Germany and U.S. on Divergent Paths to Reopen

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Germany was a leader in the West in taking on the pandemic, and then a leader in the calibrated restarting of public life. On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel had a hopeful message for the nation: The experiment was working.

“We can afford a little audacity,” Ms. Merkel said.

Germany’s successful strategy was good news for countries eager for a sign that life can continue with the virus. But it was also a stark reminder of the differences in other Western countries, including the United States, where some states have taken steps toward reopening even as infections rise, and where President Trump is clearly eager to move past the pandemic and on to the recovery — whatever the cost.

“Hopefully that won’t be the case,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday when asked if deaths would rise as a result of the reopening of the American economy he covets, before adding, “It could very well be the case.”

To many of Mr. Trump’s critics, the strategy that has won Ms. Merkel praise and Germany a reprieve — a combination of cautious, science-led political leadership and a regimen of widespread testing, tracing and social distancing — is precisely the one the United States should have followed.

Germany shut down early and has been systematically testing its way back to some semblance of normality. Face masks, already mandatory in shops and public transport, are fast becoming the new normal, and socializing in restaurants and bars — even those now allowed to reopen — will still take place under strict restrictions.

With those limitations in place, Ms. Merkel on Wednesday was able to announce the restoration of many freedoms shelved for the best part of two months. All shops will be allowed to reopen. Restaurants and hotels can resume in time for two long holiday weekends at the end of May.

“We can say today that the first phase of the pandemic is behind us,” Ms. Merkel said.

Mr. Trump had tried to signal the same kind of optimism this week, announcing the winding down of the White House coronavirus task force on Tuesday before promptly reversing course on Wednesday morning after public outcry and private lobbying changed his mind.

“We have to get our country open again,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “People want to go back, and you’re going to have a problem if you don’t do it.”

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Research released on Wednesday shows a rise in food insecurity without modern precedent. Nearly a fifth of young children are not getting enough to eat, according to surveys of their mothers by the Brookings Institution. The rate is three times higher than in 2008, at the worst of the Great Recession, reports Jason DeParle.

When food runs short, parents often skip meals to keep children fed. But a survey of households with children 12 and under found that 17.4 percent reported the children themselves were not eating enough, compared with 5.7 percent during the Great Recession.

Inadequate nutrition can leave young children with permanent developmental damage.

“This is alarming,” said Lauren Bauer, a Brookings fellow in economic studies, who oversaw the survey. “These are households cutting back on portion sizes, having kids skip meals. The numbers are much higher than I expected.”

Ms. Bauer said disruptions in school meal programs might be part of the problem, with some families unable to reach distribution sites and older siblings at home competing for limited food.

The findings come as Democrats and Republicans are at odds over proposals to raise food stamp benefits. Democrats want to increase benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic downturn, arguing that a similar move in 2009 reduced hunger during the Great Recession. Congress has enacted a short-term increase for about 60 percent of the caseload, but the increase omits the poorest recipients. Citing large expansions of other safety-net programs, Republicans say that is sufficient to meet rising needs.



‘Let’s Keep It Going’: Trump Changes Course on Coronavirus Task Force

President Trump said the White House coronavirus task force would continue with new members, contradicting his previous remarks that it would wind down.

I thought we could wind it down sooner, but I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding it down. I get calls from very respected people saying, I think it would be better to keep it going. It’s done such a good job. The task force will be around until we feel it’s not necessary, but I will say that I learned yesterday, even after I spoke Jeff, that the task force is something — you knew — it’s very respected. People said we should keep it going. So let’s keep it going. And so we’ll be doing that. But we’ll be adding some people to it. We’ll be announcing, I would say by Monday, we’ll be announcing two or three new members to the task force.

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President Trump said the White House coronavirus task force would continue with new members, contradicting his previous remarks that it would wind down.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump, contradicting his comments from Tuesday, said the White House coronavirus task force would “continue on indefinitely,” though perhaps with different members.

His announcement, made on Twitter, came a day after Vice President Mike Pence, who has led the group for two months, said it would probably wrap up its work around the end of May.

“We will have something in a different form,” Mr. Trump told reporters later on Tuesday during a trip to Arizona.

But in a series of Wednesday morning tweets, the president appeared to contradict that statement and emphasized his desire to reopen the economy despite a continued rise in coronavirus cases and public health warnings that more commerce will mean more deaths.

