Three states in U.S. South report record rises in COVID-19 deaths

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Alabama, Florida and North Carolina reported record daily increases in COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, a trio of grim milestones that follows the first nationwide increase in fatalities since mid-April as some U.S. states rushed to reopen.

The number of new cases reported daily began rising about six weeks ago, especially in southern and western states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, which have been quick to lift restrictions meant to control the spread of the virus.

New coronavirus cases rose in 46 of 50 U.S. states last week over the previous week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. So far in July, 28 states have reported record daily increases in new cases.

With more than 3.3 million cases, the United States ranks first in the world in cases per capita along with Peru. With more than 135,000 deaths, the United States ranks seventh in fatalities per capita among the 20 countries with the most cases.

Florida on Tuesday reported 133 new COVID-19 deaths, raising the state’s death toll to more than 4,500. Its previous record increase was 120 on July 9. Alabama reported a record increase of 40 deaths and North Carolina 35 deaths, bringing each state’s total to over 1,100.

The rising cases and deaths have left educators from California to Wisconsin opting for online learning rather than a return to classrooms when the school year begins in a few weeks.

Schools from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Fort Bend County, Texas, joined California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, in announcing plans to keep teachers and students from the close contact that classrooms demand.

The decision puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funds or remove tax-exempt status if they refuse to reopen classrooms, even though most schools are financed by state and local taxes.

Trump’s campaign views the reopening of classrooms, enabling parents to get back to work, as a key to economic recovery and a boost to his re-election chances on Nov. 3.

New York state plans to reopen its schools in areas where the daily infection rate is below 5% of all COVID tests. The state has averaged an infection rate of about 1% for several weeks and is one of only four states where cases fell last week, according to a Reuters analysis. New York City, where social distancing and mask wearing are widely practiced, recently reported no new COVID deaths in a 24-hour period for the first time since March.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday added Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin to the state’s quarantine list. Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 22 U.S. states are now required to quarantine for 14 days.

Florida still plans for its schools to resume in-person learning in August. The state recorded over 9,000 new cases on Tuesday, down from 12,000 on Monday and a record increase of 15,000 on Sunday.

Teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia, protested outside school headquarters on Monday with one woman fully enclosed in a white lab suit and face shield holding a sign that said, “Our new school uniform.” To keep physically distant, the teachers honked their car horns in unison, according to a video.

Faculty members were protesting against a school board plan for hybrid instruction that would include two days of in-person teaching, according to local media.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. public schools, focus of debate on reopening, are unsung economic force

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the debate rages over how to safely reopen U.S. schools this autumn, one factor weighs heavily: the nation’s 98,000 public “K-12” schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.

Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle and high schools, compared to about six million in private schools. The educated workforce and childcare the system creates have been key drivers of economic growth.

With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance and insurance and transportation and warehousing.

Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021.

The Trump administration, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been pushing for schools to physically reopen in the fall as U.S. coronavirus deaths near 140,000, the world’s highest. But it has not embraced any blueprint, including federal health guidelines, for how to do that safely.

Parents, teachers and local governments are expressing growing concern, after a string of coronavirus outbreaks at day care and summer school classrooms around the country.

On Monday, Los Angeles and San Diego said their 700,000-student public K-12 schools would start online-only education in August, citing “skyrocketing” coronavirus infection rates in California.

LOCAL DECISION

The White House has little real sway over whether public schools will reopen – just about 8% of U.S. K-12 public school funding comes from the federal government, with the remainder split fairly evenly between state and local governments, the Census Bureau data shows.

The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12,612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies.

Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.

Although it rebounded somewhat in June, local government education employment is still down by 667,000 since March, when schools shifted largely to online instruction, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

That is nearly double the 351,000 jobs lost in local school districts after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when tax revenues and budgets withered.

The losses could increase without federal aid to state and local governments, Gould said. “They’re faced with austerity and severe cuts and education is one of the places they look.”

Many of those laid off, including teaching assistants, counselors, and maintenance workers, are likely supported by enhanced unemployment benefits, scheduled to expire at the end of July.

