US governors face pressure as protesters urge end to virus restrictions

Trump backs demonstrators in several states pushing for economy to be reopened, even as COVID-19 infections continue to mount in some areas

State troopers keep watch as protesters rally at the Texas State Capitol to speak out against Texas' handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, in Austin, Texas, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP/Eric Gay)
State troopers keep watch as protesters rally at the Texas State Capitol to speak out against Texas' handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, in Austin, Texas, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Stores in Texas can soon begin selling merchandise with curbside service, and hospitals can resume nonessential surgeries. In Florida, people are returning to a few beaches and parks. And protesters are clamoring for more.

Governors eager to rescue their economies and feeling heat from President Donald Trump are moving to ease restrictions meant to control the spread of the coronavirus, even as new hot spots emerge and experts warn that moving too fast could prove disastrous.

Adding to the pressure are protests against stay-at-home orders organized by small-government groups and Trump supporters. They staged demonstrations Saturday in several cities after the president urged them to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors.

Protests happened in Republican-led states, too, including at the Texas Capitol and in front of the Indiana governor’s home. Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott already said that restrictions will begin easing next week. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb — who signed an agreement with six other Midwestern states to coordinate reopening — said he would extend his stay-at-home order until May 1.

For the first time in weeks, people were able to visit some Florida beaches, but they were still subject to restrictions on hours and activities. Beaches in big cities stayed closed.

A person caries a sign at the beach on April 17, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images/AFP)

Meanwhile, infections kept surging in the Northeast.

Rhode Island, between the hot spots of Massachusetts and New York, has seen a steady daily increase in infections and deaths, with nursing home residents accounting for more than 90 of the state’s 118 deaths. The state’s death rate of around 10 people per 100,000 is among the nation’s highest per capita, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project.

Massachusetts had its highest number of deaths in a single day on Friday, with 159. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, citing the advice of health experts, said states should wait until infection rates and hospitalizations decline for about two weeks before acting.

Trump, whose administration waited months to bolster stockpiles of key medical supplies and equipment, appeared to back protesters.

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, ” Trump said in a tweet-storm in which he also lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for criticizing the federal response. Cuomo “should spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining,’” the president said.

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a press briefing with White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, on April 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

At his Saturday briefing with reporters, Cuomo cited more progress. The daily increase in deaths in New York state fell below 550 for the first time in more than two weeks as hospitalizations continued to decline.

Pedestrians cross 57th street in New York City on Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

But the crisis is far from over: Hospitals are still reporting nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 patients per day, and nursing homes remain a “feeding frenzy for this virus,” he said.

“We are not at a point when we are going to be reopening anything immediately,” Cuomo said.

In Texas, several hundred people rallied on steps of the state Capitol to call for an end to social restrictions. Many protesters sought an immediate lifting of restrictions and chanted “Let us work!” in a state where more than 1 million people have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.

State troopers keep watch as protesters rally at the Texas State Capitol to speak out against Texas’ handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, in Austin, Texas, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP/Eric Gay)

The rally was organized by a host of Infowars, owned by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who joined protesters on the Capitol steps.

Jones is being sued in Austin over using his show to promote falsehoods that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut was a hoax.

More than 200 people stood close together outside the governor’s mansion in Indianapolis, carrying American flags and signs demanding that Holcomb lift restrictions.

The state health department reported 529 new coronavirus cases between April 7 and midday Friday, raising the total to more than 10,600. The number of deaths rose by 26, to 545.

Protesters gather outside the Indiana Governor’s mansion in Indianapolis, Saturday, April 18, 2020, urging Gov. Eric Holcomb to back off restrictions on Indiana residents because of the coronavirus, and restart the economy. (AP/Michael Conroy)

Elsewhere, a few hundred demonstrators cheered and waved signs outside the Statehouse in New Hampshire, which has had nearly 1,300 cases of the virus and more than three dozen deaths through Friday.

“Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person,” said one of the protesters, talk show host Ian Freeman.

Protesters demanding Florida businesses and government reopen, march in downtown Orlando, Fla., Friday, April 17, 2020. (AP/John Raoux)

Trump is pushing to relax the US lockdown by May 1, a plan that hinges partly on more testing.

Public health officials said the ability to test enough people and trace contacts of those who are infected is crucial before easing restrictions, and that infections could surge anew unless people continue to take precautions.

In Asia, some nations that until recently appeared to have the outbreak under control reported a fresh increase in cases Saturday.

Japan’s total case number rose above 10,000. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he’s concerned that people are not observing social distancing and announced a 100,000-yen ($930) cash handout to each resident as an incentive to stay home.

Singapore reported a sharp, one-day spike of 942 infections, the highest in Southeast Asia, mostly among foreign workers staying in crowded dormitories. That brought the total to almost 6,000 in the tiny city-state of 6 million.

There have been tentative signs that measures to curb the outbreak are working, with the rate of new infections slowing across Europe.

France and Spain started dismantling some field hospitals, while the number of active cases in Germany has slowly declined over the past week as people recover.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced restrictions would be eased and some businesses allowed to reopen as long as numbers of new cases remained low.

A Israelis wearing face masks walk with eggs on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem on April 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

France’s national health agency said Saturday that the number of virus patients in intensive care dropped for the 10th day straight, and overall virus hospitalizations have fallen for three consecutive days. The country has seen almost 20,000 virus deaths.

The agency urged the French public to stick to the country’s strict confinement measures, which have been extended until at least May 11: “Together, we will vanquish the pandemic. Don’t relax our efforts at the moment when confinement is bearing fruit.”

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said the government will seek to extend the state of emergency to May 9 but begin easing the total confinement of children beginning April 27.

Children are thought to be a major source of transmission even if they rarely fall ill from the virus. But they’ve been confined to their homes for five weeks, prompting parents to ask that they be allowed to at least take a daily walk.

Sánchez announced in a televised news conference late Saturday that the government would allow children “to get out of their houses for a period on a daily basis,” but the specifics needed to be ironed out with experts.

A man arrives at the the Poble Nou cemetery in Barcelona, Spain, April 18, 2020, to attend the funeral of his mother who died of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The national lockdown would be rolled back only when the country’s embattled health system is ready for a possible rebound of infections, he said.

The virus is believed to have infected more than 2.3 million people worldwide. While most recover, the outbreak has killed at least 155,000 people worldwide, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally based on figures supplied by government health authorities around the globe.

The number almost certainly underestimates the actual toll. Nearly everywhere, thousands have died with COVID-19 symptoms — many in nursing homes — without being tested for the virus, and have thus gone uncounted.

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