Because of the task force’s success, he wrote, it would “continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.”

Mr. Trump spoke with reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon about why he had changed his mind.

“I thought we could wind it down sooner,” he said. “But I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday, when I started talking about winding it down. I get calls from very respected people saying, ‘I think it would be better to keep it going. It’s done such a good job.’”

Mr. Trump said later Wednesday that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious-disease expert, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator, would remain on the task force in their current roles.

Mr. Trump frequently reacts to news coverage of his decisions, and reports on Tuesday that he might wind down the task force drew sharp criticism.

There had been signals in recent days of the task force’s impending demise: The panel did not meet on Saturday, as it typically does, and canceled a meeting on Monday. And the president has stopped linking his news briefings to the task force’s meetings and no longer routinely arrays task force members around him in his public appearances.

The task force has often served as a public check on Mr. Trump’s questionable or false statements, cautioning about promises of a quick vaccine or the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine.

Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

A coalition of online retailers backed by Amazon began a seven-figure advertising blitz on Wednesday opposing President Trump’s demand that the beleaguered United States Postal Service ratchet up its package delivery rates to avoid bankruptcy during the coronavirus crisis, its top lobbyist said.

The ads began running nationally Wednesday night on “Hannity,” one of Mr. Trump’s favorite programs on Fox News, and on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show on Thursday. They do not mention the president but label his proposal to raise delivery prices “a massive package tax” on small businesses and Americans who rely on the mail for prescription drugs and other goods.

Amazon, CVS and others involved in the campaign rely on the Postal Service for the delivery of millions of packages a year. Their businesses could be disrupted significantly if the agency increased rates or went bankrupt.

Many of the companies have been quietly lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the issue, but the advertising push will more visibly establish their position in a high-stakes political fight over the Postal Service’s finances and its future. Democrats have been pressing to include $25 billion in the next round of relief legislation to prop up the service, which has said it could run out of cash by September without a lifeline from Congress.

But Mr. Trump has said he will not sign any pandemic relief package that helps the Postal Service unless it quadruples its package delivery rates. His views on the Postal Service appear to be predominantly shaped by his antipathy toward Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.

“All of these companies know that in order to keep that market competitive and to keep operations most efficient, an affordable U.S.P.S. involvement is absolutely essential,” said John M. McHugh, the former Army secretary and the coalition’s chairman. He called Mr. Trump’s proposal “dangerous,” particularly when Americans sequestered at home are increasingly reliant on delivery services and postal leaders are projecting yawning deficits.

Those wishing to join the American military but who have been hospitalized with the novel coronavirus will be temporarily barred from joining the armed forces, according to a directive issued this week by the Pentagon, officials said on Wednesday.

Defense Department officials said the measure was “interim guidance,” and that it most likely would be updated as military officials learn more about the disease and its long-term risk to someone joining the military. Like the rest of the country, the Defense Department is struggling to figure out how to better manage and protect the country’s 1.2 million active duty troops from both the disease and its effects.

Defense Department officials said on Wednesday night that recruits who have had the coronavirus and are barred, for now, from entering the military probably would be given a return date to come back for consideration.

The armed services already have a system for granting waivers for enlistment to recruits who might otherwise not be allowed to enlist for a variety of medical and other reasons.

As of Wednesday morning, there have been just over 7,000 coronavirus cases among military personnel, contractors and Defense Department civilians.

Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Temperatures in Phoenix are expected to hit 105 this week. Sacramento has already broken heat records recently, as have Galveston, Texas, Salt Lake City and Fort Myers, Fla.

But the usual strategy that cities rely upon to protect the most vulnerable from the heat — encouraging people to gather and cool down in public buildings like libraries or recreation centers — does not work in an era of the coronavirus and social distancing. That has cities rushing to test other ideas.

Not only has the Covid-19 crisis made gathering dangerous, public health and emergency management officials point out, but the very people most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses — the elderly or chronically ill — also tend to be most vulnerable to the virus. Last year was the second hottest on record, and climate change is intensifying heat waves around the world.

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Arizona has asked a team of university professors producing one of the state’s most robust public modeling assessments of the virus to halt its work, drawing criticism about whether the move is politically motivated.

