Millions of Americans took to the skies and the highways for Thanksgiving at the risk of pouring gasoline on the coronavirus fire, disregarding increasingly dire warnings that they stay home and limit their holiday gatherings to members of their own household.

Those who are flying witnessed a distinctly 2020 landscape at the nation’s airports: plexiglass barriers in front of the ID stations, rapid virus testing sites inside terminals, masks in check-in areas and on board planes, and paperwork asking passengers to quarantine on arrival at their destination.

While the number of Americans traveling by air over the past several days was down dramatically from the same time last year, many pressed ahead with their holiday plans amid skyrocketing deaths, hospitalizations and confirmed infections across the U.S.

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People wait in line at the ticket counter before flying from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Wednesday. Associated Press/Tony Dejak

Some were tired of more than eight months of social distancing and determined to spend time with loved ones.

More than 88,000 people in the U.S. — an all-time high — were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, pushing the health care system in many places to the breaking point, and new cases of the virus have been setting records, soaring to an average of over 174,000 per day.

Deaths have surged to more than 1,600 per day, a mark last seen in May, when the crisis in the New York area was easing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local authorities have begged people not to travel and urged them to keep their Thanksgiving celebrations small.

Read the full story here.

New Hampshire country store, tavern fined for violating virus orders

CONCORD, N.H. — A country store in Loudon and a tavern in Lincoln are the latest businesses to be penalized for violating emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

The attorney general’s office on Wednesday fined the Loudon Country Store $2,000 and the White Mountain Tavern $1,000.

According to investigators, the store owner had been warned by local authorities more than 10 times that workers must wear masks. More recently, that requirement has been extended to include customers as well. But the store instead has refused and posted a sign explaining why:

“Please refer to the Constitution of the United States!” the sign reads. “We know how to wash our hands, clean surfaces and NOT cough or sneeze on people. If you can do that and stay six feet away like someone tooted, please come in!!”

The tavern was cited for a musical performance last weekend. Investigators said two guitarists were performing close together, customers were seated shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar and others were standing and mingling in the bar area. Photos also show the tavern owner’s, David Culhane, not wearing a mask.

Culhane said Wednesday he owns up to his actions, but said the musicians were a couple who live in the same household so he didn’t think them performing close together was a problem. Likewise, customers seen mingling were part of the same groups, he said.

“Nobody who didn’t come together was ever closer than six feet from each other,” said Culhane, who plans to appeal the fine.

“If you go into any restaurant, you can find something where someone is violating the guidelines. A lot of them are really unclear, and they keep changing constantly,” he said. “It’s really hard on top of managing a business to keep up with everything.”

The country store owner did not respond to a request for comment.

European leaders push to coordinate reopening of skiing during pandemic

MILAN — Though the first real snow has yet to fall across much of Europe, ski buffs are imagining with dread a once-unthinkable scene: Skiing in Zermatt in Switzerland while lifts idle across the border in Italy’s Aosta valley.

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The ‘Matterhorn-Express’ gondola lift passes in front of Matterhorn mountain in the Zermatt ski resort, in Zermatt, Switzerland, in March. Restrictions to slow the curve of coronavirus infections have kept ski lifts closed in Italy, France, Germany and Austria, as well as countries further east. But skiers are already heading to mountains in Switzerland, drawing an envious gaze from ski industry and local officials in mountain regions elsewhere on the continent who lost most of last season due to the virus. Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via Associated Press

The leaders of Italy and France are resisting pressure to reopen ski resorts before Christmas, pushing for European coordination so their industries don’t suffer during the pandemic while others flourish. But the Alpine countries of Switzerland and Austria could well be spoilers.

Ski resorts were one of the major sources of contagion in the deadly spring surge of COVID-19.

