By Talal Ansari, Jennifer Calfas and Sune Engel Rasmussen
U.S. state governors are grappling with the push-and-pull between easing pandemic restrictions and extending them, as reported coronavirus cases continue to climb but at a lower rate and tensions over restrictions rise with warmer temperatures.
European and Asian governments also moved to further relax lockdowns that have battered the global economy, while some of the world‘s largest developing countries reported a surge in new infections.
In the U.S., at least 30 states have started to allow some businesses to operate or announced plans to do so this month. As warmer spring temperatures lured residents to parks and beaches over the weekend, even authorities in hard-hit states such as New York and New Jersey opened up some outdoor spaces — though often with extra police present to ensure residents didn‘t congregate too closely.
President Trump during a Fox News town-hall appearance Sunday evening at the Lincoln Memorial said he was ready to restart U.S. economic activity “as quickly as possible.”
“You really can have it both ways,” Mr. Trump said. He said he wanted schools to reopen in the fall and is confident a vaccine will be available for the virus by the end of the year, a timeline medical experts have said would be difficult to achieve.
Mr. Trump acknowledged the reality of the death toll and said the virus could flare up again later. “We may have to put out a fire,” he said.
Large crowds took to New York City streets and parks on Saturday in a city with the highest number of infections in the nation. Police issued 51 summonses, the majority for social-distancing violations, New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea said on Sunday. He added that police had “tens of thousands of interactions with people all across the city yesterday, most of them without having to issue any type of enforcement activity.”
In California‘s Orange County, surfers flocked to beaches over the weekend after Gov. Gavin Newsom closed them due to large crowds, drawing protests. Meanwhile, officials in Travis County, Texas, temporarily shut some parks this weekend to guard the safety of visitors and staff after they documented “a large number” of visitors.
The reopenings in some states after nearly two months of widespread shutdowns have escalated tensions in regions where measures remain in place. In addition to California, protests have broken out against restrictions in recent days in Michigan, Illinois, Oregon, Maryland and New York.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told CNN‘s “State of the Union” on Sunday that a gathering of armed protesters at the Capitol in Lansing represents “a small group of people” in a state of almost 10 million.
Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, said she understands that people are frustrated about the restrictions but said she wouldn‘t make reopening decisions based on political pressure. The protests began shortly after President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” on April 17.
“We‘re going to listen to facts and science because we‘ve got to get this right,” she said.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the lack of distancing at the Michigan protests was “devastatingly worrisome.”
“If they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a co-morbid condition and they have a serious or a very unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives,” Dr. Birx told “Fox News Sunday.” “We need to protect each other at the same time we‘re voicing our discontent.”
In Maine, Republican lawmakers called for a special session to end Democratic Gov. Janet Mills‘s emergency powers, saying she didn‘t adequately consult with them on the state‘s reopening plan.
Local authorities in some areas, meanwhile, are making plans to reopen — even as state orders remain in place. Two California counties, Sutter and Yuba, have said that some “low risk” businesses such as salons, spas and tattoo parlors can open on Monday under modified guidelines. That follows an earlier decision by Modoc County, a sparsely populated area with no recorded cases of coronavirus, to open schools and businesses.
Public-health experts have said state officials need to put in place certain measures, including expanded testing capacity and -tracing teams, to safely return to some version of normalcy.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday said the state would enter a regional buying consortium with six other Northeast states to purchase tests, equipment and ventilators.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. topped 1.15 million, with more than 67,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Sunday. The country has reported more than 20,000 new infections and over 1,000 deaths each day since the end of March, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
The U.S. accounts for about a third of global reported infections, which on Sunday exceeded 3.48 million. Deaths world-wide have now passed 246,000, according to Johns Hopkins data. Experts warn that these figures may understate the extent of cases and deaths during this pandemic.
Epidemiologists say it is too soon to tell whether the lifting of lockdowns will cause infection rates to rise.
Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, told CBS‘s “Face the Nation” that the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb in 20 states, including some like Texas and Tennessee where restrictions are beginning to ease.
“We expected that we would start seeing more significant declines in new cases and deaths around the nation at this point, and we‘re just not seeing that,” Dr. Gottlieb said.
He warned of a “persistent spread” of the virus and the possibility of new outbreaks. “That‘s the concern: that if we don‘t snuff this out more, and you have this slow burn of infection, that it can ignite at any time, ” Dr. Gottlieb said.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his team would continue to watch new cases and hospitalizations as the state starts to open up businesses on Monday, and would potentially take action if those numbers started to go up. But he added that he was forced to pull back on an earlier requirement that customers wear masks in stores.
“It became clear to me that that was just a bridge too far,” Mr. DeWine, a Republican, told ABC News‘s “This Week.” “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”
Scientists and companies are racing to develop a vaccine and treatments for the new coronavirus. On Sunday, Roche Holding AG said the FDA cleared its antibody test for emergency use, a move that could add significant capacity to efforts to determine the wider spread of Covid-19.
On Friday, the FDA approved the emergency use of remdesivir, an antiviral drug produced by Gilead Sciences Inc., to treat patients with Covid-19.
Gilead Chief Executive Daniel O‘Day told CBS‘s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the company was working with the federal government to donate 1.5 million vials of the drug and distribute treatments as soon as this week.
Authorities across the world this weekend also allowed the resumption of some social and economic activities.
On Sunday, Spain reported 164 deaths, its lowest daily death toll in seven weeks, a day after the government took a major step toward unwinding its harsh lockdown by allowing adults to exercise outdoors. The number of daily deaths has trended down since peaking at the beginning of April at 950.
Some 23 million travelers in China were out and about at the start of a five-day holiday that runs through Tuesday, the country‘s Xinhua News Agency said, with attractions such as Beijing‘s Forbidden City partially reopened.
In Iran, one of the nations hardest hit in the early stages of the pandemic, the government said it would reopen mosques in 132 towns to hold Friday prayers for the first time in two months. The move follows weeks of gradual reopening of Iranian businesses as the infection rate has slowed, but President Hassan Rouhani warned the country was still exposed to the possibility of a second wave of infection.
Israel‘s government began a limited reopening of schools on Sunday, beginning with children in first through third grades, students in 11th and 12th grades and special-education students.
But elsewhere, nations where coronavirus took hold relatively late are now seeing a surge in infections.
India, which has been locked down for a month, said on Sunday it had recorded more than 2,600 new infections, bringing its total to nearly 40,000 with more than 1,300 dead. Its nationwide lockdown is set to remain in place until May 18.
Russia reported over 10,000 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, a fresh daily record that brought the total caseload to over 130,000. A total of 1,280 people have died.
Saudi Arabia‘s health ministry reported on Saturday a record high of 1,362 new cases, bringing the total to 25,459 with 176 deaths. A nationwide 24-hour curfew in place for two weeks was eased last week as the holy month of Ramadan got under way, allowing people to leave their homes between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. for groceries and medical emergencies.
–Alex Leary contributed to this article.
Write to Talal Ansari at Talal.Ansari, Jennifer Calfas at Jennifer.Calfas and Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen