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As more than two-thirds of states reopen, the U.S. faces a delicate moment.
A number of states lifted or relaxed restrictions on business and public life on Friday, joining others that have pushed for a speedy reopening in recent weeks and pushing the total to over two-thirds of the country.
In Maryland, new regulations allow retail stores to open at 50 percent capacity, while still being encouraged to offer delivery and curbside pickup. Churches and other houses of worship were pressed to halve their capacity and offer outdoor services where possible. Salons and barbershops can only take appointments.
In Oregon, retail stores can reopen statewide, so long as they follow distancing guidelines. 31 of the state’s 36 counties were approved for other, limited reopenings. Restaurants and bars can provide dine-in service until 10 p.m. Gyms must follow new social distancing guidelines, limit the size of fitness classes, and consider holding classes and activities outdoors.
But in testimony before Congress last week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said that relaxing restrictions too soon could prompt another uncontrollable outbreak.
The number of new coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States has steadily declined in recent days. In New York, the figure has dropped over the past month. The numbers have also plunged in hard-hit Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and some states, including Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska, are reporting few new cases at all.
But that progress is tenuous and uncertain.
Only about 3 percent of the population has been tested. More than 20,000 new cases are identified on most days. And almost every day this past week, more than 1,000 people in the United States died from the virus. The total death toll has surpassed of 87,000.
That has left the nation at a perilous moment, beginning to reopen businesses and ease social distancing measures despite the risk of a resurgence.
Investigators have uncovered an extensive effort to defraud U.S. unemployment systems.
With states scrambling to pay out unemployment claims to tens of millions of Americans, a vast attack flooding unemployment agencies with fraudulent claims appears to have already siphoned millions of dollars in payments.
Investigators from the Secret Service said they had information implicating a well-organized Nigerian fraud ring, and that stolen information such as social security numbers had allowed the network to file claims on behalf of people who in many cases had not lost their jobs.
Most of the fraudulent claims have so far been concentrated in Washington State, but evidence also pointed to similar attacks in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wyoming.
The challenge of pre-empting fraudulent claims has increased as the pressure to get money into the hands of unemployed workers has grown. Unemployment offices accustomed to dealing with jobless claims in the thousands have been inundated with over a million claims during recent months in more populous states.
The attacks, which the Secret Service warned could conceivably target every state, could result in “potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.
The discovery has added to concerns that jury-rigged efforts to rapidly dispense economic relief could be easily exploited by fraudsters. The I.R.S. last month documented losses of at least $16.9 billion because of identity theft as it raced to dole out trillions of dollars in economic stimulus checks.
F.D.A.’s approval of a new testing kit increases hope for detecting infections at home.
The Food and Drug Administration announced on Saturday that it had granted emergency clearance for another coronavirus test that allows users to check themselves for the virus at home.
The newly-approved kits, made by Everlywell and available by prescription only, would allow individuals to take a nasal sample and send it to a laboratory for diagnostic testing.
The agency granted its first approval for an in-home test in April, and has authorized two other tests besides the Everylwell kit to date. One, sold by LabCorp, also uses a nasal swab to collect a sample, which is then sent to a lab. The other, developed by a Rutgers University laboratory, called RUCDR Infinite Biologics, in partnership with Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostic Labs, allows users to collect a saliva sample for analysis.
The agency expressed hope that availability of another kit would increase access to testing nationally, as well as reduce the risks facing health care workers who mainly administer tests in person. The kits could also provide a safer alternative to drive-through testing centers that companies like CVS and Walmart have set up.
New York clears the way for some ‘low-risk’ activities to resume, but city beaches, a beloved summer standby, will stay closed.
Recreational activities are, in drips and drabs, returning to New York State.
After two months of lockdown and as new cases continue to fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Saturday that horse racing tracks and the Watkins Glen International auto racing track could reopen in June. But fans will not be able to attend — the events will be televised.
“Great, we can have economic activity without having a crowd, that’s great,” Mr. Cuomo said.
In Warwick, N.Y., cabin fever and movies drew carloads of people to the drive-in theater as it opened for business again.
“There were some power glitches, but it was a very good night,” said Beth Wilson, who owns and manages the drive-in with her husband. “We sold out. People were just so happy to be outside.”
Ms. Wilson had received only four day’s notice that she would be allowed to open on Friday. On Monday, Mr. Cuomo authorized the opening of drive-ins and also cleared the way for other “low-risk” activities like landscaping, gardening and tennis.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that opening New York City’s 14 miles of public beaches was “not in the cards” by Memorial Day weekend, when they have traditionally opened for swimming, and that they would stay closed until officials were confident they could be used without a serious risk of spreading the virus.