So far, restrictions to slow the curve of infections have kept lifts closed in Italy, France, Germany and Austria, as well as countries further east. But skiers are already heading to mountains in Switzerland, drawing an envious gaze from ski industry and local officials in mountain regions elsewhere on the continent who lost most of last season due to the virus. They are warning of irreversible economic damage if they are not permitted to open this season.

Both Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that pre-Christmas openings are unthinkable. While such skiing luminaries as world and Olympic champion Alberto Tomba argue that it is an individual sport conducted in the open air, the leaders point to the risks of contagion in crowded lift lines and lodges, as well as closed cable cars.

Top health officials in Italy appeared aghast when they were asked at a briefing Tuesday about the prospects for opening ski season, minutes after they had just reported a resurgence-high 853 deaths in a 24-hour period.

“I admit I have a difficult time inside commenting on arguments relating to ski areas and what will happen at Christmas, thinking about these numbers,’’ said Dr. Franco Locatelli, head of Italy’s national scientific council.

French mountain industry representatives met with the French prime minister Monday to press to be able to reopen, but apparently their pleas weren’t heard.

“It seems impossible to me to imagine a reopening for the holidays, and much more preferable to favor reopening in January, in good conditions,’’ Macron said as he laid out plans Tuesday night for a gradual easing of the current lockdown.

Plans for reopening also remain on ice in the eastern countries of Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — although Serbia is prepping for the winter season in full swing, as if COVID-19 did not exist, counting on both domestic and foreign visitors.

Austria, whose current lockdown runs through Dec. 6, has been for months saying that it hoped to reopen the slopes this season and rejected Italy’s idea of keeping them closed until Jan. 10. On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pushed back against calls to write off this year’s ski season because of the pandemic.

In Bavaria, Germany’s largest ski destination, Governor Markus Soeder supported the idea, saying that if Europe’s borders are to remain open through the Christmas season there will have to be some sort of a blanket rule on keeping resorts closed.

Wiping down groceries? Experts say keep risk in perspective

NEW YORK — Cleaning wipes are harder to find on store shelves, and businesses are reassuring customers with stepped up sanitation measures. In New York, the subway system is shut down nightly for disinfecting.

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A woman reaches for yogurt wearing gloves during senior shopping hours at Homeland in Oklahoma City in March. Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

To avoid any traces of the coronavirus that might be lurking on surfaces, Americans have been wiping down groceries, wearing surgical gloves when they go out and leaving mail packages out for an extra day or two. But experts say the national fixation on scrubbing sparked by the pandemic can sometimes be overkill.

“It’s important to clean surfaces, but not to obsess about it too much in a way that can be unhealthy,” said Dr. John Brooks, chief medical officer for the COVID-19 response at the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control.

Health officials knew less about the virus in the early days of the pandemic, but say it’s become clearer the main way it spreads is between people — through the respiratory droplets they spray when talking, coughing, sneezing or singing. It’s why officials emphasize the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.

That doesn’t mean surfaces don’t pose any risk — cleaning is still recommended — especially frequently touched spots like door knobs or elevator buttons that infected people might have recently touched. Other germs that sicken people, like gastrointestinal bugs, haven’t gone away either.

But with COVID-19, experts say to keep the risk in perspective: The virus is fragile and doesn’t survive easily outside the body for long. Early studies finding it could linger on surfaces for days used large viral loads and were in laboratory conditions, not the real world. Other tests might just detect remnants of the virus, rather than live virus capable of infecting people.

Viruses also don’t leap off surfaces to infect people, and infection would require a sequence of events: There would have to be enough surviving virus on whatever the person is touching, the person would have to get it on their hands, then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

All that means there could be diminishing returns to all the disinfecting, especially if people have good hand washing practices.

Read the full story here.

Growing number of hospitals canceling surgeries to preserve staff during COVID surge

A growing number of hospitals around the U.S. have canceled or delayed some planned medical procedures to preserve staff and beds for a surging number of Americans sick with COVID-19.

