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Top Trump official says country safe to reopen as governors stress social distancing

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it’s safe to reopen the country because half of the counties reporting “haven’t had a single death” and more than 60% of all COVID-19 cases are in just 2 percent of the reporting counties.

“That’s why the local leaders need to lead this,” Azar said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Azar said he was not overly concerned by images of people congregating at bars and other places without staying six feet apart or wearing masks.

“I think in any individual instance you are going to see people doing things that are irresponsible,” he said. Azar emphasized, “we’ve got to get this economy open and our people out and about, working and going to school again.”

In states such as Georgia and Ohio, where 90 percent of the economy is open, “we are not seeing a spike in cases,” Azar said.

He stressed that surveilling people with symptoms and responding with contact tracing and isolation are key to controlling a potential spread.

Azar suggested infections and death seem higher in the United States because it has done more testing and reporting, even though many experts say the country’s slow rollout of testing in the early stages helped the outbreak spread.

He went on to say more Americans were at risk of dying from the virus because of demonstrably higher rates of underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

“This is about simple epidemiology,” Azar said.

Thirteen sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier have tested positive for covid-19 after recovering from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Politico reports.

The Navy initially said Saturday afternoon five sailors had tested positive a second time. But Politico, citing two unnamed defense officials, reported later another eight sailors had been diagnosed again.

An outbreak on the ship began in March, forcing the Roosevelt to divert to Guam, where sailors spent weeks in isolation or quarantine. In total, the military has reported more than 1,000 confirmed cases among the crew of 4,800.

The five sailors who initially tested positive a second time had gone through at least two weeks of isolation and tested negative twice in a row before they were allowed back on the ship. Once they returned to the ship, they developed flu-like symptoms before they tested positive a second time.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Friday that treating the virus was “a learning process.”

“It shows us what we’ve known for a long time — that this is a very stubborn infectious disease,” Hoffman said during a news briefing.

A Navy spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned Sunday that “time is of the essence” for Congress and the White House to approve an additional round of coronavirus relief, including funds for more testing and job protections.

“Time is very important. We have lost time,” Pelosi said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “People are hungry across America. Hunger doesn’t take a pause. People are jobless across America. That doesn’t take a pause.”

Pelosi said she expects to negotiate with Republicans on a final relief bill. She would not say whether Democrats are receptive to expanding liability protections for employers that reopen during the pandemic, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has sought.

“We have no red lines. But the fact is, the best protection for our workers and for their employers is to follow very good (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) mandatory guidelines,” she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Sunday that social distancing measures are key to reopening his state, which has adopted a phased approach to lifting restrictions. He also said reopening schools will be predicated on data and science, not just observations on the ground.

“I think some schools will not be (open this fall) and many schools will be,” Newsom, a Democrat, told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Seventy-five percent of California’s economy is now open, including manufacturing, warehouses and restaurants, Newsom said. Business owners and individuals are encouraged to wear face coverings and maintain physical distance from others. Opening sports arenas, he said, is not an option at this time.

Newsom did not take issue with Elon Musk reopening a Tesla plant in Fremont last week, challenging Alameda County’s stay-at-home order, even though the facility had been granted permission to open early this week. The governor said officials and Tesla worked out their differences. Musk had previously threatened to move his factories out of the state.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday that reopening his state’s economy was necessary but also noted that the state was still wrestling with the outbreak and the danger remains. “I’ve said to Ohioans that so much is in every individual’s control. I encourage people to wear masks when they go out in public,” he said on CNN.

People need an extra layer to protect themselves, DeWine said.

DeWine, a Republican, said that when he saw images of a reopened Ohio bar crowded with people, he was concerned. But he added that the people running the bar got the situation under control.

“Ultimately, it’s going to come to Ohioans doing what Ohioans have done the last two months — keep their distance and wear masks.”

DeWine said that 90 percent of the state’s economy is open but that he wasn’t sure about reopening schools. He said they were closed “not because you are worried about the kids,” but to keep students from going home and infecting their parents.

“You have one kid … in a class with it, now you have 25 kids going back to their families and spreading it” when school lets out, he said.

The Walt Disney Co. said late Saturday that it would partially reopen its sprawling Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex near Orlando, Florida, on May 20, a significant step forward in the Walt Disney World Resort’s return to business.

Disney leadership and unions for resort workers paved the way for the move last week when they reached an agreement on measures to protect employees from the novel coronavirus, as Reuters reported.

Starting next week, third-party stores and restaurants at the 120-acre outdoor complex will open their doors, according to a statement from the company. Three Disney-owned stores will open the following week.

“While our theme parks and resort hotels remain temporarily closed, the phased reopening of Disney Springs is a welcome milestone as we navigate through this unprecedented time together as responsibly as we can,” Disney Springs Vice President Matt Simon said.

Businesses throughout Florida have begun to resume operations under the state’s phased reopening. Disney is a major economic driver for central Florida, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and drawing in millions of tourists every year. The resort furloughed 43,000 workers when it closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Disney’s Shanghai theme park reopened with strict health restrictions last week, but others around the world remain shuttered.

Eric Trump claimed Saturday that the coronavirus will “magically” vanish after the November election and allow the country to fully reopen — an assertion that has no basis in science and is contradicted by health experts worldwide.

In an interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, Trump suggested the president’s critics were using the pandemic to undermine his father’s rallies, calling it a “cognizant strategy” that would go away once it was no longer politically expedient.

“They think they are taking away Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time,” the younger Trump said. “You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and Nov. 3. And guess what, after Nov. 3, coronavirus will magically, all of a sudden, go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.”

Leading health officials have repeatedly warned that the coronavirus will not go away by fall and that a surge in cases toward the end of the year could be even harder to manage than the current outbreak.

Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said late last month the global spread of the disease made it “inevitable” that the coronavirus would return or linger beyond fall. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post a second wave of covid-19 could be worse than the first because it would coincide with the flu season.

President Donald Trump himself has acknowledged the pandemic will remain a public health problem for months. Earlier this month, he said that although he is convinced covid-19 will disappear on its own, it “doesn’t mean it’s going to be gone, frankly, by fall or after the fall.”

Face coverings become tool in partisan combat

At the end of April, the three commissioners in West Virginia’s Monongalia County sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice with a request.

Would he issue an executive order mandating the use of face masks in the county, which includes West Virginia University, for the 17-day period in May when 12,000 students and their family members were expected to stream back into town to recover their belongings from off-campus housing amid the coronavirus pandemic?

At first, the appeal seemed bipartisan.

The county commission’s lone Democrat joined two Republicans to make the request. And West Virginia’s top health officials backed it, with Clay Marsh, a physician coordinating the state’s coronavirus response, telling the head of the university health system in an email, “I would personally want to do this for the entire state until we have a more definitive treatment or vaccine.”

But Justice, a prominent ally of President Donald Trump who is moving to reopen the economy under the mantra, “West Virginia Strong,” never responded. As a result, no face-covering requirements are in place as thousands descend on the campus — adding to the unease of some local leaders who worry that political considerations could make their community vulnerable to a spike in coronavirus cases.

“It’s very, very disappointing,” Tom Bloom, the Democratic commissioner, said of the governor’s inaction. “To me personally, I think it’s illogical.”

But the episode has unfolded according to a blunt political logic that tracks with trends nationwide. With a presidential election fewer than six months away, questions about how politics is figuring in the response to the pandemic have hovered over everything from the allocation of medical supplies to the provision of federal aid to states to the decision to tell residents to stay at home.

Face coverings, which became part of the administration’s guidance only after internal debate between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have emerged as a political Rorschach test. Republican leaders are less likely to mandate them, and Republican voters are more likely to forgo, and even scorn, them.

The White House waited until several aides close to Trump had tested positive for the novel virus to require masks or face coverings for its employees — in guidance that does not apply to the president. Of his decision to go barefaced, Trump said Monday, “In the case of me, I’m not close to anybody.”

The ideological overtones of requiring masks have been growing louder for weeks. The coverings have taken on such potent social symbolism because, rather than being used solely for self-protection, they serve a more communal function: preventing users, including asymptomatic carriers, from infecting others. Some have chafed at shouldering that burden, decrying orders as government outreach.

In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has imposed among the most far-reaching statewide directives, requiring businesses to refuse entry to customers not wearing a mask, Russ Diamond, a Republican state lawmaker, recently celebrated shopping for toilet paper “sans mask,” as he described his brazen act in a meme on Facebook. “So much winning,” he added.

In Texas, the Democratic county judge in Harris County recently amended an order requiring masks after Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, made clear that he would not brook the imposition of fines for not heeding the guidelines.

“Did it become political? Yes,” Lina Hidalgo, the county judge, said in an interview, noting that the penalty was mainly aimed at educating the public. She said she cheers the rollout of masks branded with Trump’s reelection slogan, “Keep America Great,” if it means broad compliance with the public-health precaution. “If folks want to express their opinion through a mask, that’s fantastic,” she said. “The line is when your political statement harms someone else’s health.”

In West Virginia, local leaders watching the brief return of students to the Morgantown community say they fear that politics may figure in the governor’s lack of response to their request.

“I would hope that it isn’t political, but it concerns me when I see that people are taking sides — and when the governor talks all the time about how he’s such a supporter of President Trump, and we hear in the media that people don’t want to get on the wrong side of the president,” Bloom said. “Does that have a role in his decision?”

Bloom said the commissioners thought they lacked authority at the county level to mandate face coverings for the 17-day interval, especially after explicitly seeking the governor’s intervention in an effort to “follow professional protocol.”

In addition to the state’s coronavirus coordinator, West Virginia Health Secretary Bill Crouch also backed the request. “I think it’s great!” he wrote in email correspondence reviewed by The Washington Post.

A spokesman for Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Polling points to a political schism over the issue. In a recent Gallup survey, 75% of Democrats reported wearing a mask outside their homes in the previous seven days, compared to 48% of Republicans who said the same.

Democrats are more likely to live in the dense urban areas where social distancing is impractical. As a result, the divisions over face coverings — which the CDC recommends “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” — may be as much geographical as they are political, said Christina Baxter, the chief executive of a Virginia-based emergency response consultancy.

Nevertheless, the patchwork of government regulations undermines public safety, she said.

“If everybody wore masks, then it would provide a benefit,” she said. “But where many people don’t and then some others do, I’m not sure it really provides a whole lot of benefit.”

Efforts to mandate widespread compliance have become extraordinarily vexed, with one dispute over face coverings, at a Family Dollar store in Michigan, litigated at the end of a barrel of a gun. Officials in Stillwater, Oklahoma, reversed course on an order requiring face coverings in stores and restaurants within hours of it taking effect because “store employees have been threatened with physical violence and showered with verbal abuse,” according to a news release from this month.

The question of whether to wear a mask has proved challenging for some politicians.

Vice President Mike Pence expressed regret this month after not wearing one during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, even though the facility requires them.

“It really is a statement about the American people, the way people have been willing to step forward, practice social distancing, wear masks in settings where they can’t do that,” Pence said. “As we continue to practice those principles, all of us together, I know we’ll get through this.”

The vice president is not the only prominent Republican to have struggled with the optics involved in the face coverings. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faced blowback when he let one of the straps of his N95 mask dangle below his chin during a public appearance.

Even Republican governors who have been scrupulous about modeling safe behavior have been reticent about compelling it of others. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine quickly backed down from an order requiring face masks to be worn in stores, saying many in the state considered the measure “one government mandate too far.”

That view is widely held by some of the president’s most vocal online supporters, who have taken to Facebook and other online platforms to organize resistance to stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. More recently, they have taken aim at mandatory-mask rules, for instance compiling lists of businesses with no such rules and pledging to patronize only these establishments. “No mask required!” a user wrote this week of a restaurant in Phoenix, in a Facebook group devoted to reopening Arizona. “Great Italian food!”

Politics is no less at play in pro-mask dogma, said David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, who has encouraged residents to wear masks but has not required it.

“I posted a picture of myself with my family eating a picnic in a park, not within 100 feet of anyone,” he said. “A couple of people replied, saying, ‘Where’s your mask?’ “

Wearing a face covering, he said, has become a way to signal faith in medical expertise, while forswearing one “has become some sort of symbol of protest.”

“This shouldn’t be an issue of which cable news station you watch,” he said. “The virus doesn’t care how you feel about the presidential election.”

Fayette County reports two coronavirus-related deaths

HUNTINGTON — West Virginia has reported its 67th death related to the novel coronavirus.

The two additional deaths were reported Sunday from Fayette County: a 69-year-old male and an 85-year-old female.

“We regret to report two more deaths of West Virginians and wish their families our sincere condolences,” said Bill J. Crouch, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary.

As of 5 p.m. Sunday, there were 1,490 positive cases of COVID-19 in the state. DHHR said there had been 75,490 laboratory results received for COVID-19, with 74,000 negative.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (7), Berkeley (210), Boone (9), Braxton (2), Brooke (3), Cabell (56), Calhoun (2), Clay (2), Fayette (38), Gilmer (8), Grant (6), Greenbrier (9), Hampshire (12), Hancock (12), Hardy (25), Harrison (35), Jackson (136), Jefferson (100), Kanawha (206), Lewis (5), Lincoln (5), Logan (15), Marion (48), Marshall (24), Mason (15), McDowell (6), Mercer (12), Mineral (28), Mingo (4), Monongalia (116), Monroe (6), Morgan (17), Nicholas (9), Ohio (38), Pendleton (5), Pleasants (2), Pocahontas (9), Preston (15), Putnam (29), Raleigh (10), Randolph (7), Ritchie (1), Roane (9), Summers (1), Taylor (8), Tucker (4), Tyler (3), Upshur (6), Wayne (96), Wetzel (7), Wirt (3), Wood (47), Wyoming (2).

In Ohio, there were 27,923 cases of COVID-19 as of 2 p.m. Sunday. There were 1,625 deaths reported in the state. There have been 27 cases in Lawrence County, Ohio, and two are still under isolation. A total of 1,453 tests have been done, according to the Lawrence County Emergency Operations Center.

In Kentucky, there were 7,688 cases of COVID-19 as of 5 p.m. Saturday. There were 334 deaths reported in the state.

There have been 129,405 people in Kentucky tested for the virus, and 2,768 people have recovered.

There were nearly 32,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the U.S. on Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 1,467,065, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 88,709 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Majority of Americans going to work fear exposing their household to the coronavirus

Even as most Americans spent the past two months hiding indoors, Damion Campbell has been rushing into retail and grocery stores in Columbia, South Carolina, each day.

The 45-year-old owns an information technology company, and his clients rely on him to keep their cash registers operating. Just a few months ago, Campbell didn’t think much about touching surfaces that may not have been washed for days or longer, or chatting with employees while he does his work.

But now, Campbell finds himself applying his military training to his civilian job. In the age of the novel coronavirus, that means stocking up on disinfectant wipes, always wearing a mask and never staying in one location for more than an hour, he said.

“You keep your head at the swivel, be aware of your surroundings, and avoid patterns,” said Campbell, referring to lessons he learned as a Marine deployed to Iraq nearly two decades ago. “You are constantly looking over your shoulder.”

With tens of millions of Americans preparing to return to work as more states relax stay-at-home orders, Campbell’s experiences offer a preview of the new challenges that businesses and employees will soon face as commerce begins reopening in a new era of anxiety and apprehension.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 8,000 adults in late April and early May found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans — and over half of those with jobs — have continued to leave the house for work at least once a week as the virus has spread and states have issued stay-at-home orders, the poll found. More than one-third of people still going to work said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13% said they lack health insurance themselves.

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans leaving home to work said their employers were doing enough to keep them safe, with a similar majority saying their work is “essential” and about 7 in 10 feeling appreciated for it.

But more than a third said they had probably been exposed on the job already.

“I was really sick, with all the symptoms back in late January,” said Bud Benedix, 60, a truck driver from suburban Chicago who was never tested for coronavirus, but believes it was circulating in the United States far earlier than official estimates. “Where I could have got it? I have no idea.”

The Post-Ipsos poll found that amid stay-at-home orders, people who continued to commute each day worked in a wide array of industries. Health-care workers accounted for 10% of people still leaving for work, 7% apiece worked in sales and office and administrative support, and another 6% prepared food. Blue-collar workers left home for work at higher rates than others, including those performing installation, maintenance and repair, transportation and construction.

Of the nearly half of employed Americans who were not going to an office or job site, nearly 9 in 10 are in white-collar industries.

As those workers now prepare to start leaving their homes, follow-up interviews with poll respondents revealed a host of concerns about how they will stay safe on the job. They worry about using mass transportation, how they will interact with colleagues and clients, and whether they could bring the virus home to other family members, including those who suffer from preexisting health conditions.

Denise Gonzalez, a 34-year-old landscape designer in Santa Ana, California, has been largely isolated in her house with two elderly parents, including her diabetic mother, since Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, ordered residents to stay home in early March.

Gonzalez wonders whether her office will establish protocols for the field crews who used to frequently come in and out of the office in between jobs.

“I think there is going to have to be more regulations at the office, like not everybody can come in at once, or only one from the crew can come inside, or we will have to meet them outside,” Gonzalez said. “And if we implement that, there is going to have to be somebody who makes sure we stick by it and make it the new norm for a while.”

In Wisconsin, preschool teacher Andrea Velasquez has also been staying home due to the closure of schools in her state, making only brief excursions to pick up supplies.

Velasquez, 42, does not think she will have to return to work until at least the fall, but she already wonders how her job will be different when she is back in the classroom.

Some things, Velasquez expects, won’t be that different. Most preschool teachers are already diligent about frequently washing their hands and sanitizing, she noted.

But when it comes to other fundamental parts of the job, such as interacting with parents and other teachers, Velasquez is still waiting for state and local educational associations to issue extensive guidelines for how to stay safe.

“In the past, a lot of teachers have gone to work sick because they feel guilty if they stay home,” Velasquez said. “Some kids have, too, and we all have to learn how to change that and follow new protocols.”

Some Americans who have already gone to work caution that those about to follow them should be prepared for added stress.

Hannah Rodriquez, 23, has been reporting to her job as a lab technician in Minneapolis. Her employer has implemented additional safeguards, such as checking employees’ temperatures when they arrive.

But Rodriquez said working around colleagues amid a pandemic has proved to be “more exhausting” than she would have expected. In addition to the heightened concern about how to best to protect her own health, Rodriquez said she finds it challenging to sift through the varied opinions that her co-workers have about whether the virus is dangerous.

“You have some people really anxious and really upset about what is going on, and others who think it’s a huge overreaction,” Rodriquez said. “That makes it even more stressful for everybody.”

Although there has been at least one coronavirus case reported in most U.S. counties, Americans have different perspectives on returning to work.

In Fargo, North Dakota, Stephanie Pearson, 30, noted her county has had only 76 confirmed coronavirus cases, and it has lower density than many major American cities. And as a healthy, young adult, the engineer said she may be among the first to be called back to work when her office reopens.

“I think we all will just have to use our best judgment, as to what is right for our personal situations,” Pearson said. “I sit in a fairly large cubicle, so I do not have any concerns about returning.”

But in northern Virginia, a government employee who would identify himself only by his first name, Olufemi, is worried that he won’t be able to safely get to his job in the Washington. Olufemi already had a fever earlier this year, which he believes he could have contracted while riding the subway to work.

“I worry if you take the Metro, you run a high risk of being exposed to it,” said Olufemi, adding he could not afford to drive to work every day when he factors in the cost of parking downtown. “And even if you don’t take the Metro, when you go into buildings, how many people are you going to come into contact with on the elevator on a daily basis?”

In recent weeks, many cities and states have begun urging, and in some cases mandating, that residents wear a protective face covering when outdoors. Some employers are also expected to require employees to wear face masks in office settings.

The Post-Ipsos poll found mask-wearing is scattershot at workplaces: 35% of people leaving home to go to work reported wearing a mask at all times, 39% said they wore a mask some of the time or occasionally, and 26% never wore one.

More than 4 in 10 women said they wore a mask all the time at work, compared with about 3 in 10 men.

An 81% majority of Americans said workers at businesses that are open should be required to wear masks, a figure that dips to 73% among those who have been leaving home for work during the outbreak. Almost as many support mask requirements for customers.

Brett Giordano, 47, works as a commercial helicopter pilot in Trophy Club, Texas, and he still flies clients a few times a week.

Giordano said he will wear a face mask while flying if a client asks him to, but he usually doesn’t see the virus as a major threat to his health. He believes state governments are overreacting by shutting down business and mandating mask use.

“If someone came aboard sneezing and coughing, I might say, ‘I think you need to get looked at,’ “ Giordano said. “But it’s kind of hard to fly with a mask on, because talking into the microphone with one is kind of hard.”

The poll also provides the first nationally representative look at what actions employers are taking to protect workers.

Over 8 in 10 Americans going to work said they approved of how their employer was handling the coronavirus outbreak. Another wide majority, 85%, said their employers encouraged workers to stay home if they were feeling ill. A smaller majority, 59%, said their employers reduced the numbers of workers required to come into work since the outbreak began.

Just over 7 in 10 said their employer provided them with face masks, more than 8 in 10 were provided hand sanitizer, and roughly 9 in 10 had access to soap and water for hand-washing.

Rikki Johnson, 58, works in the records unit of a prison in central Virginia that holds about 700 inmates.

Although prisons nationwide have struggled with large outbreaks in recent weeks, Johnson said his facility so far has no reported cases.

Prison administrators have been diligent in making “people wear face masks, stay socially distanced” and give employees staggered or limited shifts to reduce the chances that they could come in contact with the virus, said Johnson, who lives in Orange County in the Shenandoah foothills.

Johnson worries, however, that too many other businesses will try to reopen too quickly, potentially endangering essential workers like himself who have been commuting to work each day.

“I think governors and federal officials need to map out a better plan, including more testing,” said Johnson, 58. “I think our plan right now is a bit like ‘Helter Skelter’ and like gambling with dice.”

Johnson is African American, and the poll found that black and Latino Americans were more worried than white workers about the conditions they will face in the workplace. Nearly half of black men think they may have already been exposed to the virus at work, compared with just over 3 in 10 white men.

Campbell, the former Marine, believes he may have been exposed to coronavirus when he took a series of work-related trips in February, including to New York.

But he never developed symptoms, was never tested, and isn’t about to let down his guard down now.

“The biggest thing you got to learn is that you can’t control somebody else,” said Campbell, who has been stocking up on gallon-sized jugs of hand sanitizer.