It is difficult to say how much school shutdowns in the fall would affect the U.S. economy. Analysis from Washington-based think tanks has focused on the long-term cost to the U.S. economy of a less skilled workforce in years to come due to school closures. But there is little data to show how closures in the fall would impact U.S. jobs and the GDP immediately.

WHO’S WATCHING THE KIDS?

Online-only K-12 education or closed schools may pull parents, and especially women, out of the workforce, particularly those with very young children that need more supervision.

According to a recent McKinsey & Co report on reopening schools, about 26.8 million Americans, or about 16% of the workforce, are dependent on child care in order to work.

Physically opening schools a few days a week, as has been proposed in New York City, will not help much without more federal aid for child care, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

“This cost would be offset by the surge in labor supply and income, as parents flock back to work, helping to jump-start the economy,” Fuller said.

DeVos told CNN on Sunday that because children contract the virus at a far lower rate than adults, there is little danger for them to be back in schools.

“We know that schools across the country look very different and that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything,” DeVos told Fox News Sunday.

Despite the threat to their jobs, teachers are not pushing to reopen schools. A USA Today poll at the end of May revealed that one in five teachers said they were unlikely to return to their classrooms in the fall.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that nearly 1.5 million U.S. teachers, almost one in four, were at greater risk of serious illness if infected with the coronavirus due to age or existing health conditions.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

California shuts down businesses, schools as coronavirus outbreak grows

By Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The governor called the move critical to stemming a surge in COVID-19 cases that have strained hospitals in several of California’s rural counties.

The public school districts for Los Angeles and San Diego, which instruct a combined 706,000 students and employ 88,000 people, said in a joint statement they would teach only online when school resumes in August, citing “vague and contradictory” science and government guidelines.

The districts said countries that have safely reopened schools have done so only after establishing declining infection rates and on-demand coronavirus testing.

“California has neither,” the statement said, adding, “The sky-rocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”

The union representing Los Angeles teachers applauded the strategy in a separate statement released shortly after the school shutdowns were announced.

“In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely and the outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” United Teachers Los Angeles said.

Brenda Del Hierro, who has two children in Los Angeles schools, said resuming traditional instruction was important but the hazards had to be considered. “For their social and emotional well being they need to go back to school. But at the end of the day there is too much of a risk,” she said.

DISTRICTS CLASH WITH TRUMP

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen. Most education funding comes from state and local governments.

Administration officials have said data does not suggest attending school would be dangerous for children because their infection rates are far lower than the population at large.

In response to the California districts’ announcement, the White House reiterated that the ideal scenario is for students to go to school. “Hopefully Los Angeles and San Diego can get there soon as well, as that is what is best for children.” spokesman Judd Deer said.

Newsom, who has said during the pandemic that it was up to local school districts to determine how best to educate their students, cheered the announcements by Los Angeles and San Diego.

But Republicans criticized the governor for failing to issue statewide guidelines for schools during the health crisis.

“While he continues to blame Californians for his failure in leadership, his demands to close our small businesses and lack of direction on opening schools will further harm California’s school children and the small businesses that fuel our economy,” Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, said in a written statement.

California, along with Florida, Arizona and Texas have emerged as the new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic. Infections have risen rapidly in about 40 of the 50 states over the last two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Despite nearly 28,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two days in Florida, Disney World in Orlando welcomed the public on Saturday for the first time since March with guests required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep physically apart.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Steve Gorman in Eureka, California, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Moderna expects to start late-stage COVID-19 vaccine trial on July 27

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Moderna Inc said on Tuesday it plans to start a late stage clinical trial for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate on or around July 27, according to its listing for the phase 3 study at clinicaltrials.gov.

Moderna said it will conduct the trial at 87 study locations, all in the United States.

The experimental vaccine will be tested in 30 states and Washington, D.C. Around half of the study locations are in hard-hit states like Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and North and South Carolina.

The United States has reported record numbers of new coronavirus cases in recent days, with much of the surge coming from those states.

The federal government is supporting Moderna’s vaccine project with nearly half a billion dollars and has chosen it as one of the first to enter large-scale human trials.

Tensions between the company and government scientists contributed to a delay of the trial launch, Reuters reported earlier this month.

Shares of Moderna rose about 2.5% on Nasdaq at midday.