The announcement came the same day Mr. Cuomo said that all state-run beaches in New York would be open for swimming by the Memorial Day weekend, with restrictions in place to ensure social distancing.
The governor made his decision in concert with his counterparts in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, who offered similar announcements.
The pandemic is causing tensions between the U.S. and China to boil over.
Their brittle unity collapsed as coronavirus deaths exploded in the United States. The White House and the Republican Party tried to shift the focus of ire, blaming China for reacting slowly and covering up crucial information. And China has hit back.
The bitter recriminations have plunged relations between China and the United States to a nadir, with warnings in both countries that the bad blood threatens to draw them into a new kind of Cold War.
The clash is fanning broader tensions on trade, technology, espionage and other fronts — disputes that could intensify as Mr. Trump makes his contest with Beijing a theme of his re-election campaign.
The president has also accused the World Health Organization of being too soft on China over its response to the virus, and froze funding to the organization last month. Mr. Trump said on Saturday that the United States had “not made a final decision” about restoring some funding to the organization. His comments, posted on Twitter, were in response to a Fox News report on Friday that suggested that the White House was considering such a move.
As unemployment claims mount, many are turning to already stressed food banks for the first time.
As unemployment in the United States crept higher in April and May, passing 36 million claims this week, the sudden crush of jobless Americans in need of free food has tested the limits of many food banks.
Even as new cases of the coronavirus appear to have ticked downward nationally in recent days, the stress on food banks has persisted, with daunting numbers of people who are thrust into food insecurity forced to use a system that many have not used before.
According to Feeding America, which represents 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across the country, roughly two out of five people visiting food banks in the organization’s network since the outbreak are seeking free food for the first time.
The sudden pressure has only aggravated challenges for food banks in regions already dealing with significant hunger. According to the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves a number of economically stressed areas of the Washington metropolitan area, one of 10 residents were already facing food insecurity before the pandemic. Since March 13, nearly 100,000 people in Washington alone have filed for unemployment.
While some federal efforts to ease hunger have been stepped up during the coronavirus crisis, the overall response has been inconsistent. The Trump administration has been criticized for continuing efforts to enact stricter requirements for claiming food stamps, even as rates of childhood food insecurity have quadrupled, according to some estimates.
Obama is expected to deliver two commencement speeches on Saturday.
Former President Barack Obama is set to give two virtual commencement speeches to graduating college and high school seniors on Saturday in his first public addresses to a national audience during the pandemic.
“I’ve always loved joining commencements — the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice,” Mr. Obama posted on Twitter this month. “Even if we can’t get together in person this year, Michelle and I am excited to celebrate the nationwide Class of 2020 and recognize this milestone with you and your loved ones.”
Mr. Obama’s words are expected to draw much interest at a time when President Trump has received immense scrutiny for his handling of the coronavirus. Mr. Obama has generally avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Trump, but he called the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic “anemic and spotty” in a private call last week.
The virus has dashed many graduation traditions, so political leaders and celebrities have stepped in to celebrate graduates as they enter a world shaped by uncertainty, infection fears and economic instability.
Mr. Obama’s first address at 2 p.m. Eastern will be aired during a ceremony for more than 27,000 graduates from 78 historically black colleges and universities. He is then scheduled to have remarks air during a prime time special for high-school graduates that starts at 8 p.m. Eastern on all the major television networks.
On Friday, Oprah Winfrey urged the “pandemic class” to rebuild a fairer society in a video commencement speech hosted by Facebook.
In New Orleans, goodbyes are more grim than usual.
Since early March, nearly 500 people have died of the virus in New Orleans. Roughly three-quarters of those who died were black.
“In April we did four times what we would normally do in one month,” said Malcolm Gibson, the owner of Professional Funeral Services in New Orleans. “I probably had five husband-and-wife funerals. I’ve never had that.”
The hardest part for Mr. Gibson has been telling families that only 10 people were allowed at funeral services because of state social-distancing restrictions.
“That’s my grandmother!” distraught family members would say to him. “She raised me! You’re telling me I can’t be in the room?”
Many families are waiting to have funeral ceremonies for those they have lost. Some are going forward with burials this weekend, as state restrictions are scheduled to loosen slightly. But packed sanctuaries and crowded repasts are still a long way off.
Normally, a service would last for hours, with large crowds of family and friends singing hymns and telling stories together.
“We are beyond normal,” the Rev. Juan Crockett said. He has lost four of his friends. Two others, he said, were recently told they had a short time left to live.
Can sports help heal a country? Some fans don’t think so.
With baseball and other major sports desperately seeking avenues for a return amid the pandemic, some fans wonder if leagues are conflating their economic stakes with pleas full of emotion and nostalgia.
