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Worsening U.S. outbreak prompts tough actions in states hit early in pandemic

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New Jersey

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By Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New Jersey adopted a stringent coronavirus face-mask order on Wednesday, and New York City unveiled a plan to allow public school students back into classrooms for just two or three days a week, as COVID-19 cases soared elsewhere in the United States.

Officials in New Jersey and New York, the hardest-hit states at the outset of the U.S. outbreak, want to preserve progress against the virus in the face of its resurgence elsewhere, primarily the U.S. South and West.

More than 47,000 people have perished from COVID-19 in the two northeastern states, accounting for more than a third of the U.S. death toll of more than 132,000, according to a Reuters tally.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy unveiled an executive order requiring face coverings outdoors where social distancing was not possible, saying the measure was necessary because of a rise in the state’s coronavirus transmission rate.

“Wearing a face covering, I remind you, is not about politics. It’s about quite simply being sick or healthy. It’s about life and death,” Murphy, a Democrat, said at a briefing.

Many states require masks in public indoor settings and recommend them outside, but have stopped short of mandating their use outdoors.

“I think that’s the right thing to do,” said Jordan Grant, 23, a real estate accountant who expressed dismay at seeing groups still congregating outside restaurants or at backyard barbecues without masks. “It’s what we should have been doing months ago.”

Republican state Senator Mike Doherty, however, accused the New Jersey governor of “exploiting a public health crisis for power,” calling the new mask directive “oppressive.”

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan for 1.1 million students in the nation’s largest public school district to return to classes in September. Pupils would alternate attending school two or three days weekly and spend the remaining time at home.

‘BACK TO SCHOOL’

Republican President Donald Trump, who has exhorted Americans to return to their daily routines, threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that fail to reopen on their normal schedule due to the coronavirus outbreak.

States are chiefly responsible for primary and secondary education, but the federal government provides some supplementary funding.

Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon issue new back-to-school protocols after Trump criticized current recommendations as too strict and costly. But Pence stressed that CDC guidelines are advisory.

Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in 42 of the 50 states over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. The percentage of people testing positive among those who are screened has climbed above 5% – to levels health experts deem concerning – in some two dozen states.

On Tuesday, the number of confirmed U.S. cases crossed the 3 million mark, roughly equivalent to 1% of the population and about 25% of all known infections worldwide.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who faces Trump in a Nov. 3 election, described the grim milestone as “awful” and “avoidable.” He accused Trump of putting the nation in a precarious spot by not ramping up testing and deliveries of protective equipment.

The virus, which first surfaced in China late last year, is sweeping through a number of heavily populated states, including California, Florida and Texas. Twenty states have reported record increases in cases this month.

Houston, the largest city in Texas and the U.S. oil industry’s hub, registered more than 1,000 new cases on Tuesday, a single-day record, Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted on Wednesday, calling the spread “severe and uncontrolled.”

Turner, a Democrat, ordered the cancellation of a Texas Republican Party convention scheduled for July 16-18 in Houston, citing public health concerns.

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory closures reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill in March and April and put millions of Americans out of work.

Health officials worry hospitals will be inundated with COVID-19 patients, leading to a spike in deaths.

In Arizona, one of the latest epicenters of the U.S. outbreak, 91 percent of all adult intensive care unit beds are occupied, the state health department said on Wednesday.


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