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US, European leaders weigh reopening risks without a vaccine

NEW YORK — On a weekend when many pandemic-weary people emerged from weeks of lockdown, leaders in the U.S. and Europe weighed the risks and rewards of lifting COVID-19 restrictions knowing that a vaccine could take years to develop.

In separate stark warnings, two major European leaders bluntly told their citizens that the world needs to adapt to living with the coronavirus and cannot wait to be saved by a vaccine.

“We are confronting this risk, and we need to accept it, otherwise we would never be able to relaunch,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, heeding a push by regional leaders to allow restaurants, bars and beach facilities to open Monday, weeks ahead of an earlier timetable.

In the U.S., images of crowded bars, beaches and boardwalks suggested some weren’t heeding warnings to safely enjoy reopened spaces while limiting the risks of spreading infection.

A member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, wouldn’t second-guess state and local officials as they decide whether to let restaurants and other businesses reopen. He said the lockdown measures also carry “serious health consequences,” including the risk of suicide, delayed cardiac procedures and cancer screenings.

“I think in any individual instance you’re going to see people doing things that are irresponsible,” Azar told CNN on Sunday. “That’s part of the freedom we have here in America.”

The warnings by Italy’s Conte and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came as governments worldwide and many U.S. states struggled with restarting economies blindsided by the pandemic. With 36 million newly unemployed in the U.S. alone, economic pressures are building even as authorities acknowledge that reopening risks setting off new waves of infections and deaths.

‘’We are facing a calculated risk, in the awareness ... that the epidemiological curve could go back up,” Conte said, adding that Italy could “not afford” to wait until a vaccine was developed. Health experts say the world could be months, if not years, away from having a vaccine available to everyone despite the scientific gold rush now on to create one.

Britain’s Johnson, who was hospitalized last month with a serious bout of COVID-19, speculated Sunday that a vaccine may not be developed at all, despite the huge global effort to produce one.

“I said we would throw everything we could at finding a vaccine,” Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper. “There remains a very long way to go, and I must be frank that a vaccine might not come to fruition.”

Coronavirus has infected over 4.6 million people and killed more than 312,000 worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say under counts the true toll of the pandemic. The U.S. has reported over 88,000 dead and Europe has seen at least 160,000 deaths.

Some experts noted reports of recent case surges in Texas, including a 1,800-case jump Saturday, with Amarillo identified as a growing hot spot. Texas officials said increased testing was playing a big role — the more you look for something, the more you find it. Many are watching hospitalizations and death rates in the weeks ahead to see exactly what the new Texas numbers really mean.

But Texas was one of the earliest states to allow stores and restaurants to reopen and some experts worry it is a sign of the kind of outbreak re-ignition that might occur when social distancing and other prevention measures are loosened or ignored.

“It’s likely that we’re going to see more of this” kind of increase, said Dr. Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Dr. Michael Saag at the University of Alabama at Birmingham called Texas “a warning shot” for states to closely watch any surges in cases and have plans to swiftly take steps to stop them.

“No one knows for sure exactly the right way forward, and what I think we’re witnessing is a giant national experiment,” said Saag, an infectious diseases researcher.

In the U.S., many states have lifted stay-at home-orders and other restrictions, allowing some types of businesses to reopen.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN on Sunday that he was concerned to see images of a crowded bar in Columbus, Ohio, on the first day that outdoor dining establishments were allowed to reopen.

“All of this is a work in progress,” he said. “We made the decision to start opening up Ohio, and about 90 percent of our economy is back open, because we thought it was a huge risk not to open. But we also know it’s a huge risk in opening.”

Houses of worship are beginning to look ahead to resumption of in-person services, with some eyeing that shift this month. But the challenges of reopening the doors to worship are steeper in states with ongoing public health restrictions.

In Elgin, Ill., Northwest Bible Baptist Church had sought to welcome back worshipers on Sunday, preparing to scan people’s temperatures and purchasing protective equipment. But the church postponed that after local authorities raised questions and is now in talks about parameters for holding future services.

The church’s preparations to reopen were “more than what they’d had to do if they were at Home Depot or Lowe’s or Walmart,” said Jeremy Dys, a counsel at First Liberty Institute, the legal nonprofit representing Northwest Bible Baptist. “Somehow people going to church are incapable, it’s insinuated, of safely gathering.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested that early predictions were overblown, as he attempts to lure residents back to public life and help rebuild the state’s battered economy. On Monday, Florida restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, as can retail shops, museums and libraries. Gyms can also begin reopening.

