Coronavirus Live Updates: U.S. Lacks Leadership on Virus, Obama Tells Graduates

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Obama delivers pointed criticism in two graduation speeches.

Without the springtime rituals of traditional graduation ceremonies, former President Barack Obama delivered two virtual commencement addresses on Saturday, urging millions of high school and college graduates to fearlessly carve a path and “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The speeches, aired hours apart, combined the inspirational advice given to graduates — build community, do what is right, be a leader — with pointed criticism of the handling of a public health crisis that has killed more than 87,000 Americans and crippled much of the economy.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said in the afternoon address streamed online. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Mr. Obama returned to that theme in his address to high school seniors in the evening.

“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”

Although Mr. Obama did not mention President Trump by name, some saw his comments as criticism of his successor.

“President Trump’s unprecedented coronavirus response has saved lives,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that cited the administration’s travel restrictions, small business loan program and use of the private sector “to fill the stockpile left depleted by his predecessor.”

Mr. Obama’s comments were rare public addresses by him to a national audience during the outbreak, and he said a leadership void had created a clear mandate for the graduates: “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s remarks were billed as commencement speeches, but they also appeared to be an effort to comfort and assure an American public divided by Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis. The former president also used the occasions to attempt to rally the nation in an election year around values historically championed by Democrats like universal health care, and environmental and economic justice.

Investigators uncover an 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 millions of claims during recent months.

The fraud 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 F.D.A.’s approval of a new test increases hope for detecting infections at home.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday granted emergency clearance for a coronavirus testing kit that will enable individuals to take a nasal sample at home and send it to a laboratory for diagnostic testing, the second such approval it has made.

The kit, made by Everlywell, will contain a swab used to take a sample from the nostrils, and a tube with a saline solution to put it in for sending to one of two private lab companies.

Some public health researchers have warned that at-home nasal swab tests can be less accurate than the specimen collection performed by health care providers, which involves inserting a long swab through the nose into the back of the throat.

Christina Song, an Everlywell spokeswoman, said consumers will first take an online survey to determine whether they meet federal guidelines for the test. The survey will be reviewed quickly by health care providers affiliated with PWNHealth, the company’s telemedicine partner. If a consumer qualifies for the test, one will be shipped out immediately. The entire process — from survey to order to results — is designed to be completed in three to five days, Ms. Song said.

The test kits will be available later this month, according to Ms. Song, and will cost $135.

The agency granted its first approval for an in-home test in April, and has authorized two other tests besides the Everlywell 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 another kit would increase access to testing, as well as reduce the risks facing health care workers who administer tests in person.

As more than two-thirds of states reopen, the U.S. faces a delicate moment.

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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. 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. Thirty-one 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.

More states will continue to reopen in the coming weeks. Tennessee, which already allowed restaurants and retail stores in most counties to reopen last month, will allow businesses like theaters and amusement parks to reopen on May 22, with restrictions to limit contact between customers and employees. The new guidelines do not apply to counties that are developing their own plans.

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

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 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.

Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort quietly reopens.

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President Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla., the Mar-a-Lago Club, partially reopened this weekend, though the scene was much changed.

A grassy croquet area, where people often played on Saturday mornings, sat empty, and the tennis courts remained off-limits. At the entrance of The Beach Club, with access to the shoreline, a sign asked guests to use a provided bottle of hand sanitizer when entering.

Few, if any, of the club’s members wore masks, though all of the staff members did, and some greeted members with elbow bumps. Toddlers ran under the blazing sun, and adults ordered food at a poolside restaurant, although they had to eat outside because its seating area remained closed.

Palm Beach shut down in mid-March and is now under a curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Like the rest of Florida, it is now reopening, although business has been slow. At lunchtime on Saturday, only a few shoppers were visible along the Worth Avenue shopping strip, gawking at the Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel boutiques. Most shops were empty. The Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores required customers to wear masks.

“People are coming for adjustment, but nothing major yet,” said Alan Dacosta, an optician who works on Worth Avenue. “It’s still been quiet.”

In North Carolina, churches are allowed to temporarily resume indoor services after federal ruling.

Credit…Robert Willett/The News & Observer, via Associated Press

Churches in North Carolina will be allowed to reopen their doors after a federal judge on Saturday temporarily blocked a state order that was intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus by capping attendance at indoor religious services.