Conditions remain especially acute in the Midwest and West. From Illinois to Idaho, health systems are limiting non-emergency surgeries as the pandemic’s strain on personnel grows. Putting off planned procedures that patients can defer safely is one of the few levers hospitals have to adjust their capacity as the virus spreads unchecked.

“COVID is like a sink: The faucet is on full blast, and we only have so much ability to open the drain,” said Eric Borgerding, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

All Wisconsin’s major hospital systems are postponing some non-emergency care, Borgerding said. Some have set up beds in ambulance bays, hallways and waiting rooms. Hundreds of patients are stuck in hospitals because COVID-stricken nursing homes can’t receive them, he said.

Hospitals have worked with regulators to add around 1,400 beds statewide. “Even with that, the sink is overflowing,” Borgerding said.

Surgeries scheduled in advance are often considered elective, but delaying operations to replace joints or remove tumors can harm patients. These procedures are also typically among the most profitable for hospitals.

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Medical staff attending to patients with COVID-19 wear protective equipment in a unit dedicated to treatment of the coronavirus at UW Health in Madison, Wis. on Nov. 5. Conditions inside the nation’s hospitals are deteriorating by the day as the coronavirus rages through the country at an unrelenting pace. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File

In the spring, health-care providers halted most non-urgent in-person care on orders from state and federal authorities. Medical supplies were running short, and the U.S. feared a national crush of COVID patients filling emergency wards and intensive-care units.

Much of the country averted that in the pandemic’s first weeks, leaving some hospitals strangely quiet. Even the usual stream of patients with urgent needs like strokes and heart attacks seemed to dwindle.

Since spring, hospitals have learned how to treat COVID patients while safely resuming other care. They’ve encouraged patients spooked by the virus to return for other needed care. Now, even without orders from states, some facilities are dialing back what they can.

As of Nov. 23, more than 85,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID, according to data compiled by COVID Tracking Project. The U.S. is recording more than a million new cases per week, prompting the Centers for Disease Control to tell Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving.

Read the full story here.

U.S. jobless claims up for 2nd straight week as virus worsens

WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week for a second straight week to 778,000, evidence that the U.S. economy and job market remain under strain as coronavirus cases surge and colder weather heighten the risks.

The Labor Department’s report Wednesday said that jobless claims climbed from 748,000 the week before. Before the virus struck hard in mid-March, weekly claims typically amounted to only about 225,000. They shot up to 6.9 million during March before dropping, yet they remain historically high more than eight months later, with many businesses unable to fully reopen.

The spike in virus cases is intensifying pressure on companies and individuals, with fear growing that the economy could suffer a “double-dip” recession as states and cities reimpose restrictions on businesses.

“With infections continuing to rise at an elevated pace and curbs on business operations widening, layoffs are likely to pick up over coming weeks,″ said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “Even as job growth is continuing, the labor market remains under stress and far from complete recovery.″

The total number of people who are continuing to receive traditional state unemployment benefits dropped to 6.1 million from 6.4 million the previous week. That figure has been declining for months. It shows that more Americans are finding jobs and no longer receiving unemployment aid. But it also indicates that many jobless people have used up their state unemployment aid — which typically expires after six months.

More Americans are collecting benefits under programs that were set up to cushion the economic pain from the pandemic. For the week of Nov. 7, the number of people collecting benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — which offers coverage to gig workers and others who don’t qualify for traditional aid — rose by 466,000 to 9.1 million.

And the number of people receiving aid under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — which offers 13 weeks of federal benefits to those who have exhausted state jobless aid — rose by 132,000 to 4.5 million.

All told, nearly 20.5 million people are receiving some type of unemployment aid. (Figures for the two pandemic-related programs aren’t adjusted for seasonal variations.)

The intensifying pandemic is threatening to accelerate the pace of layoffs as more states and localities limit public gatherings and mandate fewer hours and smaller capacities for restaurants, bars and other businesses. Regardless what governments do, many Americans are likely to stay home — and away from local businesses — until they feel safe again.