The request by the Arizona Department of Health Services was sent on Monday to the modeling team from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, announced plans to relax some social distancing measures.

Previous findings by the modeling team made it clear that the only situation in which virus cases in the state do not sharply increase is by waiting until the end of May to reopen Arizona’s economy. The governor has said that if businesses follow safety protocols and social distancing, cosmetologists and barbershops can reopen on Friday, and that restaurants and coffee shops can do so on Monday.

“It’s puzzling that they would ask these experts to stop their work when they are producing results inconsistent with decisions made by the executive branch,” said Will Humble, a former state health services director who is now the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Mr. Ducey, said in a statement that Arizona authorities found the modeling group’s work less useful for influencing policies during the pandemic than modeling developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is not publicly available.

“We’ve been able to see which models are accurate — which match the actual facts and are most useful — and which are not,” Mr. Ptak said. He added that Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health services director, made the decision to ask the modeling team to suspend its work.

The team, composed of about two dozen professors, was not being paid by the state. Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at Arizona State and member of the team, said it would continue to do its modeling work on a daily basis using publicly available data.

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Sixty-four children in New York State have been hospitalized with a mysterious illness that doctors do not yet fully understand but that may be linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, officials said on Wednesday.

In an advisory to health care providers, state health officials said that most of the children who were believed to have what has been labeled “pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome” had tested positive for the virus or for antibodies to it.

The symptoms of the mystery ailment, state health officials noted, overlap with those associated with toxic shock syndrome and Kawasaki disease, a rare illness in children that involves inflammation of the blood vessels, including coronary arteries. Fever, abdominal symptoms and rash may also be present, officials wrote.

Since the pandemic began, most infected children have not developed serious respiratory failure of the kind that has afflicted adults. But in recent weeks, the unusual new syndrome has cropped up among children in and around New York City and elsewhere in the United States, a sign that children may face a greater risk from the virus than anticipated.

The number of children in the United States showing signs of the syndrome, which was first detected last month in Europe, remains small. None are known to have died, and many have responded well to treatment.

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A 57-year-old man from El Salvador died of Covid-19 in federal immigration custody on Wednesday, according to his family and legal advocates, making him the first detained immigrant known to have succumbed to an outbreak that is widening in federal immigration detention facilities.

A federal judge ruled this month in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that the facility must release dozens of detainees who were considered to be at risk of contracting the virus. Two guards have also sued the facility, accusing it of unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has confirmed that at least 705 people detained in its custody have contracted the virus, about half of those who have been tested. The agency has released hundreds of medically vulnerable detainees after facing a series of lawsuits related to the pandemic, but about 29,000 remain detained.

Mr. Escobar had been an undocumented immigrant in the United States for about 40 years when he was detained this year during a traffic stop. He had sought unsuccessfully to be released from Otay Mesa as recently as mid-April because of his pre-existing health issues — he was diabetic and had required multiple surgeries on his foot.

He was hospitalized in late April because of complications associated with the virus.

Similar to cruise ships and nursing homes, detention facilities have crowded living spaces and shared dining areas, as well as communal bathrooms and a lack of space to isolate infected detainees, all of which makes physical distancing practices difficult to achieve.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study of the spread of the virus in prisons and detention centers in the United States, both public and private. Although it did not have complete figures for the approximately 2.1 million people incarcerated nationally, the study found that nearly 5,000 prisoners had contracted the virus along with over 2,000 staff members, resulting in 103 total deaths.

Government figures due Friday will undoubtedly show that job losses in April were the worst ever. But they could provide key hints about the recovery.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expect the Labor Department report to show that U.S. payrolls fell by 22 million jobs last month — a decade’s worth of gains wiped out in weeks. The payroll processing company ADP said on Wednesday that the private sector lost more than 20 million jobs in April, with the cuts spread across every sector and size of employer.

It is no surprise that employers have cut millions of jobs; weekly data on filings for unemployment benefits, released every Thursday, have tracked the destruction. But the monthly numbers due on Friday are more comprehensive than the weekly ones, which almost certainly understate the damage.

The report on Friday could also help answer a question that could be crucial to the eventual recovery: How far has the damage spread?