The order, issued May 5 by Gov. Roy Cooper, said gatherings of more than 10 people, including those for religious worship, “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”

On Saturday, the judge, James C. Dever III of United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, temporarily blocked the order, siding with several Christian groups that had argued that the restriction violated their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Judge Dever noted that the order allowed stores to open at 50 percent capacity and up to 50 people to gather for funerals.

“The record, at this admittedly early stage of the case, reveals that the governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship indoors together,” the judge wrote.

The judge said his ruling temporarily blocking the restriction on indoor church services will remain in place for no longer than 14 days. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for later this month.

Mr. Cooper, a Democrat, said he disagreed with the decision, but would not appeal it.

“We don’t want indoor meetings to become hot spots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of Covid-19,” Mr. Cooper’s spokesman, Ford Porter, said on Saturday. He urged houses of worship and their leaders to “voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.”

New York clears the way for some ‘low-risk’ activities to resume.

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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.

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.

As unemployment climbs, many turn to food banks for the first time.

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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.

The pandemic is causing tensions between the U.S. and China to boil over.

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Only weeks ago, President Trump and his counterpart in China, Xi Jinping, spoke by telephone and proclaimed their unity in the face of the coronavirus. Mr. Trump declared his “respect” for Mr. Xi, and Mr. Xi told him that countries had to “respond in unison” against a global health emergency.

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.

Defying state rules, Atwater, Calif., declares itself a ‘sanctuary city’ for businesses.

The City of Atwater, Calif., declared itself a “sanctuary city for all businesses” at a special meeting on Friday, openly defying the state’s coronavirus orders, after business owners showed up to voice their support for the measure.

“It’s not the government’s job to protect my health, it’s their job to protect my rights, and they’re being taken away, so thank you for giving them back to us,” Ron Danel, who owns a company that makes gravestones, said to the City Council.

Even before the general public was allowed to speak, the pastor tasked by the city with giving a pre-meeting prayer used his time at the lectern to assert, as heads bowed, that he had great support for the bill.

“Father God, we know in your eyes, there is no such thing as ‘essential’ or ‘nonessential,’” said the pastor, Don Borgwardt, who is also president of the city’s chamber of commerce. “All people are essential. All businesses are essential. All people’s lives are essential.”

With that, about a dozen business owners in Atwater, a city of about 30,000 people two hours southeast of San Francisco, marched up to a lectern one by one and urged their mayor and council members to let them decide when to reopen.

And the Council did — unanimously — pledging to not enforce the state’s orders that many businesses remain shut, and earning vigorous applause from the mostly maskless crowd. Mayor Paul Creighton, a Republican, said the “sanctuary” order meant city police and code enforcement officers would not enforce any of the state’s stay-at-home orders, although he warned that businesses with state business licenses may want to be cautious.

“We have to take bold measures and save ourselves,” Mr. Creighton said. He added that the crowd at the City Council meeting was so large that the city set up two televisions outside of City Hall to broadcast the meeting for those who could not get inside.

Atwater’s measure is the latest effort by a local California government to defy the directives from Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. Mr. Newsom has generally forbade restaurants and shops from letting customers shop or dine inside, but he has allowed some counties to do so after submitting plans to the state. Merced County, which includes Atwater and has reported 200 cases of the virus, is not among them

Can sports help heal a country? Some fans don’t think so.

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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.

When mortgage relief comes with a bill for $4,000.

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Edith Duran quickly found herself in a difficult spot as the pandemic crippled the local businesses she counts as clients. She could not 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 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.

Global updates from Times correspondents.

Dozens of babies born into Ukraine’s booming surrogate motherhood business have become marooned in the country as their biological parents in the United States and other countries cannot travel to retrieve them after birth. For now, the agencies that arranged the surrogate births care for the babies.

The authorities say that at least 100 babies are stranded already and that as many as 1,000 may be born before Ukraine’s travel ban for foreigners is lifted.

Burned out on home schooling?

So many parents are burned out from trying to educate their children at home, and though there are calls to give up on distance learning all together, here are some tips to help you keep going when every minute feels like an eternity.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Julie Bosman, Chris Buckley, Audra D.S. Burch, Emily Cochrane, Julia Echikson, John Eligon, Nicholas Fandos, Annie Flanagan, Amy Harmon, Julia Jacobs, Sheila Kaplan, Corey Kilgannon, Zach Montague, Steven Lee Myers, Sarah Maslin Nir, Kwame Opam, Campbell Robertson, Mitch Smith and James Wagner.

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