Tuesday, July 27, 2021
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    California Reopens With a Mix of Joy, Worry and Anger

    CALIFORNIA REOPENS

    Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

    California lifted most of its Covid-19 restrictions and officially reopened on Tuesday, marking the moment with state-subsidized vacation giveaways and $15 million in vaccine lottery prizes as it emerged from the pandemic politically divided but economically formidable.

    One of the last U.S. states to reopen, California had already relaxed many of its health restrictions; others will not be completely phased out until autumn. Still, the formal unwinding of pandemic rules in America’s most populous state is yet another signal of a national turn toward recovery. One out of every eight Americans lives in California, which generates 14.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

    “There is no American recovery without California’s recovery,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an interview Monday as merchants prepared to ditch the masks and occupancy constraints that have limited both commerce and the coronavirus. “The good news is the state’s economic recovery is well underway.”

    The coronavirus has infected some 3.8 million Californians and killed more than 63,000 since the pandemic started — more deaths than any other state, because of the size of California’s population. At the same time, the state has been especially aggressive in combating the virus, occasionally walking a fine legal line in balancing civil liberties with public health needs.

    In April, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some of the state’s pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings. And Mr. Newsom’s pandemic policies have helped fuel a Republican-led recall campaign against him.

    “The state erred on the side of caution, and that’s impinged on personal freedom in favor of public health,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer for the health system at the University of California San Diego. “But it saved lives.”

    Two earlier attempts at relaxing health rules ended with surges in new cases, but the calculus has changed significantly with immunization.

    With help from the Biden administration, California has invested heavily in vaccinations, offering more than $100 million in immunization incentives and opening clinics in a wide range of places, including farmworker communities, strip malls and sports arenas. For months, the state has had one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates and lowest positivity rates.

    The governor was scheduled on Tuesday to preside over a vaccine lottery drawing, awarding 10 prizes of $1.5 million each to Californians who had received at least one vaccine dose. Next week, the state will award an array of free California vacations to travelers who have been vaccinated, including a stay at Disneyland — which raised attendance limits and dropped mask requirements for vaccinated visitors starting Tuesday — and 10 weddings at a resort in the Napa Valley.

    Jim Wilson/The New York Times

    Most counties had already lowered their case rates to a point that allowed public gatherings and indoor dining service, but the new approach effectively ends the entire color-coded system that set tiers of rules based on infection levels.

    Large indoor events, like N.B.A. games and concerts, will require a negative coronavirus test or proof of vaccination for entry. The state has strongly recommended similar requirements for admission to large outdoor venues like Dodger Stadium.

    Masks will continue to be required in crowded and high-risk areas — hospitals, long-term-care facilities, public transit, prisons and homeless shelters. But otherwise, the state generally will not mandate masks for people who have been vaccinated, and enforcement will largely be on the honor system.

    Tariro Mzezewa contributed reporting from San Francisco.

    California Reopens

    Restaurants and other businesses in California that suffered under pandemic restrictions were allowed to return to full capacity on Tuesday. Ralph Kottke read a newspaper over breakfast in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
    Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

    Many Californians responded to the state’s reopening on Tuesday along political lines.

    In liberal bulwarks like San Francisco, officials said they would continue to exercise their option to impose tougher pandemic rules than the state’s, requiring proof of vaccination for employees in high-risk workplaces like hospitals and skilled-nursing centers.

    In Los Angeles, Roselma Samala, the co-owner of Genever, an Art Deco-inspired gin bar in the city’s Historic Filipinotown, said that despite the statewide reopening, she and her partners did not plan to resume indoor service until July 15.

    “Just bringing in a dollar isn’t worth it to us, if our staff’s health or our community’s health is going to be impacted,” Ms. Samala said.

    In the more rural and conservative Central Valley, Jerry Dyer, the Republican mayor of Fresno, said his constituents largely felt that the health rules could and should have been lifted sooner, and that it was difficult to celebrate reopening without also thinking of the livelihoods that were crushed in the effort to save lives.

    “People who have been laid off, who have had to stand in food lines for the first time, who were unemployed for the first time,” Mr. Dyer said, “for those people, it’s bittersweet.”

    And in the red-tinged suburbs outside the state capital in Sacramento, small-business owners blamed Gov. Gavin Newsom for the battering they took under state pandemic restrictions. Michael Helmrich, a restaurateur, said he “might forgive but sure won’t forget” the hundreds of thousands of dollars his business lost.

    “We really want to put this behind us and get back to normal,” he said, “whatever ‘normal’ is now.”

    Mr. Newsom’s handling of the pandemic and the restrictions the state imposed during the pandemic have helped to fuel a Republican-led recall campaign against him.

    Tariro Mzezewa contributed reporting from San Francisco.

    Devotees gathering for the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, India, in April.
    Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

    The Indian authorities launched an investigation after an internal government report concluded that some private agencies responsible for coronavirus testing on pilgrims at a sprawling Hindu festival forged at least 100,000 results.

    The festival, Kumbh Mela, which ran throughout April, is widely believed to be responsible for a coronavirus surge in many parts of India, as the pilgrims returning from the festival tested positive days after returning to their villages.

    The festival drew millions of faithful to the town of Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

    “We have constituted a four-members committee that will submit its report in two weeks,” Dr. Arjun Singh Sengar, a Haridwar health officer who was in charge of testing for Kumbh Mela, said in an interview. “Initial investigations are pointing toward lapses and fake results.”

    Dr. Sengar said that out of 251,000 tests in his district, only 2,273 were positive.

    But health experts questioned those numbers, saying the state government underreported positive cases. That suggested it was safe to take part in the pilgrimage, despite evidence that the largely unmasked crowds provided an ideal environment for the virus to spread.

    According to a sprawling government report on the lab that conducted rapid antigen tests during the festival, at least 100,000 test results out of 400,000 were fake.

    Despite warnings by public health experts and doctors, the regional government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party advertised the festival in newspapers, inviting pilgrims from across the country.

    Before the event, Uttarakhand’s top elected official, Tirath Singh Rawat, mingled with huge crowds of pilgrims, without a mask. When questioned during one of his three visits to the holy site, Mr. Rawat said, “Faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”

    He tested positive for the coronavirus two days after his last visit to the Ganges.

    Officials in Uttarakhand began investigating the test results after a man in the neighboring state of Punjab received a negative test from the health department in Uttarakhand, even though he had not visited the state. He filed a complaint with the Indian Council of Medical Research, a top government body.

    Officials alerted the state government, which is now leading the investigation and has stopped payments to dozens of private laboratories and agencies involved in testing.

    Testing scams have been a persistent problem in India.

    Some, according to a report by the state, have simply filled log books with fake names and addresses, then charged the state government for the service.

    In Haridwar, the report found that some sample collectors listed for the festival had never even visited the town.

    The authorities said they found phone numbers used multiple times to register pilgrims who were tested, and private agencies carrying out the tests wrote fictional addresses for people who were supposedly tested on their arrival for a dip in the holy waters.

    When officials called the numbers in the logs, they found they were false.

    Coronavirus screening tests at University of Washington’s virology laboratory in March 2020.
    Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

    When did the coronavirus arrive in the United States?

    The first infection was confirmed on Jan. 21, 2020, in a resident of Washington State who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. Soon after, experts concluded that the virus had been in the country for weeks.

    A study published on Tuesday offers new evidence: Based on an analysis of antibodies in blood tests, scientists identified seven people in five states who may have been infected well before the first confirmed cases in those states. The results suggest that the virus may have been circulating in Illinois, for example, as early as Dec. 24, 2019, although the first Illinois case was confirmed a month later.

    But the new study is flawed, some experts said: It did not adequately address the possibility that the antibodies were in response to coronaviruses that cause common colds. The results could also be a quirk of the tests used. In addition, the researchers did not have travel information for any of the patients, which might have helped explain the test results.

    “This is an interesting paper because it raises the idea that everyone thinks is true, that there were infections that were going undiagnosed,” said Scott Hensley, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

    But the small number of positive samples made it difficult to be sure that they were true cases of infection and not just a methodological error. “It’s hard to know what is a real signal and what isn’t,” he said.

    If the findings are accurate, however, they underscore the notion that poor testing in the United States missed most cases during the early weeks of the pandemic.

    “Without testing, you can’t see what’s going on,” said Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “In these earlier months in some of these states where we were not suspecting, there was a lot of infection going on there.”

    Customers dining indoors in the West Village last year.
    Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

    Restaurants in New York will no longer be forced to space tables six feet apart or use physical partitions; movie theaters will be allowed to pack their auditoriums without spacing seats apart; and entering commercial buildings won’t require a temperature check.

    With 70 percent of adults in New York having received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, the state took a major step toward normalcy by eliminating nearly all restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Tuesday.

    The changes, which will take effect immediately, mark yet another milestone in the economic recovery of a state that was once an epicenter of the pandemic, and are expected to bring back the type of scenes familiar to most New Yorkers in prepandemic times.

    With the order, the state, in most cases, will end capacity limits and no longer require social distancing, disinfection protocols and health screenings, instead making it optional for businesses to impose such health precautions on their premises.

    “This is a momentous day and we deserve it because it has been a long, long road,” Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. He added: “We can return to life as we know it.”

    In addition to the changes in protocols at restaurants, movie theaters and commercial buildings, barber shops and hair salons won’t need to ask their customers for contact tracing information and gyms and fitness centers won’t need to abide by strict disinfecting protocols to clean their exercise equipment.

    Mr. Cuomo set the 70 percent threshold that triggered the end of the restrictions last week as a way to spur on the state’s reopening and incentivize people to get vaccinated, saying “virtually all” coronavirus rules would expire. Fourteen other states and Washington, D.C., have all reached the same threshold, according to the latest federal data, with Vermont topping the list at 84 percent.

    Even so, the move in New York comes as health officials remain vexed by low vaccination rates in ZIP codes across the state, and in pockets of New York City.

    About 65 percent of adults — those 18 or older — have received at least one dose in the city, while 54 percent of city residents of all ages have gotten one dose, according to city data. Some of the lowest adult vaccination rates in the city are in the Bronx (57 percent with a first dose) and in Brooklyn (59 percent).

    New Yorkers should still expect to see signs of pandemic life even with the restrictions lifted.

    Government employees waiting for vaccines in Peshawar on Friday. The government in another Pakistani province, Sindh, said it would stop paying unvaccinated government workers.
    Muhammad Sajjad/Associated Press

    Concerned about the slow pace of coronavirus vaccinations, the Pakistani authorities have decided to take drastic measures, including blocking people’s cellphone service in two provinces and suspending the salaries of some government employees who have not been vaccinated.

    They say the measures are needed to address deep skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines, and about inoculations more broadly.

    Pakistan has long struggled with disinformation about vaccines that have been proven safe and effective, particularly for polio. Parents commonly refuse polio immunization for their children, falsely believing that the vaccine is harmful and part of an American plot to sterilize the children.

    That refusal has made Pakistan the last refuge for the polio virus in the world, besides neighboring Afghanistan.

    And now conspiracy theories about the side effects of the coronavirus vaccine have become widespread in Pakistan.

    “I have heard that people, after getting the coronavirus jab, will die within the two years,” said Ehsan Ahmed, a truck driver in Karachi. “It is the reason that in our extended family of at least 25 people, no one is willing to vaccinate themselves.”

    The government has set a goal of vaccinating between 45 million and 65 million people by the end of this year, and it recently announced plans to spend $1.1 billion to procure doses.

    However, as of Tuesday, Pakistan had fully vaccinated roughly 3 million people — less than 2 percent of its population — since the vaccination drive started on Feb. 3, according to government data.

    The country has recorded nearly 22,000 deaths from Covid-19 and nearly one million people have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic.

    In an effort to compel people to get shots, the local authorities in two provinces — Punjab and Sindh — have announced plans to block the cellphone service of residents who refuse.

    “The government is trying its best to facilitate people in getting the vaccine,” the information minister in Sindh, Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, said. He called the decision to not get a shot “unacceptable.”

    The authorities have not announced when the order will take effect or how it will be enforced.

    At the same time, the government in Sindh has directed its finance ministry to stop paying government employees who have not been vaccinated, starting in July.

    Since the measures were announced, reports of fake vaccination certificates have soared.

    This week, the police in the port city of Karachi arrested a person involved in selling forged vaccination certificates at the city’s largest vaccination center.

    They cost around $12.

    A closed “Cinderella” in London in February. Andrew Lloyd Webber has said the musical will reopen “come hell or high water.”
    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    LONDON — Andrew Lloyd Webber last week promised to open his musical “Cinderella” in London’s West End on June 25 — even if it were illegal to do so.

    “We are going to open come hell or high water,” he told The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper. If Britain’s government tried to stop him because of rising coronavirus cases, he had one response, he added: “We will say: Come to the theater and arrest us.”

    Now, Mr. Lloyd Webber, 73, has his chance to go to prison — although he doesn’t appear to want to take it.

    On Monday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said that social distancing would continue in England until July 19, at least — almost a month later than originally planned.

    The decision, announced at a televised news conference, was made because of a rise in coronavirus cases linked to the Delta variant. An average of 7,278 cases per day were reported in United Kingdom in the last week, an increase of 127 percent from the average two weeks ago. Deaths are rising but still very low, with an average of nine a day over two weeks.

    Scientists remain at odds over exactly how serious a threat it poses in Britain, however, with some arguing that the most dire predictions about rising hospitalizations underestimate the effect even the current level of vaccinations has on breaking the link between the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

    “I think it’s sensible to wait just a little bit longer,” Mr. Johnson said, adding that the delay would allow more people to be fully vaccinated.

    The delay was a gut punch to the British cultural world, which has been desperately seeking an end to social distancing.

