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NATO chief says US to consult allies on future troop plans

June 17, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — The United States remains committed to its European allies and has pledged to consult them on any future U.S. troop moves in Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, after President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he plans to pull thousands of personnel out of Germany.

Trump said Monday that he is ordering a major reduction in troop strength in Germany, from around 34,500 personnel down to 25,000. Members of his own party have criticized the move as a gift to Russia and a threat to U.S. national security. Germany is a hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Africa.

Speaking after chairing a video meeting of NATO defense ministers, Stoltenberg said that Defense Secretary Mark Esper “stated very strongly that of course the U.S. stays committed to European security, and the United States will consult with other allies as we move forward.”

“No final decision has been made on how and when to implement the U.S. intention,” Stoltenberg said. Germany wasn’t notified of the move, which came after Trump branded its NATO ally “delinquent” for failing to pay enough for its own defense, by falling short of a goal set in 2014 for members to halt budget cuts and move toward spending at least 2% of gross national product on defense by 2024.

A number of NATO diplomats and officials have suggested the pullout — which would be costly and might not even be logistically possible before the U.S. elections in November — probably won’t happen. Stoltenberg said that the United States and Poland, in consultation with NATO, had decided to boost the U.S. troop presence there, but he provided no details.

Asked whether European allies and Canada are concerned that Trump might announce a complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as the election approaches, NATO’s top civilian official said only that Esper had given the ministers a detailed briefing on U.S. plans.

Stoltenberg said more talks will take place among NATO allies and their partners in the conflict-ravaged country, but that any drawdown would be based on whether the Taliban are complying with their commitments to the peace agreement.

Separately, the ministers endorsed a series of measures they’ve been preparing for more than a year to respond to Russia’s development of nuclear capable medium-range missiles and hypersonic weapons, and what NATO says is Moscow’s intimidation of European allies.

Stoltenberg said a number of allies are buying new air and missile defense systems and some are investing in advanced fighter aircraft. The 30-nation military alliance is also boosting its intelligence gathering and sharing, and plans more war games.

Stoltenberg said the ministers also “decided on additional steps to keep the NATO nuclear deterrent safe, secure and effective,” without elaborating. But he insisted that NATO countries don’t plan to “mirror Russia” by deploying new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.

Governor shuts bars, dining as virus hits California hard

July 14, 2020

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As the coronavirus swept California with renewed ferocity, the governor once again closed bars, inside dining and, for much of the state, gyms, indoor church services and hair and nail salons in an effort to prevent COVID-19 cases from swamping hospitals.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a sweeping set of closures on Monday as the state recorded more than 329,000 cases and deaths topped 7,000. Hospitalizations have surged by 28% in the past two weeks, including a 20% increase in patients requiring intensive care.

That was lower than a 50% hike seen about a week ago but Newsom said he was concerned about the future and implored people to maintain social distance, wear masks in public and stay home when possible.

“COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, until there is a vaccine and or an effective therapy,” Newsom said. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, the two largest in California with a combined K-12 student population of about 720,000, announced Monday they won’t bring students back to classrooms next month because of rising coronavirus hospitalizations and infection rates.

Earlier in the pandemic California closed beaches, campgrounds and state parks as it sought to limit interactions of people from different households. But as data showed the virus was most likely to be transmitted indoors, the Newsom administration began modifying public health orders, including ordering people to wear face coverings and leaving outdoor activities alone.

On Monday, the governor ordered restaurants to stop serving customers indoors and told bars, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, museums, cardrooms and other indoor entertainment venues to shut down. Shutdowns went even further in some of the 30 counties on a state watch list because of worrying rises in disease transmission, especially from people mingling without heeding safety guidelines. The listed counties account for roughly 80% of California’s population.

Those that have been on the list for three days now must restrict indoor operations for hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, shopping malls and houses of worship. The affected counties include Los Angeles and virtually all of Southern California.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti immediately implemented the shutdowns and warned that the city was “on the verge” of raising its COVID-19 threat level from orange to red — the highest level — and resorting to shutting down all but essential businesses.

Garcetti noted that Los Angeles County now has more virus cases than Canada. “We have never had as many people infected, or infectious,” he said. “We’ve never had as many people in the hospital as there are tonight.”

Garcetti supported Newsom’s orders but they met with resistance from some churches and fear by small businesses that were struggling to survive after months of being shut down. Salons will be hard-hit because loans and unemployment insurance will soon run out and many may ignore the order, said Fred Jones, attorney for the Professional Beauty Federation of California.

“We’re going to be out there on our own, worse now than ever,” Jones said. “We question how many of those salons that just reopened will comply with this second round of closures.” There is “no evidence that a single contagion has been spread in a salon since we’ve been allowed to reopen,” Jones said.

“What a bummer,” said Connie Allan, who owns Boat Canyon Barbers in Laguna Beach. “How long am I going to do this?” she told the Orange County Register. “I’m 59, and it’s not like I can find a job somewhere. I’ve been a barber for 30-plus years, so I don’t know … It’s a pretty frightening outlook.”