Paula Walborsky, a 74-year-old retired attorney in Tallahassee, Florida, has resisted the temptation to get her hair done and turned down dinner invitations from close friends. But when one of her city’s public swimming pools reopened by appointment, she decided to test the waters. She wore a mask that she removed when she waded into the pool. Just a handful of other swimmers shared the water as she swam laps and did water aerobics.

“I was so excited to be back in the water, and it just felt wonderful,” Walborsky said.

Professional soccer matches in Germany resumed over the weekend, a move keenly watched by the rest of the soccer world as well as Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL in the U.S., which all face major changes to their operations amid the pandemic.

“The whole world is watching Germany to see how we do it,” Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick said. “It can act as an example for all leagues.”

Mart's USDA-backed water project to start this week

Contractors for the city of Mart are expected to start this week on a major two-year infrastructure overhaul that has been several years in the making.

Thursday will mark the start date for $17.5-million in water system and street work backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, City Administrator Kevin Schaffer said. Officials will meet with each of the four contractors throughout the day and give them the official green light to start their portion of the project.

“This is the starting gun of the race,” Schaffer said. “Each contractor has a certain number of days they have to perform their obligations.”

The project will be the largest in he 2,200-person city’s history, said Henry Witt III, a project manager for the MRB Group engineering firm that is coordinating the work. Witt is a former city official who led the city’s initial efforts to secure a $5 million USDA grant and a $12 million USDA-backed loan to be paid back over 40 years using tax revenue and revenue from water sales, including sales to other water suppliers in the area. Delays in getting the project started ended up actually giving the city a financial boost, Witt said.

“We started this back in 2013, we were expecting the interest rate on the loan to be north of 3%,” Witt said. “It came down when we were awarded the loan in 2015. The rate was around 2.125%, and that is where it stayed steady until COVID-19 hit and now we are at 1.375%.”

The lower interest rate will save the city $2 million to $3 million over the life of the loan, he said.

The project includes about 4.5 miles of new 16-inch water main, 4.2 miles of new 6- to 12-inch waterlines, a new booster pump station and 500,000-gallon ground-level storage tank, and an overhaul of the water treatment plant.

Schofield Construction has an $8,702,681 contract for work on the water intake system and treatment plant, which is slated to last 550 days. TTE LLC has a $1,646,502 contract for the new booster pump station, with work slated to last 425 days. Kieschnick General Contractors Inc. has a $2,095,899 contract for the water distribution system work, slated to last 365 days. Nelson Lewis Inc. has a $2,426,174.67 contract for the transmission main replacement, slated to last 425 days.

“This feels like everything is a culmination of a lot of years of work, setbacks, a ton of red tape and talking to attorneys, accountants and having a lot of things that we have to go back and verify,” Schaffer said. “It is going to be a great feeling to tell these contractors to start.”

The city, county, state and federal governments all had roles in funding and supporting the project. Schaffer said about 4.5 miles of city streets, many of which are in desperate need for repair, will be replaced as the pipes beneath them are replaced.

“This is the biggest infrastructure project the city has ever undergone and it is going to affect the lives of 2,200 people for the better,” Witt said.

Witt and Schaffer said disruptions are likely because of the size of the project and asked for residents’ patience and understanding.

“I can’t even put into words how big this is going to be for the city of Mart,” Schaffer said. “This is a generational project that will affect generations of Mart citizens.”

Fear of the future: Class of 2020 enters a world in crisis

Tyler Lyson watched his parents’ financial collapse in the Great Recession, a decade ago. He vowed he’d find the security they never had: He would get a college degree.

The 28-year-old won a full scholarship to the University of California-Berkeley and, on Monday, will become the first in his family to graduate from college. “I’m supposed to be doing great,” he said.

Instead, he feels powerless and panicked, with a political science degree that seems worthless. He has a 7-month-old baby and his wife, a United Airlines flight attendant, fears losing her job. In the past several weeks, he has applied for about 35 jobs, all over the country.

He’s also considering the military. “Unfortunately, they always need people,” he said. “And the benefits are so good.”

Mere months ago, the graduates of the class of 2020 seemed all but assured of success. The economy was booming. The stock market had closed the year strong. The unemployment rate, on the decline for years, had dropped to a 50-year low of 3.5 percent in February. Jobs outnumbered applicants, and fears of a recession had faded.