Read the full story here.

Restaurant workers out of work again as virus surges anew

Waiters and bartenders are being thrown out of work — again — as governors and local officials shut down indoor dining and drinking establishments to combat the nationwide surge in coronavirus infections that is overwhelming hospitals and dashing hopes for a quick economic recovery.

And the timing, just before the holidays, couldn’t be worse.

Restaurant owner Greg Morena in Los Angeles County was trying to figure out his next step after officials in the nation’s largest county banned in-person dining for at least three weeks, beginning Wednesday. But he was mainly dreading having to notify his employees.

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A restaurant worker cleans the tables in the outdoor dining area of a Mexican restaurant in La Mirada, Calif., on Tuesday. Waiters and bartenders are being thrown out of work – again – as governors and local officials shut down indoor dining and drinking establishments to combat the nationwide surge in coronavirus infections. Associated Press/Jae C. Hong

“To tell you, ‘I can’t employ you during the holidays,’ to staff that has family and kids, I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the heaviest weight that I carry,” said Morena, who had to close one restaurant earlier in the year and has two operating at the Santa Monica Pier.

Restaurant owners — most of whom underwent shutdowns in the spring and summer — are finding the new round of closings challenging as colder weather sets in. Many are offering curbside pickup but also trying to hold outdoor dining, even if it means setting up shelters or heaters.

Read the full story here.

New Mexico gives businesses testing option to avoid closure

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico grocery stores and other essential businesses could avoid mandatory closures triggered by COVID-19 surges among employees if they agree to regularly test their workers and help with the state’s contact tracing efforts.

The state health and environment departments announced the voluntary program Tuesday. A business would have to submit a plan that details surveillance testing and contact tracing efforts for each of its locations.

If positive cases are discovered as a result of the testing, the resulting rapid response by the state will not count toward the mandatory 14-day closure requirement in the current public health order. The program also clears a path for businesses currently closed to be allowed to reopen before the 14-day period is over.

“Proactive testing is an essential tool in combating the spread of this virus,” acting Health Secretary Billy Jimenez said. “Partners in the private sector through these agreements will make a significant and positive impact in curbing COVID-19 in New Mexico.”

State officials already have acknowledged that the current rate of testing would have to more than double to effectively identify and track infections. The state currently is averaging close to 12,000 tests a day as laboratories are working around the clock to keep up with demand and volunteers are being sought to help with the effort.

New Mexico on Tuesday reported an additional 2,107 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to nearly 86,500 since the pandemic began. Another 28 deaths also were reported and more than 870 people were hospitalized.

New Hampshire fines restaurant $1,500 for ignoring virus rules

CONCORD, N.H. — A New Hampshire restaurant has been fined $1,500 following a complaint about a lack of social distancing and mask wearing during the coronavirus pandemic, the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday.

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The attorney general’s office in the administration of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has fined several food establishments for not following virus precautions. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The attorney general’s office said it assessed the penalty against Grumpy’s Bar & Grill in Plaistow after the restaurant on Nov. 14 was visited by a police officer who was following up on a photo taken the day before showing “overcrowding, standing and mingling in the bar area, no social distancing between tables, and no face coverings.” The officer said the conditions were similar and that the only person wearing a face covering was the bartender.

The attorney general, in its letter to Grumpy’s, said it also had been notified earlier in writing that 6 feet is required between tables; the number of people in the bar must be restricted in order to maintain the 6-foot distance; and standing and mingling in bar areas is prohibited.

Richard LeClaire, Grumpy’s owner, said establishments in nearby Massachusetts had closed earlier under new rules and “so we ended up with a serious overflow that we weren’t ready for.” He said since then, “we’ve taken measures so that won’t happen again.”

Separately, three recent cases of the virus were associated with Grumpy’s, with possible community exposure on Nov. 10 and Nov. 14, state health officials said last week. The restaurant had said on its Facebook page that the entire establishment has since had a “deep sanitizing clean.”