Since the order only bars indoor activities, she was considering other options, such as putting up a canopy to cut hair outside. Some churches that had cautiously begun holding limited indoor services a month ago were faced with ending them again.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs, had been allowing only 100 people or fewer into services to maintain social distancing. Father Howard Lincoln told the Palm Springs Desert Sun that he wasn’t surprised by the new order.

“Our right to worship has to be tempered with our clear, moral responsibility to protect others from a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease,” Lincoln said. “As a church, we preach, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ It is certainly not too much of a sacrifice to wear a mask and socially distance and try to protect others.”

Newsom’s ban on indoor church services may be unconstitutional, argued Robert Tyler of a nonprofit law group called Advocates for Faith and Freedom, although several judges have upheld earlier restrictions.

“Is a worship service any less protected under the First Amendment than a protest? No,” Tyler said in a statement. “The freedom of worship is of paramount importance and we will support churches who provide services as their faith sincerely dictates so long as they do not provide their services recklessly.”

Newsom’s closure announcements did include a note of hope. The governor said the state had managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections in the wake of mid-March orders that shut down most businesses and kept many people at home.

“We were able to suppress the spread of this virus, we were able to knock down the growth of this in the beginning,” Newsom said. “We are going to do that again, there is no doubt in my mind.”

Associated Press reporters Christopher Weber and John Antcazk in Los Angeles and Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed to this report.

As US grapples with virus, Florida hits record case increase

July 13, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — With the United States grappling with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, Florida hit a grim milestone Sunday, shattering the national record for a state’s largest single-day increase in positive cases.

Deaths from the virus have also been rising in the U.S., especially in the South and West, though still well below the heights hit in April, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

“I really do think we could control this, and it’s the human element that is so critical. It should be an effort of our country. We should be pulling together when we’re in a crisis, and we’re definitely not doing it,” said University of Florida epidemiologist Dr. Cindy Prins.

Adm. Brett Giroir, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, called mask-wearing in public, which has been met with resistance in some U.S. states, “absolutely essential.” Giroir, the assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that “if we don’t have that, we will not get control of the virus.’’

President Donald Trump wore a mask in public for the first time Saturday, something Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday showed he has “crossed a bridge.” Pelosi told CNN’s “State of the Union” that she hopes it means the president “will change his attitude, which will be helpful in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.”

In hard-hit Houston, Texas, two top Democratic officials called for the nation’s fourth-largest city to lock back down as area hospitals strained to accommodate the onslaught of sick patients. In Florida, where parts of Walt Disney World reopened Saturday, 15,299 people tested positive, for a total of 269,811 cases, and 45 deaths were recorded, according to state Department of Health statistics reported Sunday.

California had the previous record of daily positive cases — 11,694, set on Wednesday. The numbers come at the end of a record-breaking week as Florida reported 514 fatalities — an average of 73 per day. Three weeks ago, the state was averaging 30 deaths per day.

Researchers expect deaths to rise in the U.S. for at least some weeks, but some think the count probably will not go up as dramatically as it did in the spring because of several factors, including increased testing.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, reported another record increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases over a 24-hour period, at over 230,000. The U.N. health agency said the United States again topped the list among countries, with more than 66,000 cases. The figures don’t necessarily account for delays in reporting cases, and are believed to far underestimate actual totals.

Countries in Eastern Europe were among those facing rising waves of new infections, leading to riots in Serbia, mandatory face masks in Croatia and travel bans or quarantines imposed by Hungary. “We see worrisome signs about an increase in the number of cases in the neighboring countries, Europe and the whole world,” said Gergely Gulyas, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff. “Now, we have to protect our own security and prevent the virus from being brought in from abroad.”

Hungarian authorities said Sunday they have sorted countries into three categories — red, yellow and green — based on their rates of new coronavirus infections, and will impose restrictions, including entry bans and mandatory quarantines, depending on which country people are arriving from.

Serbia, where health authorities are warning that hospitals are almost full due to the latest surge, reported 287 new infections on Sunday, although there have been increasing doubts about the accuracy of the figures. Officially, the country has over 18,000 confirmed infections and 382 deaths since March. Sunday’s report of 11 coronavirus deaths was the country’s second-highest daily death toll.

Serbian police clashed with anti-government protesters for four nights last week, demonstrations that forced the Serbian president to withdraw plans to reintroduce a coronavirus lockdown. Many of the increasing infections have been blamed on crowded soccer matches, tennis events and nightclubs.

In Bulgaria, authorities reintroduced restrictions lifted a few weeks ago because of a new surge in cases. Albania also has seen a significant increase in infections since mid-May, when it eased lockdown measures. The Balkan nation reported 93 new cases, over twice as many as the highest daily figures in March and April, and the health ministry called the situation at the main infectious disease hospital “grave.”

Croatia, whose island-dotted Adriatic Sea coast is a major tourist destination, is making wearing masks mandatory in stores beginning Monday. Yet the numbers of infections in Eastern Europe pale in comparison to daily coronavirus reports from India, South Africa and Brazil, whose virus-denying president has tested positive.

