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Trump calls houses of worship “essential services” and urges governors to let them reopen “right now.”
President Trump stepped into the culture wars again on Friday, taking the side of some religious leaders against governors who have moved slowly in reopening houses of worship amid the pandemic.
Without any clear authority to do so, he said that he was calling houses of faith, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, “essential services” and urged governors to reopen them “right now.”
“Today I am identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Mr. Trump said at a hastily scheduled briefing at the White House on Friday. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right.”
It was not immediately clear what powers the president was claiming.“I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” he said. “If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me but they’re not going to be successful in that call.”
Religious services have emerged as flashpoints since states first began restricting large gatherings as they sought to curb the spread of the virus. Mr. Trump initially hoped to let the country reopen by Easter, a goal that proved untenable as the outbreak continued to grow.
In several cases his Justice Department has put its weight behind religious institutions battling state and local restrictions. After the department lent its support last month to a Mississippi church that was penalized for holding drive-in services in defiance of local virus restrictions, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement: “Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
And Justice Department lawyers wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom of California this week objecting to his timeline for letting religious institutions reopen.
When the C.D.C. recently released a set of guidelines for reopening, the report they initially released largely mirrored a draft version that had been rejected by the White House — but it omitted a section on “communities of faith” that had troubled Trump administration officials.
In the draft, religious institutions had been encouraged to have all congregants wear masks and to suspend any “choir or music ensemble,” but administration officials worried that the suggestions infringed on religious rights.
On Friday Mr. Trump said that “at my direction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing guidance for communities of faiths.”
Mr. Trump said that the nation needs religion. “In America we need more prayer, not less,” he said. He left without taking questions.
Later during the briefing Friday Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said that worshipers should use social distancing measures and urged some restraint.
“I think each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health departments so that they can communicate to their congregants,” she said at the briefing. “Certainly, people that have significant co-morbidities, we want them protected. I know those houses of worship want to protect them. Maybe they can’t go this week if there’s a high number of Covid cases, maybe they wait another week.”
David Postman, the chief of staff for Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, said the state didn’t know what the president’s comments meant and the state had not seen any sort of formal order.
“We don’t believe the president has the ability to dictate what states can and cannot open,” Mr. Postman said.
Mr. Postman said state officials were continuing to work with an interfaith group to develop guidelines on how religious institutions can open up for more in-person activities. The state currently allows drive-in services, where congregants remain in their vehicles, and churches can also bring in personnel to broadcast video of services.
The president’s move came as health officials have found that worship gatherings can be particularly susceptible to viral spread. And some churches that recently reopened were forced to close again after discovering new infections, including Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Ga., and Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this week about an outbreak in March at a rural Arkansas church. Of the 92 people who attended the church between March 6 and March 11, the report said, 35 tested positive and three died. And investigators found that another 26 other people who were in contact with the people who attended church events later tested positive, and one died.
In hard-hit New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo moved this week to allow religious gatherings of up to 10 people to resume as long as attendees wear masks and maintain social distance.
“I understand their desire to get back to religious ceremonies as soon as possible,” Mr. Cuomo said of faith leaders.
The announcement was particularly significant for Jewish congregations, where a minyan, defined as 10 people over 13, is required for a worship service.
Some White House officials suggest the U.S. is overcounting virus deaths. Experts say the opposite is more likely.
President Trump has begun questioning the official coronavirus death toll, suggesting the numbers are inflated, even as most experts say the opposite is likely.
In various White House meetings, conversations with health officials have returned to similar suspicions: that the data compiled by state health departments and the C.D.C. include people who have died with the coronavirus but of other conditions, reported Noah Weiland, Maggie Haberman and Abby Goodnough.
Last Friday, Mr. Trump told reporters that he accepted the current death toll, but that the figures could be “lower than” the official count, which now totals nearly 95,000.
Most statisticians and public health experts say he is wrong; the death toll is probably far higher than what is publicly known. People are dying at their houses and nursing homes without ever being tested, and deaths early this year were likely misidentified as influenza or described only as pneumonia.
Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, has said publicly that the American health care system incorporates a generous definition of a death caused by Covid-19.
“There are other countries that if you had a pre-existing condition, and let’s say the virus caused you to go to the I.C.U., and then have a heart or kidney problem — some countries are recording that as a heart issue or a kidney issue and not a Covid-19 death,” she said at a White House news conference last month.
