May is bringing cautious reopenings from coronavirus lockdowns, from Beijing’s Forbidden City to shopping malls in Texas, as the grim toll from the pandemic ticks higher.
Many communities are inching toward normalcy without certainty over whether they’ve vanquished outbreaks of the virus. But bleak new figures released Thursday underscored the pain inflicted by the disease and added to pressure on leaders to end shutdowns.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surpassed a staggering 30 million and the European economy shrank a record 3.8% in the first quarter as hotels, restaurants, construction sites and manufacturing plants were frozen by lockdowns.
As bad as those and other numbers are, some are outdated because of the lag in gathering data so the true situation is almost certainly much worse.
Still, analysts saw hope in the way new unemployment claims have fallen for four straight weeks. Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said the wave of layoffs at vulnerable businesses such as restaurants, hotels and stores may have largely run its course.
“Thankfully, for now, the economic contagion seems to have plateaued,” Stettner said. “But we’re still at a level that is a mortal threat to the nation’s financial wellbeing.”
Layoffs amount to 1 in 6 American workers and encompass more people than the entire population of Texas. Some economists say the U.S. unemployment rate for April may be as high as 20% — a figure not seen since the Depression of the 1930s, when joblessness peaked at 25%.
China’s ancient, majestic Forbidden City reopened on Friday with all tickets for the May 1-5 holiday sold out, and a limit of 5,000 visitors a day, down from the earlier maximum of 80,000. The Chinese capital reopened its parks and museums, with controlled entries, about three months after hundreds of millions of people were ordered into a near lockdown as the coronavirus outbreak erupted in the central city of Wuhan.
China on Friday reported 12 new cases, six of them brought from overseas, and no new deaths for the 16th day. Beijing on Thursday downgraded its level of emergency response to the virus, but temperature checks and social distancing remain in force.
In the U.S., where large numbers of people are still dying from COVID-19, health officials are warning of the danger of a second wave of infection, and some employers and employees have expressed fear of going back to work.
In some states, authorities are more cautious: California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered beaches in Orange County closed until further notice after tens of thousands of people flocked to the sand last weekend.
Still, many states and countries are pressing ahead, relaxing stay-at-home restrictions amid impatience among those who complain of lost livelihoods and say their rights are being trampled.
Beginning Friday, Louisiana restaurants, except in hard-hit New Orleans, are allowed to add outdoor tables, without wait staff, in a tiny step toward normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Simon Property Group Inc., the biggest U.S. mall operator, plans to open 49 shopping centers Friday across 10 states, including Texas, Indiana and Georgia. Workers will wear masks and the numbers of shoppers will be limited. Some stores may just partially open at first or just have curbside pickup.
The Texas coronavirus death toll hit a single-day high of 50 Thursday as the state was preparing for a slow reboot by reopening retailers, restaurants and malls to limited numbers of customers. The 119 killed over the past three days marks the state’s deadliest stretch.
Outside the U.S., shutdowns are winding down, with caution.
Malaysia will allow most business activities to resume Monday, while a ban on mass gatherings will remain, keeping schools and houses of worship shut. Thailand was preparing to reopen parks and some retailers, hair salons and restaurants, while keeping a nighttime curfew and a ban on alcohol sales.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently recovered from COVID-19, said the U.K. is “past the peak” and “on a downward slope” in its outbreak but was expected to extend precautions, while Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic were set to start loosening their restrictions.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government wants more residents to download a COVIDSafe app to help track cases before its measures are eased.
“The coronavirus is still out there,” he said. The app is needed to trace contacts and isolate people infected by the virus, and “We need that tool so we can open up the economy and that’s why it’s so important.”
With signs that the outbreak has stabilized in places, and after news that the economy shrank at a 4.8% annual rate in the first three months of the year with a crushing 40% drop projected for this quarter, President Donald Trump chose not to extend the White House’s social-distancing guidelines past their expiration Thursday. Those guidelines encouraged people to work from home and avoid restaurants, groups and nonessential travel.
Trump continued to speculate on the origins of the coronavirus, saying that China could have unleashed it on the world due to some kind of horrible “mistake” or that it might have been released intentionally. Intelligence agencies said they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.