Then came the pandemic, shattering the economy. Last month, more than 20.5 million jobs vanished as the unemployment rate soared to 14.7 percent — the worst since the Great Depression. The high hopes of graduates crashed as corporations slashed budgets and rescinded offers of jobs and internships.

For working-class students who defied the odds to get a college education, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. There’s a sense of an unending crisis, with loans due and family members laid off.

These graduates will be competing not just with experienced workers but with those in another class of 2020 — high school graduates who aren’t college-bound or have put their dreams on hold to join the job hunt, in some cases to help newly unemployed parents .

Others are opting for a 2-year junior college instead of a 4-year program or taking a gap year or have decided it’s not worth paying tuition for schooling that may be conducted only online.

In California’s agricultural Central Valley, the county of Merced has six high schools with about 2,500 graduating seniors, many from low-income or immigrant families. Typically, about 40 percent head to college and the rest go straight to jobs in mechanics, construction, agriculture and hospitality — industries that, for now, are wiped out or stagnant.

“The future looks very, very grim,” Merced’s assistant superintendent Constantino Aguilar said. “Where do these students go? A lot of doors have been closed. We’re trying to plan for our students’ futures and there is nothing out there for them.”

Still, some high school grads are determined to proceed with their college plans despite the economic chaos.

Mireya Benavides, 17, had considered a community college to save money, but instead chose the University of Texas-San Antonio. She knows it will be a financial squeeze. Her single mother, a school custodian, is the sole support for her and three siblings and was out of work part of this spring.

Benavides hopes a work-study program — and maybe eventual scholarships and loans, along with financial help from her mother — will be enough to make ends meet. She said she’s confident something will work out. College has always been next on her agenda.

“If I don’t go to school, where would I be?” she asked. “Who would I become? I want to have a future. I just want to point myself in the right direction and move forward.”

So does 22-year-old DJ Brooks, who finds himself in an uneasy limbo.

Just months ago, he thought he thought he’d be welcoming family for a June graduation celebration at Carleton College in Minnesota as the first in his family to earn a degree. He’d worked two jobs while in school, helping his mother pay her bills. He figured he would have a job lined up, likely as a counselor, having earned a psychology degree.

Instead, he’s navigating what he calls a “sea of unexpectedness,” sending out resumes at a time of furloughs and hiring freezes. He’ll probably return to Chicago to live with his mother.

“I don’t have a backup plan,” he said. “I had higher hopes.”

It took just a few weeks for the pandemic to derail Tariq Murphy’s future.

In December and January, the Morehouse College senior was flying high, interviewing for internships. In March, it all fell apart.

The school was forced to close and Murphy, a marketing major, had no place to live. Morehouse put him and about 30 other students up in a hotel. He’s now plotting his next steps, with $88,000 in debt hanging over him.

“I can’t sugarcoat the fear,” the 28-year-old New Jersey native said. “I’m someone who likes to have a plan. It’s sometimes hard to sleep. I said to my dean it’s like a nightmare that never ends.”

Some graduates have managed to find work despite the shrinking opportunities. After graduating from Morehouse, Grant Bennett will return to the high-tech firm in Silicon Valley where he interned last year.

“I kind of have survivor’s guilt,” he said. “I see a lot of friends struggling and I feel very cozy knowing I have something.”

He’s definitely one of the lucky ones. Historically, college graduates entering the work force during a recession have faced setbacks that can last a decade or longer.

It’s a “frightening” time to be looking for a first job, said Jesse Rothstein, a senior economist in the Obama administration who teaches public policy and economics at Berkeley. “If you don’t get a good job when you start out, it hurts you not just now but for years to come.”

In the short term, young graduates are more likely to be unemployed or settle for lower-paying work. They often miss out on valuable training that can set them on a career path and, once the economy recovers, they have permanently lower employment and earnings, Rothstein found in a study published last year on the impact of the 2008 recession on college grads.

Whether the class of 2020 will face long-term setbacks depends on the severity of the recession and the speed of economic recovery, he said. The longer it lasts, the worse the damage.

As he struggles to find work, Tyler Lyson is considering leaving Berkeley to move back home to Post Falls, Idaho, where it’s cheaper, even though it would feel like giving up on his dreams.

As a teen, he watched his family lose everything in the recession. His father’s construction business collapsed and the family had to leave their foreclosed house so quickly that they dumped just about everything they owned into a pit and set it on fire.