In a brief interview Thursday, Dr. Birx stressed that there had been no pressure to alter data.
Robert Anderson, who runs the mortality statistics branch of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Health Statistics, said it was unlikely that there was any kind of overcount.
“The case reporting system asks: Did the patient die from this illness?” he said. “It’s not asking if the patient with Covid-19 died. It’s asking if they died from Covid-19.”
White House officials say skepticism in the Trump administration over C.D.C. data, including for opioid use, long predates the coronavirus outbreak. But new reasons have cropped up.
The Trump administration has looked to the outside to get its numbers. The Department of Health and Human Services has used a technology program devised by Palantir to track numbers gathered by federal agencies, states, private health providers and universities. The administration also signed a $10 million deal with a tracking contractor — first reported by The Washington Post — that monitors hospital capacity and Covid-19 deaths, essentially repeating and privatizing the work of the C.D.C.’s National Healthcare Safety Network.
Mixing antibody and viral test results raises questions.
The C.D.C and several state health departments have come under fire for mixing two types of coronavirus tests in their reported results, in a way that public health experts say could distort the true picture of the pandemic.
The practice conflated two different types of tests results: viral tests, which assess whether someone currently has the virus, and antibody tests, which look for signs in the blood that a person had it in the past.
Both numbers are helpful in assessing the scale of the outbreak, but only viral test numbers can indicate a state’s ability to identify people who currently have the virus. Also, antibody tests are often inaccurate, recent research suggests.
A spokeswoman for the C.D.C. acknowledged in a statement that viral tests had initially far outpaced antibody tests, so the agency grouped them together. As antibody tests have become more common, officials are now working to differentiate the two.
Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and Virginia have also faced scrutiny over combined results, though some state officials said they were initially not aware of the problem and have since made changes.
Virginia first faced criticism for combining its test results earlier this month, but has since stopped the practice, effective May 14, the state’s health department said on Friday.
Georgia is being closely watched after it became one of the first states in the country to reopen businesses last month. Cases there have remained more or less the same, but the latest developments raised questions about the accuracy of the numbers.
“The integrity of our data is absolutely our No. 1 priority,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said at a news conference on Thursday.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health is still using a small number of positive antibody tests to inform the state’s total case numbers, a spokesman, Nate Wardle, said on Friday. But he said those antibody tests represented less than 1 percent of total cases in the state, and were not being used to decide whether regions should reopen.
An anti-malaria drug promoted by the president may be harmful when taken to treat the virus.
People who received the drugs were more likely to have abnormal heart rhythms, according to the study, which was published in the The Lancet. They were also more likely to die.
Mr. Trump has said he has been taking hydroxychloroquine in hopes of preventing a virus infection, despite a safety warning last month from the Food and Drug Administration, which said that the drug should only be taken by virus patients in clinical trials or in hospitals where they could be closely monitored for heart problems.
His promotion of the drug has been criticized by medical experts and has led to an uptick in reported use by Americans. Hours after Mr. Trump first touted the drugs in March, new prescriptions for them poured into retail pharmacies at a much higher rate than had previously been seen.
The study was observational, meaning that the patients were not picked at random to receive the drug or not. It is based on data from 96,032 coronavirus patients from 671 hospitals around the world. Observational studies like this one cannot provide definitive evidence about drug safety and effectiveness.
Even so, the authors of the study recommended that the drugs not be used outside clinical trials, and they said carefully controlled trials were urgently needed. Several clinical trials are underway around the world.
Cascading weaknesses in the federal disaster response system are being exposed.
For decades, the backbone of the nation’s disaster response system — and a hallmark of American generosity — has been its army of volunteers who race toward danger to help shelter, feed and counsel victims of hurricanes, wildfires and other calamities.
However, the pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this system: Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person. Typically more than 5 million volunteers work in disaster relief annually, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, an association of nonprofit groups, but this year he expects the number to decline by 50 percent.
Asked how disaster relief efforts can meet the usual demand with half as many people, Mr. Forrester said: “You won’t.”
It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by Covid-19.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is running short of highly trained personnel as the virus depletes its staff. Longstanding procedures for sheltering victims in gymnasiums or other crowded spaces suddenly are dangerous because they risk worsening the pandemic. And traditional agreements among states to help each other if crisis strikes are now sputtering.
FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for hurricane season. “We have not taken our eye off the ball about handling other disasters,” Peter Gaynor, FEMA’s administrator, said in a briefing this month.