If the losses are concentrated in sectors that have been directly affected by the virus, like retail and services that were hit by stay-at-home orders, that could bode well for the recovery, because it suggests the damage has been contained. But if it has spread to industries like finance and professional services, that could suggest a cascade effect is underway, with laid-off workers pulling back on spending, leading to lost revenues and still more layoffs. It could take much longer to climb out of that kind of hole.

The downturn has rippled through the world. The European Union’s economy is set to shrink by 7.4 percent this year, investment is expected to collapse, and unemployment rates, debts and deficits will balloon after the pandemic, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

To put those figures in perspective, the European Union’s economy had been predicted to grow by 1.2 percent this year. In its worst recession, during the financial crisis in 2009, the economy shrank by 4.5 percent.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

A company created six weeks ago by a pair of Republican operatives collected hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from state and local governments desperate for coronavirus supplies. That company is now facing a federal criminal investigation and a rising chorus of complaints from customers who say their orders never arrived.

The company, Blue Flame Medical, had boasted that it could quickly obtain coveted test kits, N95 masks and other personal protective equipment through a Chinese government-owned company with which it had joined, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

The company was started by two Republican political consultants, Mike Gula and John Thomas, who had little experience in the medical supply field. Mr. Gula’s fund-raising firm has been paid more than $36 million since 2008 by a range of top Republican politicians and political committees. Mr. Thomas has served as a general consultant to a number of campaigns.

Mr. Thomas had asserted in an interview in March that the connections he and Mr. Gula made through their political work helped them find suppliers and connect to customers, such as large medical systems and law enforcement agencies around the world.

Orders came in from state governments, local police departments and airports in California, Florida and Maryland. But things have not gone as planned.

California quickly clawed back a $457 million payment for 100 million masks, as first reported by CalMatters. Other state and local agencies that paid Blue Flame said that the supplies never arrived or that orders were only partially filled.

The Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation into the company, according to people familiar with the investigation, which was first reported by The Washington Post. Some of the company’s clients are requesting refunds or threatening their own investigations.

Trump administration officials said on Wednesday that meat shortages at grocery stores and fast food chains would be short-lived, despite outbreaks that have shut meatpacking plants around the country and sickened thousands of workers.

In an Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a Republican, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said meat shortages should end within 10 days as plants come online.

The crowded conditions at America’s largest meatpacking plants have turned them into hot spots and led to the deaths of dozens of workers.

Factories across the Midwest have been temporarily shuttered, cutting down on the country’s supply of ground meat, pork loins and chicken. Hundreds of Wendy’s restaurants have run out of hamburgers, while Costco and Kroger have limited the number of meat items customers can buy.

The Trump administration issued an executive order last week to put more pressure on meatpacking facilities to remain open and help them reduce their liability in worker lawsuits.

Meatpacking plants have installed new safety features including barriers between workers and new requirements for protective gear. But many workers stay they are still nervous to return to facilities that had become hotbeds of infection.

On Wednesday, Ms. Reynolds vowed to get the facilities up and running to help ensure the food supply.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday singled out United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue for their decisions to cut employee hours. United reversed one such plan on Wednesday that would have made thousands of full-time workers into part-time employees.

“Mandatory or forced reductions in payroll hours is not” what was intended by the recent law that authorized $50 billion to help airlines continue operating during the pandemic, the lawmaker, Maria Cantwell of Washington State, said during the Senate hearing. Half of that funding was intended to pay employees through September, provided that airlines refrained from pay or staff cuts.

A union representing thousands of United employees sued the airline over the plan on Tuesday. The company called the lawsuit “meritless.”

Executives from United and other airlines did not participate in the hearing, and were represented by the chief executive of their trade group Airlines for America, Nicholas E. Calio. He said airlines were doing what they could to survive.

“The duration and breadth of the impacts directly on our industry compounded by the larger economy leave no doubt that the U.S. airline industry will emerge a shadow of what it was on March 1st of this year,” Mr. Calio said.

That did not satisfy Democrats like Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut who said the industry’s practices around refunds were misleading or deceptive. Many airlines have been encouraging travelers to take vouchers for future travel instead of cash.

And Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota criticized the low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines for saying that it would charge customers $39 to $89 to keep the middle seat next to them empty. Many larger airlines are not putting any passengers in middle seats by default.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for some passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional charge for a seat to be less safe than other travelers,” she said.