(Reporting by Michael Erman, Editing by Franklin Paul and Richard Chang)

Four more states added to New York quarantine order, Cuomo says

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional four states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The newly added states – Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin – were all seeing ‘significant’ community spread of the virus, Cuomo said in a statement.

Delaware, previously on the list, has now been removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 22 U.S. states are now required to quarantine for 14 days, according to Cuomo’s order which was first issued in June.

On Monday, the governor announced a travel enforcement operation at airports across the state to ensure travelers are abiding by the quarantine restrictions.

New York reported five COVID-19 fatalities on Monday, and 820 hospitalizations. There were 912 positive test results, or 1.5% of the total, as Cuomo warned in a tweet that “infection rates are alarmingly rising among 20-somethings in NY.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bernadette Baum)

More U.S. schools go online-only as coronavirus cases and deaths rise

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – With coronavirus infections and deaths rising in many parts of the country, U.S. educators from California to Wisconsin are opting for online learning rather than a return to classrooms when the school year begins in a few weeks.

Schools from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Fort Bend County, Texas, joined California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, in announcing plans to keep teachers and students from the close contact that classrooms demand.

The decision puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funds or remove tax-exempt status if they refuse to reopen classrooms, even though most schools are financed by state and local taxes.

Trump’s campaign views the reopening of classrooms, enabling parents to get back to work, as a key to economic recovery and a boost to his re-election chances on Nov. 3.

Los Angeles and San Diego schools said in a joint statement on Monday that countries that have safely reopened schools have done so only after establishing declining infection rates and on-demand coronavirus testing.

U.S. coronavirus cases rose in 46 of 50 states last week and the number of deaths rose nationally last week for the first time since mid-April and about six weeks after cases began to increase, according to a Reuters analysis.

With more than 3.3 million COVID-19 cases, the United States ranks first in the world in cases per capita, according to a Reuters analysis, and with 135,000 deaths, ranks seventh in deaths per capita among the 20 countries with the most cases.

LONG WAITS FOR TESTS, RESULTS

Testing in several states has been plagued by long lines and waits of more than a week to learn the results, according to numerous posts on social media and videos at test locations.

Teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia, protested outside school headquarters on Monday with one woman fully enclosed in a white lab suit and face shield holding a sign that said, “Our new school uniform.” To keep physically distant, the teachers honked their car horns in unison, according to a video.

Faculty members were protesting against a school board plan for hybrid instruction that would include two days of in-person teaching, according to local media.

Florida, the epicenter of the current outbreak, still plans for its schools to resume in-person learning in August.

Despite nearly 28,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two days in Florida, Disney World in Orlando welcomed the public on Saturday for the first time since March with guests required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep physically apart.

After experiencing nearly 16,000 new cases in the last two days, California further retreated from reopening its economy.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered bars to close and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the country’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

Pound slips below $1.25 on disappointing growth data

By Maiya Keidan

LONDON (Reuters) – Sterling fell below $1.25 on Tuesday for the first time in a week and reached a 14-day low against the euro after data showed Britain’s economy was recovering more slowly than forecast.

Gross domestic product rose by 1.8% in May after falling by a record 20.8% in April, the Office for National Statistics said, well below forecasts in a Reuters poll.

“You saw sterling moving lower almost immediately after the announcement and it was a big disappointment and I think that it’s also the realization that maybe the V-shaped recovery doesn’t apply to the UK to the same extent,” said Morten Lund, an analyst at Nordea.

Adding to fears was a warning from authorities that another, more deadly COVID-19 wave could kill up to 120,000 Britons over the winter.

The pound touched a low of $1.2485, down 0.5% on the day. It slipped 0.7% to the euro at 91.03 pence.

Broad dollar weakness has allowed sterling to gain around 0.7% versus the greenback this month but against the euro it has lost 0.5% since the start of July.

Consumer data also indicated a tentative recovery. The British Retail Consortium said retail sales values rose by 3.4% in annual terms in June, and Barclaycard said overall consumer spending fell 14.5% in annual terms in June, the smallest decline since lockdown began.

Money markets price in the Bank of England’s cutting rates below 0% only next March. But government two-year bond yields plumbed a record low around minus 0.16% and 10-year yields slipped 2.5 basis points to 0.14%.