Nevertheless the problems amount to one of the most severe tests in decades for a system designed to respond to local or regional storms or other disasters — not a crisis on a national scale.
A vaccine developed in China appears to be safe and may offer protection against the virus, scientists say.
The early-stage trial, published in the Lancet, was conducted by researchers at several laboratories and included 108 participants. Subjects who got the vaccine mounted a moderate immune response to the virus, which peaked 28 days after the inoculation, the researchers found.
A vaccine to the new coronavirus is considered to be the best long-term solution to ending the pandemic and helping countries reopen their societies. Nearly 100 teams worldwide are racing to test various candidates.
On Monday, Moderna announced that its RNA vaccine appears to be safe and effective, based on results from eight people in its trial. On Wednesday, researchers in Boston said a prototype vaccine protected monkeys from coronavirus infection.
The vaccine reported today was created with another virus, an adenovirus called Ad5 that easily enters human cells.
But the virus is one that many people already have been exposed to, and some experts have worried that too many already have antibodies to Ad5, limiting its usefulness as a way to deliver a vaccine.
Although the vaccine did elicit some immune response, the results are based on data from just a short period. It is not clear how long-lasting the protection might be.
Apart from pain at the injection site, close to half of the participants also reported fever, fatigue and headaches, and about one in five had muscle pain.
The participants knew whether they were receiving a low, medium or high dose, however, which may have influenced their perceptions of the side effects.
The country enters a Memorial Day weekend to remember (or forget).
Mobbed beaches. Crowded parades. Congested public ceremonies. Jam-packed backyard barbecues. Memorial Day, which has come to signal the beginning of hot weather across much of the United States, typically brings millions shoulder to shoulder, towel to towel.
But this year, these first rites of summer are taking place as the country grapples with the pandemic and cautiously emerges from months of quarantine. People are eager for social interaction and fun, yet public health officials warn that those impulses could result in an uptick in cases.
Many traditional Memorial Day events have been canceled or replaced with socially distant formats. Elected officials and event organizers are struggling to bring back as much normalcy as possible without jeopardizing public health. The results have been hopeful, maddening and bewildering. But many Americans are pressing on, and trying to preserve what is important while letting go of what is not.
The Memorial Day ceremony in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is on but organizers are begging the public not to come. The boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., opened this month, but signs reminded that groups of 10 or more were discouraged. And in Massachusetts, beaches will reopen for swimming on Memorial Day, but volleyball is banned and sunbathers must place their towels 12 feet apart.
Here are some general tips for planning a trip to the beach.
People are also beginning to feel the negative health effects of social isolation, which Steve Cole, a social genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, argued can increase the chances of chronic disease and other types of illnesses the longer it goes on.
“We don’t want to be packed like sardines in a crowd,” he said, “but at the same time, a lone human being is a recipe for death.”
Deadly diseases could surge after disruptions to vaccination programs.
The widespread interruption of routine immunization programs around the world during the coronavirus pandemic is putting 80 million children under 1 year old at risk of contracting deadly, vaccine-preventable diseases, according to a report Friday by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The groups surveyed 129 poor and middle-income countries and found that 68 had some degree of disruption of vaccine services through clinics and through large inoculation campaigns.
Many public health experts say they are worried that deaths from diseases including cholera, rotavirus and diphtheria could far outstrip those from Covid-19 itself.
But officials are now moving toward a cautious risk-benefit analysis. Noting that Covid-19 has flared inconsistently worldwide, varying not only from country to country but also within national borders, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a consortium of international organizations, is urging countries to evaluate their own situations closely and devise alternative, pandemic-safe vaccination strategies as soon as possible.
Summer camps and youth athletics will be allowed in Florida, without state restrictions.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, said on Friday that he was lifting all prohibitions on youth activities in the state, effective immediately.
The state Department of Health will publish answers to frequently asked questions, but “we’re not really going to be instituting a lot of rules, or really any rules,” Mr. DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, we trust parents to be able to make decisions.”
Local governments could choose to keep some restrictions in place, he said.
Mr. DeSantis acknowledged that children have died of complications related to Covid-19. And a handful of children in Florida have been hospitalized with an inflammatory disease linked to the coronavirus.
Dr. Bonnie White, a pediatrician who treats Mr. DeSantis’s three young children, said at the news conference that parents should also let their children play with other children, assuming none of them have any symptoms.
“We’re seeing lots of kids come in with anxiety issues and depression, and I think that’s because they’ve been isolating themselves,” she said. (She also urged parents to vaccinate their children, especially against the measles.)
Mr. DeSantis noted that Florida never closed day care centers during the pandemic, in spite of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do so, and did not see major problems stemming from those facilities.
Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, who joined the governor during Friday’s announcement, said parents have approached him asking for their children’s activities to be renewed.
“Let’s let kids be kids,” Mr. Curry said.
Most of Florida began gradually reopening on May 4, with the exception of populous South Florida, where the virus has hit hardest. But even there, life has slowly resumed. Beaches in Miami-Dade County will reopen on June 1, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced on Friday. Miami-Dade and neighboring Broward County have been the last holdouts on allowing beachgoers back.
As cases rise in Alabama, Montgomery’s mayor warns of a shortage of I.C.U. beds.
As all 50 states begin to open back up in some way, some epidemiologists are seeing warning signs of a possible resurgence in the South, including Montgomery, Ala., where Mayor Steven L. Reed raised alarms going into the holiday weekend.
Mr. Reed, who earlier this week said there was just one I.C.U. bed remaining at certain area hospitals, said he spoke out after hearing from hospital leaders that the situation was becoming unsustainable.
“We are in a very dangerous predicament,” he said on MSNBC on Thursday night.
Mr. Reed, a Democrat whose position is officially nonpartisan, attributed an uptick in cases in Montgomery to changes in people’s behavior amid an early decision by Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, to relax restrictions across Alabama, including the reopening of entertainment venues on Friday.
“It has sent a message that the battle with Covid-19 is over and it has been won,” he said. “We are still in this battle. We can’t afford to relax now.”
Mia Mothershed, a spokeswoman for Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, said on Friday that the hospital had reached capacity in its 30 I.C.U. beds due to a combination of the virus and other patients. “We have absolutely no beds available here,” she said.
Listen to how the pandemic has hushed great cities.
As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt, microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.
At the busy corner of Lafayette and East Fourth Street in New York, a comparison of audio clips captured recently during the stay-home orders and a year earlier found that the usual Manhattan sounds — car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below — had been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.
Parks and plazas across London are quieter than they were before the pandemic. Along Singapore’s Marina Bay, the sounds of human voices have faded. In suburban Nova Scotia, the noise of cars and airplanes no longer drowns out the rustle of leaves and wind. In New York, the city has been quieter than on the coldest winter days.
Whether you find this welcome or unnerving is another question.
“To me, it’s the sound of the city aching,” said Juan Pablo Bello, who leads a project at N.Y.U. studying the sounds of New York City. “It’s not a healthy sound in my mind.”
And while many city residents have found that birds all seem much louder these days, they are likely actually quieter now than before the pandemic. That is because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.
N.Y.C’s suburbs could start to reopen next week, Cuomo said.
Long Island and the suburban counties north of New York City could begin reopening next week if the number of virus-related deaths keep declining and local officials set up strong contract-tracing programs, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Friday.
As of Friday, only New York City and the surrounding areas have yet to meet the state’s seven reopening metrics. Both Mr. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City, which has met four of the state’s criteria, was not likely to begin reopening until June.
New York City still needs to have at least 30 percent of its hospital beds and at least 30 percent of its intensive-care-unit beds available. As of Friday morning, it had 27 percent of hospital beds and 26 percent of its I.C.U. beds available.
Both city and state officials have said that their metrics were likely to go hand in hand, and that they would coordinate in their decisions on reopening, though Mr. Cuomo on Friday suggested that the state’s guidelines took precedence.
Though beach towns ask N.Y.C. residents to stay away, some city beaches may open for swimming in June.
In the Hamptons, the locals have put up barricades to limit parking and deployed enforcement officers to ticket outsiders. Jersey Shore towns have banned short-term leases and Airbnb rentals. The Suffolk County executive’s office taunted Mr. de Blasio: “Do your job. Figure out a plan to safely reopen your beaches.”
In normal times, the Memorial Day weekend start of beach season sparks a mass migration from New York City to Long Island, the Jersey Shore and, to a lesser extent, Connecticut. But the beach closings in the city have led to a backlash from local officials in those areas, who say they fear that their shorelines will be overwhelmed by an exodus of sun-starved New Yorkers.