All viruses mutate, and the coronavirus is no exception. But there is no compelling evidence yet that it is evolving in a way that has made it more contagious or more deadly.

A preprint study — posted online, but not published in a scientific journal and not yet peer-reviewed — has attracted significant online interest by suggesting otherwise.

On April 30, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico claimed to have found a mutation in the coronavirus that arose in Europe in February and then rapidly spread, becoming dominant as the virus was introduced in new countries.

The mutation, they wrote, “is of urgent concern” because it made the virus more transmissible. But experts in viral evolution are not persuaded.

Mutations are tiny changes to genetic material that occur as it is copied. Human cells have many so-called proofreading proteins that keep mutations rare.

Viruses are far sloppier, producing many mutants every time they infect a cell. Natural selection can favor viruses carrying a beneficial mutation, leading them to spread more widely.

But it is also possible for a neutral mutation to become more common simply by chance, a process known as genetic drift.

“I don’t think they provide evidence to claim transmissibility enhancement,” Sergei Pond, an evolutionary biologist at Temple University, said of the new report in an email.

In fact, Dr. Pond said, the mutation, known as D614G, has arisen not just once but several times independently. On some of those occasions, viruses carrying the mutation didn’t take off in the population.

Instead, the gene reverted to its original form, suggesting that D614G did not give the virus any special advantage.

No one has ruled out the possibility that a mutation could arise that would make the virus more transmissible. And it is possible that D614G has provided some sort of edge.

But it will take much more evidence to rule out other explanations.

Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times

President Trump met in the Oval Office on Wednesday with Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, and Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit the state this week, as the White House increasingly turns its attention to a state that never fully shut down and has recently had a persistent uptick in cases.

Ms. Reynolds, a Republican, was among a handful of governors who declined to issue stay-at-home orders as the rest of the country locked down this spring, a decision that was criticized by health officials, mayors in the state and Democratic lawmakers. The governor relied instead on the shutdown of schools and businesses and messages to the public urging personal responsibility.

Nearly half of all states in the United States have recently reported increases in new cases, including Iowa, which has seen outbreaks at several meatpacking plants. As cases were increasing, Ms. Reynolds last week lifted restrictions on certain businesses in 77 of the state’s 99 counties. The changes do not apply to the state’s most populous areas and counties that have been hot spots for the virus.

Iowa has more than 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. On Tuesday, state health officials reported 19 deaths, the most in a single day, and announced that more than 1,600 people had been infected at meatpacking plants in the state.

Addressing growing shortages of meat in the country because of outbreaks at meatpacking plants, Ms. Reynolds, whose state is a national meatpacking center, said that only one Iowa meatpacking plant was shut.

The agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, said meat shortages should end within 10 days as meat plants in other states come back on line.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” he said.

Other states continued to take steps to ease some restrictions.

But he urged patience as the state develops a plan to safely ease more restrictions, saying that “I realize that these are only small steps, and that they may be of little comfort to those who are out of work and who are struggling financially,” but adding that the state was making progress against the virus.

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court rejected a request from a political committee and several businesses in Pennsylvania to suspend the governor’s order shutting down much of the state’s economy to address the virus.

The court’s ruling was one-sentence long, gave no reasons and included no dissents.

The governor’s order, entered March 19, called for the closing of the physical operations of “non-life-sustaining” businesses.

Here are some points to consider before you call your babysitter.

Reporting was contributed by Reed Abelson, Katie Benner, Katrin Bennhold, Alan Blinder, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Keith Bradsher, Jonah Engel Bromwich, Ben Casselman, Niraj Chokshi, Helene Cooper, Michael Cooper, Michael Crowley, Elizabeth Dias, Caitlin Dickerson, Melissa Eddy, Nicholas Fandos, Christina Goldbaum, Maggie Haberman, Andrew Jacobs, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Jodi Kantor, Josh Katz, Jillian Kramer, Michael Levenson, Adam Liptak, Denise Lu, Neil MacFarquhar, Apoorva Mandavilli, Sarah Mervosh, Andy Newman, Michael Powell, Simon Romero, David E. Sanger, Margot Sanger-Katz, Marc Santora, Ed Shanahan, Ana Swanson, Kenneth P. Vogel, David Waldstein, Noah Weiland, Edward Wong and Carl Zimmer.

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