India, which has the most cases after the United States and Brazil, saw a record surge of 28,637 cases reported in the past 24 hours. Authorities also announced a weeklong lockdown beginning Tuesday in the key southern technology hub of Bangalore, where the offices of top tech companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are located.

South Africa has reported over 10,000 new daily cases for several days in a row, including 13,497 new infections announced Saturday night. Johannesburg’s densely populated Soweto township is one of the virus hot spots. With over 264,000 cases and 3,971 deaths, South Africa accounts for over 40% of all the reported coronavirus cases in Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Sunday the country would return to a ban of alcohol sales to reduce the volume of trauma patients so that hospitals have more beds to treat COVID-19. The country is also reinstating a night curfew to reduce traffic accidents and has made it mandatory for all residents to wear face masks in public.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, which kept its coronavirus outbreak to a few hundred cases, an annual film festival wrapped up with an awards ceremony this weekend where actors and others lined up for photo shoots with no social distancing, and participants didn’t wear masks.

Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

Serbia eyes restrictions; virus spreads in US, Brazil, India

July 09, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The European nation of Serbia mulled how to curb accelerating coronavirus infections following two nights of clashes involving anti-lockdown demonstrators, while the virus showed no sign of slowing Thursday in the countries with the highest caseloads — the United States, India and Brazil.

The three nations on separate continents are accounting for more than 60% of new confirmed cases, according to recent tallies from Johns Hopkins University. India on Thursday reported 25,000 new cases; the United States on Wednesday reported just short of the record 60,000 cases set a day earlier, and Brazil reported nearly 45,000.

Much of Europe appeared to have put the worst of the crisis behind it, at least for now. But Serbia has emerged as a new focus of concern — and of unrest. The country’s crisis team was expected to reimpose a ban gatherings in the capital, Belgrade and to limit the cafe and night club operations following a spike in infections that officials say threatens the Serbian health system.

It wasn’t clear whether officials would reintroduce a weekend curfew, the initial announcement of which triggered violent protests in Belgrade and other cities. Critics accuse President Aleksandar Vucic of letting the crisis spin out of control by lifting an earlier lockdown to allow for an election that tightened his grip on power.

Rock-throwing demonstrators this week fought hours-long running battles with special police forces who used tear gas to disperse them. Vucic said in an Instagram post on Thursday that the government would control the unrest.

Flare-ups of new virus cases are causing concern in several parts of the world, and in some cases leading to the reintroduction of restrictions on public activity. In France and Greece, officials warned that residents were too frequently ignoring safety guidance. The French government’s leading coronavirus adviser, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, lamented that “the French in general have abandoned protective measures.”

“Everyone must understand that we are at the mercy of a return (of the virus) in France,” Delfraissy said. “It suffices to have one super-spreader in a gathering and it will take off again.” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said authorities were “determined to protect the majority from the frivolous few.” He said the government may announce new restrictions, if needed, on Monday.

Pestas said authorities were focused on the rising number of cases in nearby Balkan countries and tourists who traveled to Greece over the land border with Bulgaria. In Australia, which had initial success containing the outbreak, authorities on Thursday reported 179 new cases, most in Melbourne, where authorities are battling a resurgence and have imposed a new six-week lockdown.

Victoria state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said six new cases were from a Melbourne high school which has become the state’s largest known cluster, with 113 people infected. More than 2,000 students and hundreds of staff are in quarantine.

Tokyo confirmed more than 220 new cases Thursday, exceeding its record daily increase from mid-April and prompting concerns of widening of the infections. Tokyo’s more than 7,000 cases are about one-third of Japan’s total.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters. “We need to use extra caution against the further spread of the infections.” Experts on Tokyo’s virus task force said the majority of recent cases were linked to night clubs but rising infections from households, workplaces and parties raised concerns the virus is spreading in the wider community.

Hong Kong moved to tighten social-distancing measures after it reported 42 new infections on Thursday. Rules for restaurants, bars and fitness centers will be tightened for two weeks starting Saturday.

In India, research by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai shows that the reproduction rate of the virus ticked up in the first week of July to about 1.2 after it had steadily fallen from a peak of 1.8 in March. The rate needs to be below one for new cases to start falling.

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would be wise to prepare for the worst-case scenario as virus=related deaths passed 12,000 and confirmed cases climbed fast on that continent. A day after confirmed virus cases across Africa surpassed half a million, the total was over 522,000 and climbing. Testing levels are low, so the actual number of cases is unknown.

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.” In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases has passed 3 million — meaning nearly one in every 100 people has been confirmed as infected — and the death toll in the pandemic is more than 132,000.

U.S. President Donald Trump remains determined to reopen America’s schools despite worries about the virus, and on Wednesday threatened to hold back federal money if school districts don’t bring their students back in the fall.

Despite Trump’s pressure, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. A growing chorus of public health experts is urging U.S. officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy, and to prioritize schools. That effort that will likely require closing some other establishments like bars and gyms to help curb the virus spread.

Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

Criticism of US pullout from WHO from allies, China alike

July 08, 2020

GENEVA (AP) — Top U.S. allies on Wednesday denounced the planned pullout of the United States from the World Health Organization, with the Italian health minister calling it “wrong” and a political ally of Germany’s chancellor warning that the withdrawal could make more room on the world stage for China.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, ratcheted up the Trump administration’s months of criticism of the U.N. health agency. The U.S., which is facing criticism for its own handling of the coronavirus, leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths, a situation that President Donald Trump has sought to blame on China.

In his comments, Pompeo repeated the WHO’s alleged failures in responding to the virus’s emergence in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and accused the agency of having “a long history of corruption and politicization” in dealing with other diseases.

The new broadsides appeared aimed at refocusing attention during a presidential election year on the shortcomings of WHO and China early in the pandemic that has since reached nearly 11.9 million confirmed cases and a death toll approaching 545,800.

“There is a real focus on the failures that took place around Wuhan and the World Health Organization’s fundamental inability to perform its basic core mission of preventing a global pandemic spread,” Pompeo said.

The United Nations and the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that Washington had submitted formal notification that the U.S. would withdraw from the WHO within a year. The notice made good on President Donald Trump’s vow in May to terminate U.S. participation in the WHO over its alleged missteps and kowtowing to China.

Trump’s presumptive opponent in November’s election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has vowed to rescind the decision on his first day in office, if he is elected. Underscoring the unprecedented nature of the planned U.S. exit, the WHO doesn’t have language in its constitution about how a country could leave: The administration is mostly bound by U.S. legislation that requires a one-year notice and payment of any arrears in full before departure.

“We’ll get it right, but as the president has made very clear, we are not going to underwrite an organization that has historically been incompetent and not performed its fundamental function,” Pompeo said.

Questions were rife about how quickly the U.S. might start backing away from an organization it helped build over decades with both funding and expertise on global health issues as diverse as the fight against polio and smallpox to tobacco use, obesity and sugar consumption.

The Trump administration’s latest step to self-isolate – after pulling out of the Paris climate accord, the U.N’s human rights body and other international institutions – was bound to affect the WHO through the loss of both U.S. money and medical know-how, experts said.

Critics insist the pullout also will have a negative impact on the U.S. from losing both a voice and an ear in some of the world’s top conversations on healthcare. WHO officials have declined to comment on the withdrawal, saying they have not directly received formal U.S. notification. They previously suggested that the loss of American expertise, such as from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would hurt as much if not more than the loss of funds from the agency’s top contributor.

The U.S. provides WHO with more than $450 million per year and currently owes some $200 million in current and past dues. Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza called Trump’s pullout decision “serious and wrong.”

“The health crisis has shown that we need a reformed and stronger WHO, not a weaker one,” he said. Italy was the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in the West and relied heavily on WHO’s guidance as it struggled to contain the virus and treat COVID-19 patients.

His German counterpart, Jens Spahn, decried a “setback for international cooperation” on Twitter, writing that more global cooperation, not less, is needed to fight pandemics. “European states will initiate #WHO reforms,” Spahn tweeted.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said the WHO needs “more autonomy” and the world needs more cooperation to prepare for future pandemics. “What we need today is more multilateralism and less national sovereignty as a guarantee for protecting our citizens, even if that means that we go against what others have said in other parts of the world,” González Laya told reporters. “Let’s not get carried away by siren songs.”

Juergen Hardt, a foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition, said that the U.S. withdrawal damages American and Western strategic interests just as China, a key WHO member state, has been taking a greater role in international institutions.

“As the biggest contributor so far, the U.S. leaves a big vacuum,” Hardt said. “It is foreseeable that China above all will try to fill this vacuum itself. That will further complicate necessary reforms in the organization.”

“It is all the more important that the EU uses its political weight and strengthens its involvement in the WHO as in other international organizations,” he added. China also criticized the U.S. withdrawal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended WHO on Wednesday and said the Trump administration’s move was “another demonstration of the U.S. pursuing unilateralism, withdrawing from groups and breaking contracts.”

Dr. David Heymann, an American who is a former senior director at WHO, said he was “very disappointed” at the U.S. decision. He said he expects Germany and other countries to step forward if the U.S. funding and expertise that has benefited WHO ends.

“As much as it would be terrible if the U.S. leaves WHO and leaves (with) that expertise it has provided throughout the years, the WHO would continue to function,” Heymann said. Other global health experts warned that no other agency could do what WHO does and that the U.S. departure would severely weaken it — and public health more broadly.

“It is unthinkable and highly irresponsible to withdraw funding from the WHO during one of the greatest health challenges of our lifetime,” Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain’s Wellcome Trust, said.

“Health leaders in the USA bring tremendous technical expertise, leadership and influence, and their loss from the world stage will have catastrophic implications, leaving the U.S. and global health weaker as a result,” he added.

Lee reported from Washington. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

Coronavirus cases are rising in 40 of 50 US states

July 02, 2020

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. climbed to an all-time high of more than 50,000 per day on Thursday, with the infection curve rising in 40 out of 50 states in a reversal that has largely spared only the Northeast.