Are big-time sports actually the healing force so many public officials and sports leaders purport them to be? And do their fleeting thrills provide necessary entertainment right now, justifying the risks posed by large gatherings?
“I don’t think now is the time,” said Pedro Urbaez, a devoted Mets fan who has seen firsthand the peril caused by the pandemic while working at a New York food rescue nonprofit. “We need other things to be healed, if you want to call it that, before we get to baseball.”
Sports could serve as a cue of sorts: In the same way that the N.B.A.’s decision in March to shut down, which made it the first major American sports league to suspend operations, helped awaken the public to the severity of the coronavirus, the resumption of games could serve as a crucial sign of recovery.
But Americans in general have expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of sports returning. An ESPN survey of people who identified themselves as sports fans found that just over half missed watching live competition on TV, and many said games should come back even if — as generally proposed by leagues seeking to play again — fans are forbidden to attend. Yet in a Seton Hall poll conducted last month, 70 percent of respondents said that if social distancing continued in the fall, the N.F.L. should protect the health of its players by not starting the season.
The House’s vote to allow remote balloting will fundamentally change how Congress operates.
When the House of Representatives acted on Friday to allow remote voting and virtual hearings, the coronavirus pandemic succeeded in doing what Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak of 1793, the Spanish influenza of 1918, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and generations of agitators for institutional change never could: untethering Congress from its mandate to come together physically.
With Friday’s party-line vote, 217 to 189, as long as the public health emergency persists, lawmakers from Alaska to Florida need not leave the safety of their homes to question witnesses at a hearing, sign subpoenas or vote on legislation.
Democrats who control the chamber have stressed that they are simply trying to find a way for the House — a coequal branch of government and, they argue, a crucial counterweight to President Trump — to perform its basic functions while congregating in Washington is a dire health risk.
Republicans, almost reflexively, are opposed to the changes and have denounced them as an unconstitutional power grab. But beyond the partisan considerations, a broad cross-section of congressional scholars, parliamentary experts and former officials warn that the decision could have unintended and long-lasting consequences.
Michael Stern, a former senior legal counsel to the House who writes about congressional legal issues, said the institution was built on the understanding that its members would gather. “There is a pretty strong argument that if you cut that out, you are losing something,” he added. “And you may not know how significant it is until it’s gone.”
A barber defied the rules and cut hair in his home. Now he has the virus.
The complaint came in last month from a resident of Kingston, a city in the Hudson Valley: A local barbershop was still performing haircuts, in violation of New York’s emergency shutdown orders.
Two days later, a buildings investigator went out to investigate. La Lima Barbershop at 678 Broadway was dark. Three more visits, on April 13, 17, and 19, turned up the same result.
The complaint was left unresolved until this week, when the proprietor of the shop, Joseph LaLima, was hospitalized for the coronavirus.
He had never stopped cutting hair. But he was doing it in the privacy of his home — in the back of the shop.
“He said do not open up your shops, barbershops, beauty parlors, nail salons, tattoo parlors,” Mr. LaLima said on Friday, referring to the governor. “So I didn’t.”
Global updates from Times correspondents.
Greece opened hundreds of beaches, Amazon reached an agreement to reopen warehouses in France and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity surged in India.
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When mortgage relief comes with a bill for $4,000.
Edith Duran quickly found herself in a difficult spot as the coronavirus pandemic crippled the local businesses she counts as clients. She couldn’t draw her full salary in February, and by March, she was seeking relief on her mortgage.
She was allowed to pause her payments for three months starting in early April, but the company that handles her mortgage made a seemingly impossible request: Pay back the $4,450 in skipped payments on July 1.
“That is a lot of money to come up with all at once when we are struggling to get things aligned and get our lives back in order,” said Ms. Duran, who owes about $163,000 on her four-bedroom ranch in DeLeon Springs, Fla.
With unemployment soaring, millions of borrowers have flooded mortgage firms with requests to hit the pause button. Federal officials have made it possible for borrowers with government-backed mortgages to suspend their payments for up to a year without immediately paying it back. But about 30 percent of homeowners with mortgages are like Ms. Duran. Their loans are owned by banks or private investors and are not governed by the same rules.
And for them, there has been little in the way of relief.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Julie Bosman, Audra D.S. Burch, Chris Buckley, John Eligon, Nicholas Fandos, Annie Flanagan, Amy Harmon, Julia Jacobs, Sheila Kaplan, Corey Kilgannon, Zach Montague, Kwame Opam, Steven Lee Myers, Sarah Maslin Nir, Campbell Robertson, Mitch Smith and James Wagner.
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