“I watched it all go up in smoke — everything we owned,” Lyson said. “Ever since then, I knew I needed to go to college and have something to fall back on.”

Post offices, beloved community hubs, fight virus-era threat

PHILADELPHIA — For some of the 2,000 or so year-round residents of Deer Isle, Maine, the fraying American flag outside the post office this spring was a reminder of the nation’s mood.

The flag was in tatters. It twisted in the wind from a single hook. But it was stuck in the up position, so the postmistress hadn’t been able to replace it.

“I was thinking what a metaphor it is for our country right now,” community health director René Colson Hudson said. “It was really important that the flag be replaced, as a symbol of hope.”

Colson Hudson, a former New Jersey pastor, posted an online plea on April 23 that sparked a community thread. Should someone scale the flagpole? Did they need a bucket truck? By week’s end, a secret helper had gotten the flag down, and the new one was soon flying high.

Colson Hudson, 54, had rarely visited her post office when she lived in suburban New Jersey. But in Deer Isle, people exchange small talk in the lobby, announce school events on the bulletin board and pick up medications and mail-in ballots — while postal workers keep an eye on everyone’s well-being.

“Here,” she said, “it is the center of community.”

Posting big losses

Historically, the postal service has operated without public funds. It’s been around longer than the nation itself.

But Postal Service officials this year — bracing for steep losses given the coronavirus shutdown — warn they’ll run out of money by September without help. They recently reported a $4.5 billion loss for the quarter ending March 31 — on $17.8 billion in revenue — before the full effects of the shutdown sank in.

Some in Congress want to set aside $25 billion from the nearly $3 trillion relief program to keep the mail flowing. But with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pushing President Donald Trump’s priorities, the postal service has so far landed just a $10 billion loan.

“The Postal Service is a joke,” Trump told reporters last month. “They’re handing out packages for Amazon and other internet companies and every time they bring a package, they lose money on it.”

He insists that higher package rates could ease the financial troubles. But most financial analysts disagree.

Packages typically account for just 5 percent of the Postal Service’s volume, but 30 percent of its revenue. And package revenue has actually gone up during the shutdown. Still, it hasn’t been enough to restore profitability, battered in the Internet age by the decline of first-class mail.

“There’s truly an agenda of this administration to undermine (it) to the point that they’re going to sell off the post office to a private corporation,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents about 200,000 of the 630,000 postal workers.

Earlier this month, its Board of Directors appointed Republican fundraiser Louis DeJoy to serve as the next Postmaster General.

All told, more than 2,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Postal Service said. A union spokesman said 61 have died.

Trump has threatened to block the Postal Service from COVID-19 relief funding unless it quadruples the package rates it charges large customers like Amazon, owned by nemesis Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns The Washington Post, whose coverage rankles Trump.

“He is willing to sacrifice the U.S. Postal Service and its 630,000 employees because of petty vindictiveness and personal retaliation against Jeff Bezos,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said last week. “That would be a tragic outcome.”

Universal service

On Henrietta Dixon’s mail route in North Philadelphia, every house has a story. Dixon seems to know them all.

Alvin Fields moved back to his block of two-story row homes after 40 years working for Verizon. Jason Saal, 40, lives in an abandoned factory he bought to use as an art studio. Sharae Cunningham is sewing masks for the neighborhood, some with African prints she sells for $6.

Each said they would miss the Postal Service if it collapsed. They agreed the neighborhood, one of Philadelphia’s poorest, would benefit from expanded services such as low-fee check cashing and wifi that might help American post offices survive.

“That’d be a great service. A lot of people need to cash checks,” said Cunningham, 40.

Dixon’s city route might be attractive to private companies itching to compete with the postal service. But the same 55-cent stamp that takes a letter across town could also get one to the Pacific Northwest, rural Appalachia or islands off the coast of Alaska, California or Maine. That’s because of the USPS pledge to offer “universal service” to everyone in the United States, no matter what it takes to reach them.

“It’s one of the last places where we are all equal. We all have the right to a 55-cent letter and mail delivery six days a week,” said Evan Kalish, 30, of Queens, New York, a postal enthusiast who’s documented thousands of post office visits on his blog, Postlandia.

Back in Maine, Colson Hudson likes to take the mail boat over to Eagle Island in the summer to visit friends. She once took a picture of the mail bag, musing about who its contents would connect.

“All these people come flocking down at the time the boat comes with the mail,” she said. “There’s something in that bag that they’re waiting for, that they’re hoping for.”