In yet another alarming indicator, 36 states are seeing a rise in the percentage of tests that are coming back positive for the virus. The surge has been blamed in part on Americans not wearing masks or following other social distancing rules as states lifted their lockdowns over the past few weeks.

The U.S. recorded 50,700 new cases, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. That represents a doubling of the daily total over the past month and is higher even than what the country witnessed during the deadliest phase of the crisis in April and May.

All but 10 states are showing an increase in newly confirmed cases over the past 14 days, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization that collects testing information. The outbreaks are most severe in Arizona, Texas and Florida, which together with California have re-closed or otherwise clamped back down on bars, restaurants and movie theaters.

Nebraska and South Dakota were the only states outside the Northeast with a downward trend in cases. While some of the increases may be explained in part by expanded testing, other indicators are grim, too, including hospitalizations and positive test rates. Over the past two weeks, the percentage of positive tests in Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee has doubled. In Idaho and Nevada, it has tripled.

The surge in cases comes as Americans head into a Fourth of July holiday weekend that health officials warn could add fuel to the virus by drawing big crowds. Many municipalities have canceled fireworks displays. Beaches up and down California and Florida have been closed.

Florida reported more than 10,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases for the first time Thursday. That is six times higher than the daily count of less than a month ago. The state also reported 67 deaths for the second time in a week. Deaths per day are up about 30 percent from two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the government reported that U.S. unemployment fell to 11.1% in June as the economy added a solid 4.8 million jobs. But the data was collected during the second week of June, before many states began to backtrack on restarting their economies.

Several Northeastern states have seen new infections slow down significantly, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey, which allowed its Atlantic City casinos to reopen Thursday, though with no smoking, no drinking and no eating.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday seemed confident the virus would soon subside, telling Fox Business: “I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.” The U.S. has reported at least 2.7 million cases and more than 128,000 dead, the highest toll in the world. Globally there have been 10.7 million confirmed cases and more than 516,000 dead, according to Johns Hopkins’ count. The true toll is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of limited testing and mild cases that have been missed.

Other countries are also reporting record numbers of cases. South Africa recorded more than 8,100 new cases, a one-day record. The country has the most cases in Africa, more than 159,000, as it loosens what had been one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

“We have now entered a new and treacherous phase in the life cycle of this pandemic,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa warned in a broadcast to the nation. India, the world’s second-most populous country with more than 1.3 billion people, surpassed 600,000 infections on Thursday after over 19,000 new cases were reported. India has reported nearly 100,000 new cases in the past four days alone.

Many industries and businesses have reopened across India, though schools, colleges and movie theaters are still closed. On the medical front, the World Health Organization said that smoking is linked to a higher risk of severe illness and death from the coronavirus in hospitalized patients, although it was unable to specify exactly how much greater the danger might be.

Associated Press’ Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed to this report. Coyle reported from New York. Rising reported from Berlin.

U.S., South Africa report new record coronavirus rises

July 02, 2020

BERLIN (AP) — The United States and South Africa have both reported record new daily coronavirus infections, with U.S. figures surpassing 50,000 cases a day for the first time, underlining the challenges still ahead as nations press to reopen their virus-devastated economies.

The U.S. recorded 50,700 new cases, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, as many states struggled to contain the spread of the pandemic, blamed in part on Americans not wearing masks or following social distancing rules.

Surging numbers in California prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend that he was closing bars, theaters and indoor restaurant dining over most of the state, a region that includes about 30 million people and Los Angeles County.

“The bottom line is the spread of this virus continues at a rate that is particularly concerning,” Newsom said. Confirmed cases in California have increased nearly 50% over the past two weeks, and COVID-19 hospitalizations have gone up 43%. Newsom said California had nearly 5,900 new cases and 110 more deaths in just 24 hours.

Infections have been surging in many other states as well, including Florida, Arizona and Texas. Florida recorded more than 6,500 new cases and counties in South Florida were closing beaches to fend off large July Fourth crowds that could further spread the virus.

“Too many people were crowding into restaurants late at night, turning these establishments into breeding grounds for this deadly virus,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. Despite the fact that the U.S. has the highest number of infections and deaths in the world by far, President Donald Trump seemed confident the coronavirus would soon subside.

“I think we are going to be very good with the coronavirus,” he told Fox Business. “I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope.” The U.S. has now reported nearly 2.7 million cases and more than 128,000 dead. Globally there have been 10.7 million coronavirus cases and more than 516,000 dead, according to Johns Hopkins’ count. The true toll of the pandemic is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of limited testing and mild cases that have been missed.

In South Africa on Thursday, authorities reported 8,124 new cases, a new daily record. The country has the most cases in Africa with more than 159,000, as it loosens what had been one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Johannesburg is a new hot spot with hundreds of health workers infected and Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, has more than 45,000 confirmed cases. The African continent has more than 405,000 confirmed cases overall.

India, the world’s second-most populous country with more than 1.3 billion people, surpassed 600,000 infections on Thursday after over 19,000 new cases were reported. India has reported nearly 100,000 new cases in the past four days alone.