Last week, the attorney general’s office had fined a bakery, bagel shop and pizza place $500 each after repeated complaints about staff not wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s treasury chief to put $455 billion in virus aid out of successor’s easy reach

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will put $455 billion in unspent Cares Act funding into an account that his presumed successor, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, will need authorization from Congress to use.

Mnuchin plans to place the money into the agency’s General Fund, a Treasury Department spokesperson said Tuesday. That fund can be tapped only with “authority based on congressionally issued legislation,” according to the Treasury’s website.

The money includes $429 billion that Mnuchin is clawing back from the Federal Reserve — which backed some of the central bank’s emergency lending facilities — and $26 billion that Treasury received for direct loans to companies. Both initiatives were created under the sweeping Cares Act that was passed earlier this year as the coronavirus pandemic inflicted economic pain on the U.S.

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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, right, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are shown in  September. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Associated Press

The move will leave Yellen — selected by President-elect Joe Biden as his nominee for treasury secretary — with just under $80 billion available in the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a pot of money that can be used with some discretion by the Treasury chief.

Mnuchin sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell last week asking for the return of money provided to the Fed by the Treasury as a backstop that allowed the central bank to lend to certain markets in times of stress. The Fed publicly objected to the move but agreed to return the funds.

Mnuchin said that many markets are no longer in danger of seizing up and don’t need aid beyond next month, when the programs are scheduled to expire. He said that the funds can be better applied to specific areas of the economy with the greatest need, through congressionally approved grants.

“For companies that are impacted by COVID — such as travel, entertainment and restaurants — they don’t need more debt, they need more PPP money, they need more grants,” Mnuchin said in an interview last week.

Mnuchin isn’t required to move the money into the General Fund — the Cares Act states that the Treasury Department can maintain access to the money by keeping it in its Exchange Stabilization Fund until 2026.

Yet moving the unspent money will make it virtually impossible for Yellen, if confirmed by the Senate as treasury secretary, to deploy on her own. The Biden transition team last week called Mnuchin’s clawing back of unspent money from the Fed “deeply irresponsible.”

“Biden will work with leaders across government to ensure Main Street businesses and state and local governments have the support and access to credit they need to weather this storm,” spokesperson Kate Bedingfield said.

Sweden reports no sign that herd immunity is stopping the virus

There’s little evidence that herd immunity is helping Sweden combat the coronavirus, according to the country’s top epidemiologist.

“The issue of herd immunity is difficult,” Anders Tegnell said at a briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday. “We see no signs of immunity in the population that are slowing down the infection right now.”

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People with bicycles pass an outdoor restaurant on a street in the Sodermalm neighborhood of Stockholm in August. Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency via Associated Press

Swedes have been more exposed to the virus than their neighbors elsewhere in the Nordic region, and every third Stockholmer tested has antibodies, according to figures published this week. That’s after the country famously opted against a lockdown, relying instead on voluntary measures.

The laxer strategy has coincided with a much higher infection rate in Sweden. In a recent OECD study, Sweden consistently ranked among the hardest hit nations in Europe, as measured by relative COVID mortality and infection rates, and was the slowest at containing transmission.

In what Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called an “unprecedented” step earlier this month, Swedes will no longer be free to gather in public in groups larger than eight. The sale of alcohol is now also banned after 10 p.m.

The new restrictions come amid warnings that Sweden’s intensive care beds are quickly filling up. Meanwhile, authorities in the country are warning against placing too much weight on a possible future vaccine.

“We are still seeing an increase in patients who need care and intensive care,” Thomas Linden, a departmental head at Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, said at Tuesday’s briefing. “One must not take the fact that there is a vaccine a few months away as an indication to be careless with measures.”

“In a third wave, the health-care system will be even more strained than it has been so far,” he said.


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