countries through pilgrims who had visited the shrine. Mr. Rouhani was widely criticized for not enforcing a swift shutdown of crowded religious sites.

The hard-line newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, wrote that if parks and shopping malls opened then mosques should open, too, and claimed “religious shrines had a small role in spreading the coronavirus.”

The Health Ministry’s latest tally on Sunday was 90,481 infections and 5,710 dead, although health experts and local government officials have said the numbers are several times higher than the official account.

Mr. Rouhani has repeatedly said that the peak of the virus has passed, but health officials have warned that lifting restrictions too quickly could rapidly lead to a resurgence of the virus and that at least three provinces are still considered red zones.

“Iran is still in the escalation trajectory of contracting coronavirus and reaching the peak,” said Hossein Erfani, the Health Ministry’s head of infectious disease. “The public should not think the story of coronavirus is over and they can go around freely.”

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plans to gradually reopen Italy have received a cool welcome, with business groups, regional presidents and even the Roman Catholic Church criticizing the criteria as insufficient and inconsistent.

Mr. Conte said Sunday night that starting next Monday people would be allowed to visit relatives, parks could reopen and restaurants could start offering food for takeout, but the criticism underscored the difficulty leaders face in trying to balance economic growth and public health.

Confcommercio, Italy’s largest business organization, denounced a potential “economic collapse of thousands of companies.” Carlo Sangalli, the president of the association, asked for an urgent meeting with the prime minister, warning that postponing the reopening of commercial activities risked “very serious damage.”

Matteo Salvini, the opposition leader, threatened to organize a protest, though one that reflected the current state of affairs “with masks, at a distance, peaceful and determined.” Italy was the site of the first outbreak in Europe and has been hit the hardest, but, he wrote on Facebook, “The workers can no longer wait.”

Italian journalists criticized the prime minister for steering clear of the plans initially associated with the lifting of lockdowns, known as Phase 2: The establishment of quarantine facilities for the infected, a network of coronavirus hospitals, improved testing and contact tracing.

“Phase 2 did not start,” the journalist Annalisa Cuzzocrea wrote on Twitter. “The truth is that not enough was done to prepare for Phase 2. Neither the government nor the task force was able to do it.”

Local officials faulted the government for a nationwide approach that failed to differentiate between the wealthier northern regions, where the virus has flourished, and the economically fragile southern regions, which have been largely spared. Giovanni Toti, the president of the Liguria region, called the government’s plan “slow and blurry.”

The Italian Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the extension of the ban on religious ceremonies, with the exception of funerals. “The Italian bishops cannot accept to see the freedom of worship compromised,” they wrote in a statement.

But some experts have also warned that allowing greater movement removing some restrictions on work when the number of daily infections is still in the thousands was a very risky move. “There are no doubts: With the reopening, the risk is very high,” Andrea Crisanti, the top scientific consultant on the virus in the Veneto region, told the newspaper Il Giornale, adding that opening up in the current situation means there is a chance “we will have to start from scratch.”

The World Health Organization on Friday warned against relying on antibody tests for policy decisions as leaders consider how to reopen their economies and reintegrate society. While countries like Italy have even floated the idea of “immunity passports” for people who test positive, W.H.O. officials noted that it is not known to what extent people carrying antibodies are immune to the virus.

But widespread testing has started, and important decisions are likely to flow from the results. The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and virtually every university with an epidemiology department has begun antibody surveys in communities across the United States.

The goal of most of these projects is to get a handle on the size and nature of the epidemic, rather than to guide decisions about reopening the economy. But now scientists are racing to fine-tune the tests and to learn more about what having antibodies actually means, both for the patient and for the community.

Few scientists ever imagined that these tests would become an instrument of public policy — and many are uncomfortable with the idea. Antibody tests, which show who has been infected, are often inaccurate, recent research suggests, and it is not clear whether a positive result actually signals immunity.

Last week, a survey of New Yorkers found that one in five city residents carried antibodies to the new coronavirus.

If one in five residents in hard-hit New York City has been exposed to the virus, Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, and others have said, then four in five are still vulnerable — and that underscores how far we are from the pandemic’s end.

Public health experts like Dr. Bergstrom took the opposite view. “If the mortality rate is 1 percent, we’re looking at two million deaths,” he said, “which is unprecedented in our nation’s history and unimaginable.”

The vast economic rescue package that President Trump signed into law last month included $349 billion in low-interest loans for small businesses. The so-called Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to help prevent small companies — generally those with fewer than 500 employees in the United States — from capsizing as the economy sinks into what looks like a severe recession.

The loan program was meant for companies that could no longer finance themselves through traditional means, like raising money in the markets or borrowing from banks under existing credit lines. The law required that the federal money — which comes at a low 1 percent interest rate and in some cases doesn’t need to be paid back — be spent on things like payroll or rent.

But the program has been riddled with problems. Within days of its start, its money ran out, prompting Congress to approve an additional $310 billion in funding that will open for applications on Monday. Lenders expect the second round to be depleted even faster.

Countless small businesses were shut out, even as a number of large companies received millions of dollars in aid.

Some, including restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris and Shake Shack, agreed to return their loans after a public outcry. But dozens of large but lower-profile companies with financial or legal problems have also received large payouts under the program, according to an analysis of the more than 200 publicly traded companies that have disclosed receiving a total of more than $750 million in bailout loans.

The government has since published new guidance strongly discouraging public companies from using the program and urged those that did take the money to return it. Some have; others haven’t.

Small companies — those with under 500 workers — employ nearly half of America’s private sector work force. Most run on thin margins and have scant savings. For small business owners shut out of the program, watching big companies collect loans while their applications languish has been infuriating.

“It has been beyond frustrating,” said Diane Burgio, a single mother who runs a design business in New York City that employs four people. She was one of more than 280,000 applicants who sought, and did not get, a loan from JPMorgan Chase.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Emma Bubola, Abdi Latif Dahir, Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Megan Specia, Damien Cave, Farnaz Fassihi, Pam Belluck, Vanessa Swales, Katie Rogers, Apoorva Mandavilli, Austin Ramzy, Christopher F. Schuetze, Stephen Castle, Stacy Cowley, Alan Rappeport, Emily Flitter, Jeanna Smialek, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, David Enrich, Jesse Drucker and William Rashbaum.

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Newsrust: World Coronavirus News: Live Coverage
World Coronavirus News: Live Coverage
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