Despite the surging numbers, the western beach of state of Goa, a popular backpacking destination, allowed 250 hotels to reopen Thursday after being closed for more than three months. Tourists will either have to carry COVID-19 negative certificates or get tested on arrival.

Many industries and businesses have reopened across the country, and Indians have cautiously returned to the streets. Schools, colleges and movie theaters are still closed. On the medical front, the World Health Organization says smoking is linked to a higher risk of severe illness and death from the coronavirus in hospitalized patients, although it was unable to specify exactly how much greater those risks might be.

In a scientific brief published this week, the U.N. health agency reviewed 34 published studies on the association between smoking and COVID-19, including the probability of infection, hospitalization, severity of disease and death.

WHO noted that smokers represent up to 18% of hospitalized coronavirus patients and that there appeared to be a significant link between whether or not patients smoked and the severity of disease they suffered, the type of hospital interventions required and patients’ risk of dying.

In Japan, the capital of Tokyo confirmed 107 new cases of coronavirus, nearly triple that of June 24, just before the number began to spike. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said many cases were linked to nightclubs and bars, and urged their workers to proactively be tested and take further safety measures.

“We need to use caution against the spread of the infections,” Koike said. South Korea confirmed 54 more COVID-19 cases as the coronavirus continued to spread beyond the capital region and reach cities like Gwangju, which has shut schools and tightened social restrictions after dozens fell sick this week.

Despite the spike in many U.S. states, several eastern states have seen their new infections slow down significantly, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey, which was going ahead Thursday with allowing its famous Atlantic City casinos to reopen.

Strict social distancing and other measures will be in place. Gamblers will not be allowed to smoke, drink or eat anything inside the casinos. They will have to wear masks in public areas of the casino and have their temperatures checked upon entering.

Coyle reported from Los Angeles.

EU reopens its borders to 14 nations but not to US tourists

June 30, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union will reopen its borders to travelers from 14 countries, and possibly China soon, the bloc announced Tuesday, but most Americans have been refused entry for at least another two weeks due to soaring coronavirus infections in the U.S.

As Europe’s economies reel from the impact of the coronavirus, southern EU countries like Greece, Italy and Spain are desperate to entice back sun-loving visitors and breathe life into their damaged tourism industries. American tourists make up a big slice of the EU market and the summer holiday season is a key time.

Citizens from the following countries will be allowed into the EU’s 27 members and four other nations in Europe’s visa-free Schengen travel zone: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

The EU said China is “subject to confirmation of reciprocity,” meaning Beijing should lift all restrictions on European citizens entering China before European countries will allow Chinese citizens back in. Millions of travelers who come from Russia, Brazil and India will miss out.

The 31 European countries have agreed to begin lifting restrictions from Wednesday. The list is to be updated every 14 days, with new countries being added or dropped off depending on whether they are keeping the pandemic under control. Non-EU citizens who are already living in Europe are not included in the ban, nor are British citizens.

“We are entering a new phase with a targeted opening of our external borders as of tomorrow,” European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs summits of EU national leaders, tweeted. “We have to remain vigilant and keep our most vulnerable safe.”

American tourists made 27 million trips to Europe in 2016 while around 10 million Europeans head across the Atlantic each year. Still, many people both inside and outside of Europe remain wary about traveling in the coronavirus era, given the unpredictability of the pandemic and the possibility of second waves of infection that could affect flights and hotel bookings. Tens of thousands of travelers had a frantic, chaotic scramble in March to get home as the pandemic swept the world and borders slammed shut.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States has surged over the past week, and President Donald Trump also suspended the entry of all people from Europe’s ID check-free travel zone in a decree in March, making it extremely difficult for the EU to include the U.S. on their safe travel list for now.

In contrast, aside from a recent outbreak tied to a slaughterhouse in western Germany, the spread of the virus has generally stabilized across much of continental Europe. To qualify for the “safe” list, EU headquarters said that countries should have a comparable per capita number of COVID-19 cases to those in the 31 European countries over the last 14 days and have a stable or decreasing trend in the number of infections.

The Europeans are also taking into account those countries’ standards on virus testing, surveillance, contact tracing and treatment and the general reliability of their virus data. For tourist sites and stores in Paris that are already feeling the pinch of losing clients from around the world, the decision not to readmit most American travelers is another blow.

In the heart of Paris, on the two small islands in the Seine River that are home to Notre Dame Cathedral and a wealth of tempting boutiques, businesses were already mourning the loss of American visitors during the coronavirus lockdown, and now the summer season that usually attracts teeming crowds is proving eerily quiet since France reopened.

“Americans were 50% of my clientele,” said Paola Pellizzari, who owns a mask and jewelry shop on the Saint-Louis island and heads its business association. “We can’t substitute that clientele with another.”

“When I returned after lockdown, five businesses had closed,” Pellizzari said. “As days go by, and I listen to the business owners, it gets worse.” American travelers spent $67 billion in the European Union in 2019, according to U.S. government figures. That was up 46% from 2014.

The continued absence of Americans also hurts the Louvre as the world’s most-visited museum plans its reopening on July 6. Americans used to be the largest single group of foreign visitors to the home of the “Mona Lisa.”