FTSE mid-cap shares, which tend to be mostly domestically oriented, fell 1.6% versus a 0.6% decline for the exporter-laden FTSE100.

Investors are also waiting for more news on Britain’s negotiations with the European Union on concluding a trade deal for the post-Brexit period. Britain left the bloc on Jan. 31, with a one-year transition period to iron out a future relationship.

“My feeling is the market is not fully pricing in the likelihood of a hard Brexit,” said Colin Asher at Mizuho.

“There has been very little progress on negotiations and even if there is a deal, there’s not much time to put a lot in it.”

(Reporting by Maiya Keidan, editing by Larry King and Ed Osmond)

3M, MIT partner to make rapid COVID-19 antigen test

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – U.S. industrial conglomerate 3M Co has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a rapid antigen test for COVID-19, the company said on Tuesday.

The test would produce results within minutes and could be administered on a low-cost, paper-based device, similar to a home pregnancy test, that could be delivered at the point of care.

“We are seeking to improve the speed, accessibility and affordability of testing for the virus, a major step in helping to prevent its spread,” said John Banovetz, the chief technology officer at 3M.

The research effort is being aided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is running a project called Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) that funds the development of new testing technologies in academia and business.

The program aims to have the new tests available for use by late summer or early fall.

Antigen tests scan for proteins that can be found on or inside a virus. They can detect the virus very quickly and can potentially be produced at a lower cost than other tests.

3M says it could scale manufacturing to millions of tests per day once it is developed.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Ukraine: it’s too early to blame human error for downing of passenger plane in Iran

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Tuesday it was soon to blame human error for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner near Tehran in January, challenging the findings of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO).

The CAO said in an interim report that the plane was accidentally downed, killing 176 people on board, because of a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told an online briefing that many questions remained unanswered.

“I want to clearly emphasize: it is early to say that the plane was shot down as a result of human error, as the Iranian side claims,” he said. “We have many questions, and we need a large number of authoritative, unbiased, objective answers about what happened.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

Tehran last month said it would send the black box flight recorders from the downed airliner to France for analysis and that experts from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Ukraine would take part in the decoding.

Kuleba said an Iranian delegation was due to arrive in Kiev later this month to discuss compensation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February Kiev was not satisfied with the size of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. rejects China’s claims in South China Sea, adding to tensions

By Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed and Yew Lun Tian

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States on Monday rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, drawing criticism from China which said the U.S. position raised tension in the region, highlighting an increasingly testy relationship.

China has offered no coherent legal basis for its ambitions in the South China Sea and for years has been using intimidation against other Southeast Asian coastal states, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” said Pompeo, a prominent China hawk within the Trump administration.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. Monday’s comments reflect a harsher tone.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said.

The U.S. statement supports a ruling four years ago under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that invalidated most of China’s claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned the U.S. rejection of China’s claim.

“It intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act,” he said at a regular briefing.

“The U.S. has repeatedly sent large fleets of sophisticated military planes and ships to the South China Sea … The U.S. is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability.”

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

About $3 trillion worth of trade passes through the waterway each year. China has built bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.

MORE CONFIDENT?

Analysts said it would be important to see if other countries adopted the U.S. stance and what, if anything, Washington might do to reinforce its position and prevent Beijing from creating “facts on the water” to buttress its claims.

“The Southeast Asian claimants, especially Vietnam, will feel more confident in asserting their jurisdictional rights under UNCLOS,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The Philippines strongly supported a rules-based order in the South China Sea and urged China to comply with the four-year-old arbitration ruling, its defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, said.

Taiwan welcomed the U.S. statement.

“Our country opposes any attempt by a claimant state to use intimidation, coercion, or force to resolve disputes,” Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters.

The relationship between the United States and China has grown increasingly tense recently over various issues including China’s handling of the novel coronavirus and its tightened grip on Hong Kong.

China routinely outlines the scope of its claims in the South China Sea with reference to a so-called nine-dash line on its maps that encompasses about nine-tenths of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer waters.

“This is basically the first time we have called it illegitimate,” Chris Johnson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Pompeo’s statement.

“It’s fine to put out a statement, but what you going to do about it?”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis. Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)