Should the pandemic continue to ebb, however, New York City is seriously considering opening its beaches to swimming in June. The mayor declined to give a date for the reopening, but a spokeswoman for the mayor said the lifeguard training was in anticipation of a possible June reopening.
To maintain social distancing, beaches across the region are moving to limit access to everyone. On the Jersey Shore, some towns are reducing parking and keeping their iconic boardwalks closed. In Spring Lake, beachgoers must now buy daily beach badges in advance; nearby Asbury Park is limiting sales of beach badges and selling them only through an online app.
On Friday, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed, and campgrounds can open. Social distancing is still required, Mr. Murphy said, and indoor gatherings are still limited to 10 people.
In Connecticut, state beaches are allowing people to gather in groups of five people or fewer, with 15 feet between beach blankets.
And special rules have also been adopted to keep outsiders away. Westchester County, just north of the city, has restricted its beaches at Playland in Rye and Croton Point Park to county residents. In Groton, Conn., only residents can use Eastern Point Beach on weekends and holidays.
Mr. de Blasio has warned New Yorkers not to take mass transit to the beach and said that for now, city beaches are intended only for those who live near them. He also said last week that the city would enforce strict limits on crowding at beaches and fence them off if necessary.
On Friday morning, the mayor said that “hundreds of officers” will be at the beaches this weekend to back up parks workers on enforcing restrictions.
Museums are beginning to reopen, with new restrictions.
You won’t be able to use the drinking fountains, check your coat or eat in the cafe. You will have to wear a mask, submit to a temperature check and agree to leave if you show signs of illness.
These are the requirements set by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, when it reopens on Saturday, the first major arts institution in the country to welcome the public back.
“We’re getting as many as 90 to 100 calls a day — ‘When are you opening? I want to see my favorite works of art’,” Gary Tinterow, the museum’s director, said. “That’s our mission, that’s why we exist: to facilitate those encounters between works of art and individuals. And I fully believe that we can create as safe an environment as possible.”
As several states begin to reopen, their museums are carefully doing the same, with new policies and protocols in place: The San Antonio Museum of Art on May 28; the Boca Raton Museum of Art on June 3; the Wichita Art Museum on June 23; the Cleveland Museum of Art around June 30.
The Wichita Museum, for example, said it picked up from the Milwaukee Art Museum the idea of having visitors agree to a code of conduct that includes wearing masks and keeping six feet apart. Wichita also expects to remove benches from its galleries and to keep its cafe at under 50 percent capacity.
“It’s very important to have a plan,” said Patricia McDonnell, the museum’s director, “and it’s very important to be able to change that plan on a moment’s notice.”
This is how to fix your work-from-home tech.
The last thing you need right now is a spotty Wi-Fi signal interrupting your workday. Good news! There are some simple steps you can take to improve that. And, while you’re at it, take a look at the rest of your computer setup and see what may be slowing you down. A little tweak can make working from home less miserable.
China abandons a growth target for the year and more from our international correspondents.
Parting with years of precedent, China on Friday abandoned an annual growth target for 2020, in an acknowledgment that restarting its economy after the outbreak will be a slow and difficult process.
In his annual report to lawmakers meeting in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang said that the country had made major achievements in its response to the epidemic and that economic development was a top priority. But while he set goals to limit inflation and unemployment, he did not announce a target for economic growth for the year.
Coronavirus cases in China have slowed to a small fraction of what they were in January, but the pandemic was weighing heavily on the country’s politics and economy as top officials began a tightly choreographed legislative pageant.
In one sense, the National People’s Congress is a chance for China’s leaders, who won broad public support for curbing the spread of the outbreak, to push back against growing international criticism over their early missteps in Wuhan. President Xi Jinping has described his government’s containment efforts as a “people’s war” against the virus.
Reporting was contributed by Denise Grady, Alan Blinder, Michael Cooper, Eileen Sullivan, Christopher Flavelle, Apoorva Mandavilli, Mike Baker, Karen Barrow, Patricia Mazzei, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kassie Bracken, Niraj Chokshi, Michael Gold, Dana Rubinstein, Keith Bradsher, Mohammed Hadi, Chris Buckley, Sarah Mervosh, Jan Hoffman, Annie Karni, Corey Kilgannon, Alan Rappeport, Emily Rhyne, Biance Giaever, Robin Pogrebin, Marc Santora, Elizabeth Dias, Jeanna Smialek and Farah Stockman.
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