Sharmaigne Shives, an American who lives in Paris, is yearning for the day when her countrymen and women can return to the clothing shop where she works on Saint-Louis island and drive away her blues at having so few summer visitors.

“I hope that they can get it together and bring down their numbers as much as they can,” she said of the United States. “Paris isn’t Paris when there aren’t people who really appreciate it and marvel at everything,” Shives added. “I miss that. Seriously, I feel the emotion welling up. It’s so sad here.”

A trade group for the biggest U.S. carriers including the three that fly to Europe — United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines — said it was “obviously disappointed” by the EU decision. “We are hopeful that the decision will be reviewed soon and that at least on a limited basis international traffic between the United States and the EU will resume,” said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America.

U.S. airlines hope the Europeans will give the U.S. credit if it implements steps such as temperature checks on passengers bound for Europe, which he said was discussed between U.S. government and EU officials.

Last year, United got 38% of its passenger revenue from international travel including 17% from flights between the U.S. and Europe, while Delta and American were slightly less dependent on those routes. Business travel on routes such as New York-London is highly profitable for all three.

In Brussels, EU headquarters underlined that the list “is not a legally binding instrument” which means the 31 governments can apply it as they see fit. But the bloc urged all member nations not to lift travel restrictions to other countries without coordinating such a move with their European partners.

Officials fear that such ad hoc moves could incite countries inside Europe to start closing their borders to each other again. Panic closures after the disease began spreading in Italy in February caused major traffic jams at crossing points and slowed deliveries of medical equipment.

In publishing its list, the EU also recommended that restrictions be lifted on all people wanting to enter who are European citizens and their family members, long-term EU residents who are not citizens of the bloc, and travelers with “an essential function or need,” regardless of whether their country is on the safe list or not.

John Leicester in Paris, David Koenig in Dallas, and Dee-Ann Durbin in Ann Arbor, Michigan, contributed to this report.

Chinese threats, weaker US alliance spur Australian military overhaul

By Andrew Beatty

Sydney (AFP)

July 1, 2020

Australia has unveiled plans to dramatically tool-up its military as threats from China mount, but some see collapsing trust in the United States alliance as an underlying motivation.

On paper, Australia’s landmark defense review released Wednesday was all about a middle-ranking military power looking north at an increasingly belligerent emerging superpower and deciding it was time to get some of the world’s most high-tech weapons.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled plans to buy missiles that could strike targets thousands of kilometres away, step-up cyber capabilities and invest in things that could define future warfare like hypersonic missiles, lasers and battlefield robots.

Australia’s backyard, he said, had become the battleground of the 21st century and the country needed to wake up to the new reality.

But beyond real concerns about Chinese hacking, territorial seizures, economic coercion and “grey-zone” operations just short of open warfare lay an unspoken acknowledgement: America’s defense umbrella — which had long offered protection from these threats — is looking very leaky.

“Australia is losing faith in the United States,” Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and expert on Asian security policy told AFP.

Policy officials cannot publicly admit it, he said, “but that’s clearly what this is all about”.

“It’s not just that China’s more aggressive in this region. It’s China fears combined with US unreliability and strategic incompetence.”

– Changing of the guard –

For much of the last century, Australian security relied on the United States.

After independence from Britain, Australia actively supported the US-led rules-based order and its forces fought in wars from Vietnam to Iraq. In return, it got the protection of the world’s preeminent nuclear power.

But even before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and threatened to set fire to decades-old security treaties, Washington had shown an increased reluctance to play security guard for countries rich enough to afford their own defense.

There is no guarantee the United States can continue to be a global policeman, even if it wanted to, observers note.

“I think they’ve been a bit rattled by the sheer unpredictability and unreliability of President Trump,” Sam Roggeveen, director of the international security program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute told AFP, referring to Australian policymakers.

“But I think they also recognize that no matter who is in charge in Washington, that the shift in the strategic balance from a US-led system to one where China is the leading strategic and military power in the region is inevitable.”

“Our ally is not going to be in charge of the Asian strategic order over the long term. So we’ve got to prepare for that.”

In response, Roggeveen said, Canberra decided Australia would “take greater responsibility for our own security.”

That stops short of trying to develop an Australian nuclear deterrent, but “the intent here is to essentially make the costs of wanting to attack Australia too high,” said Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“(It is) to strengthen our capacity for independent military operations and to sustain those operations over a lengthy period of time without drawing on the US alliance.”

But some worry Australia is entering an arena with enormous risk, and potentially opening the door to a conflict it cannot win and without commensurate investments in diplomacy and building alliances with other democracies.

“The big conversation really that the government needs to have with the Australian people, is what kind of risks are we prepared to run and what kind of costs are we prepared to pay if we want to confront China on various issues,” said Roggeveen.

“If we’re proposing to buy, or even to develop strike weapons… an adversary like China, they can throw that back at us multiplied by three, four or 10.”

“I think that would be an escalatory step, which would actually destabilize our region, and ultimately would actually make our region more dangerous for Australia.”

Source: Space War.


