July 8, 2020 / 3:36 PM / a month ago

Worsening U.S. outbreak prompts tough actions as new coronavirus cases hit record

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 newly confirmed U.S. COVID-19 cases soared to a daily global record.

Officials in New Jersey and New York, the hardest-hit states at the outset of the U.S. outbreak, are trying to preserve progress in curtailing spread of the virus in the face of a resurgence elsewhere across the country, especially the South and West.

More than 47,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the two northeastern states, accounting for more than a third of the 132,000-plus Americans killed by the virus, according to a Reuters tally.

More than 60,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the United States on Wednesday, the greatest single-day tally of cases by any country since the virus emerged late last year in China. And U.S. deaths rose by more than 900 for the second straight day, the highest level seen since early June.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy unveiled an executive order requiring face coverings outdoors where social distancing is not possible, citing a rise in the state’s coronavirus transmission rate.

“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 people congregating without masks. “It’s what we should have been doing months ago.”

Republican state Senator Michael Doherty, however, accused Murphy 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 under the “blended learning” schedule, which requires state approval.

‘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. Meanwhile, 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.

FILE PHOTO: Visitors walk and shop on the boardwalk after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions were lifted in time for the Memorial Day weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S. May 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jessica Kourkounis

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 is sweeping through a number of heavily populated states, including California and Texas, both of which reported their highest daily toll of COVID-19 deaths to date. Twenty states have reported record increases in cases this month.

GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. - here

PANDEMIC AND POLITICS

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.

In neighboring Oklahoma, Dr. Bruce Dart, the top health official in Tulsa, said Trump’s campaign rally at an indoor arena in the city last month likely contributed to hundreds of new coronavirus cases over the past few days.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said she had seen no data to support Dart’s conclusions.

An outbreak at the Mississippi state Capitol in Jackson left 26 lawmakers and 10 others infected, prompting the governor to urge anyone who had contact with a legislator to get tested, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported.

FILE PHOTO: New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy takes part in a regional cannabis and vaping summit in New York City, New York, U.S., October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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.

In Arizona, one of the latest epicenters of the U.S. outbreak, rising infections have swollen hospital admissions to the point where 91 percent of adult intensive care unit beds were occupied, the state health department said.

GRAPHIC: Where coronavirus cases are rising in the United States - here

Reporting by Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Trevor Hunnicutt, Daphne Psaledakis and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle

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