Confirmed cases hit 10 million; Pence skips campaign rallies

June 28, 2020

ROME (AP) — Worldwide confirmed coronavirus infections hit the 10 million mark Sunday as voters in Poland and France went to the polls for virus-delayed elections. Vice President Mike Pence called off campaign events in Florida and Arizona after surges in infections prompted worries that the U.S. has lost control of its outbreak.

New clusters of cases at a Swiss nightclub and in the central English city of Leicester showed that the virus is still circulating widely in Europe, though not at the exponential rate of growth seen in parts of the U.S., Latin America and India.

Wearing mandatory masks, social distancing in lines and carrying their own pens to sign voting registers, French voters cast ballots in a second round of municipal elections. Poles also wore masks and used hand santizers, and some in virus-hit areas were told to mail in their votes to avoid further contagion.

“I didn’t go and vote the first time around because I am elderly and I got scared,” said Fanny Barouh as she voted in a Paris school. While much of the concern in the U.S. has been on big states like Texas, Arizona and Florida reporting thousands of new cases a day, rural states are also seeing surges of infections, including in Kansas, where livestock outnumber people.

The coronavirus resurgence in the U.S. has drawn concern from abroad. The European Union seems almost certain to bar Americans from traveling to the bloc in the short term as it draws up new travel rules to be announced shortly.

The surges of infections prompted Pence to call off campaign events in Florida and Arizona, though he will still travel to those states and to Texas this week to meet with their Republican governors. Those three governors have come under criticism for aggressively reopening their economies after virus-related lockdowns despite increasing infections in their states.

After confirmed daily infections in the U.S. surged to an all-time high of 40,000 on Friday, Texas and Florida reversed course and closed down bars again. Globally, confirmed COVID-19 cases passed the 10 million mark and confirmed deaths neared half a million, according to a tally by the Johns Hopkins University, with the U.S., Brazil, Russia and India having the most cases. The U.S. also has the highest virus death toll in the world at over 125,000. Experts say all those figures significantly undercount the true toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing and missed mild cases. U.S. government experts last week estimated the U.S. alone could have had 10 million cases.

Britain’s government is pledging to support local officials in the central English city of Leicester amid reports that a spike in COVID-19 cases could prompt authorities to lock the city down. So far, Britain has not targeted a specific region for a lockdown.

“We have seen flare-ups across the country in recent weeks, in just the last three or four weeks in particular,” Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC One on Sunday. Pressed on the Leicester lockdown, she added: “With local flare-ups, it is right we have a localized solution in terms of infection control, social distancing, testing and many of the tools … to control the virus, to stop the spread.”

Polish voters were casting ballots, in person and by mail, for a presidential election that was supposed to have taken place in May but was postponed amid a chaotic political battle because of the pandemic. President Andrzej Duda, a 48-year-old conservative backed by the nationalist ruling Law and Justice party, is running against 10 other candidates as he seeks a second 5-year term.

Iwona Goge, 79, was encouraged to see so many people voting in Warsaw. “It’s bad. Poland is terribly divided and people are getting discouraged,” she said. French voters are choosing mayors and municipal councilors in Paris and 5,000 towns and cities in a second round of municipal elections held under strict hygiene rules. Key races include that for Paris mayor, who will preside over the 2024 Summer Olympics. The spread of the virus in France has slowed significantly but is still expected to hurt Sunday’s turnout.

Italy, meanwhile, was honoring its dead with an evening Requiem concert in hard-hit Bergamo province. The ceremony in the onetime epicenter of the European outbreak came a day after Italy registered the lowest daily tally of COVID-19 deaths in nearly four months: eight.

European leaders were taking no chances, trying to tamp down new clusters. German authorities renewed a lockdown in a western region of about 500,000 people after about 1,300 slaughterhouse workers tested positive.

Swiss authorities ordered 300 people into quarantine after a so-called “superspreader” outbreak of the new coronavirus at a Zurich nightclub. A man who had been at the Flamingo Club a week ago tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, and five others with him also tested positive.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, meanwhile, tested positive. He was part of a Serbian delegation that attended a Victory Day parade this week in Moscow. Serbia’s president met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it was not clear whether Vulin did so.

Russia on Sunday recorded 6,791 new coronavirus cases, bringing its confirmed infections to over 634,000, the third-highest number in the world after the U.S. and Brazil. In Asia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country must focus on bolstering the economy as it exits lockdowns, even as the number of coronavirus cases still keep on climbing. On Sunday, India reported additional 19,906 confirmed cases, taking its total to nearly 529,000 with 16,095 deaths. The pandemic has exposed wide inequalities in India, with public hospitals being overwhelmed by virus cases while the rich get expert treatment in private hospitals.

No positive cases were found in Beijing’s beauty and barber shops, a sign that the city’s recent outbreak has been brought under control. Beijing officials have temporarily shut a huge wholesale food market where the virus spread widely, reclosed schools and locked down some neighborhoods. Anyone leaving Beijing is required to have a negative virus test.

Tens of millions of Chinese traveled during the three-day Dragon Boat Festival that ended Saturday, with no outbreaks reported immediately.

Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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