    The delay leaves “thousands of jobs hanging in the balance,” Julian Bird, chief executive of UK Theater, a trade body, said in a statement. A quarter of nighttime businesses cannot survive longer than a month without new government support, the Night Times Industries Association, which represents clubs and pubs, said in a news release.

    The biggest blow may be to England’s nightclubs, which were told for the fourth time that they could not reopen at all, even with distancing. Nightclubs in Britain have been closed since March 2020, and over 150 events were planned in London alone for the weekend of June 25, including a sold-out 42-hour-long party at Fabric, a famed club that can hold 1,500 people.

    Those were all immediately canceled.

    “It’s really, really frustrating,” Cameron Leslie, one of Fabric’s founders, said in a telephone interview. He had hired over 100 staff over the past month, expecting to reopen, and now was not able to furlough them.

    “You can only be pushed and tested so far before our entire sector can’t respond anymore,” Leslie added.

    Stuart Glen, the founder of The Cause, another London club, said in a telephone interview that the delay would cost him “hundred of thousands” of pounds and force him to rearrange 40 events. He’d had enough, he said. “I think everyone should riot if July doesn’t happen,” he said. “They can’t control people like this,” he added.

    “It’s so devastating for so many people,” said Yousef Zahar, a D.J. and co-owner of Circus, a nightclub based in Liverpool, that in May held two pilot events featuring 6,000 maskless dancers.

    Theaters, museums and music venues were allowed to reopen with distancing last month, but larger venues and all nightclubs have remained firmly shut. Mr. Lloyd Webber has repeatedly said that glitzy productions like “Cinderella” — which has a 34-strong cast and is already weeks into rehearsals — are financially unviable in half-full theaters.

    For those hoping to attend the opening of“Cinderella,” it was still unclear if the show would go on.

    “We’re working hard behind the scenes to make sure everyone gets to the ball,” the show’s producers said in a statement posted on Twitter.

    Patrons waited to show proof of vaccination before entering a performance at City Winery in Manhattan in late May.
    Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    With all American adults now eligible for Covid-19 vaccines, and businesses and international borders reopening, a fierce debate has kicked off across the United States over whether a digital health certificate — often and somewhat misleadingly called a “vaccine passport” — should be required to prove immunization status.

    Currently, Americans are issued a white paper card as evidence of their shots, but these can easily be forged, and online scammers are selling false and stolen vaccine cards.

    While the federal government has said that it will not issue a mandate for digital vaccine passports, a growing number of businesses say that they will require proof of vaccinations for entry or services. Hundreds of digital health pass initiatives are scrambling to develop apps that provide an electronic record of immunizations and negative coronavirus test results.

    The drive has raised privacy and equity concerns. Some states, such as Florida and Texas, have banned businesses from requiring vaccination certificates.

    Residents waited under observation after receiving Covid-19 vaccines last week in Wuhan, China.
    Getty Images

    All across the Asia-Pacific region, the countries that led the world in containing the coronavirus are languishing in the race to put it behind them.

    While the United States, which suffered far more grievous outbreaks, is filling stadiums with vaccinated fans and cramming planes for summer vacations, the pandemic champions of the East are stuck in a cycle of uncertainty, restrictions and isolation.

    In southern China, the spread of the Delta variant led to a sudden lockdown last week in Guangzhou, a major industrial capital. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia have also clamped down after recent outbreaks, while Japan is dealing with a fourth round of infections.

    Where they can, people are getting on with their lives, with social distancing and outings kept close to home. Economically, the region has weathered the pandemic relatively well because of how successfully most countries handled its first phase.

    In some places, like Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand, vaccinations are barely underway. Others, like China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, have seen a sharp rise in inoculations in recent weeks, while remaining far from offering vaccines to all.

    A customer shot and killed a cashier at a Big Bear supermarket about 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta.
    Fox 5 Atlanta

    A customer who argued about wearing a face mask at a supermarket in the U.S. state of Georgia shot and killed a cashier on Monday and wounded a deputy sheriff working off duty at the store, law enforcement officials said.

    The gunman was shot by the deputy, and both are expected to survive, according to law enforcement officials.

    A suspect, identified as Victor Lee Tucker Jr., 30, of Palmetto, Ga., was arrested by DeKalb County Police Department officers “as he was attempting to crawl out the front door of the supermarket,” according to a statement from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

    The gunfire occurred inside a Big Bear supermarket in Decatur, Ga., about 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta, just after 1 p.m., officials said. Mr. Tucker was checking out and got into an argument with a cashier about his face mask, the bureau said in its statement. Mr. Tucker left the store without purchasing his items but immediately returned.

    “Tucker walked directly back to the cashier, pulled out a handgun and shot her,” the bureau said. He then began shooting at the deputy, “who was attempting to intervene while working off-duty at the supermarket,” the bureau said.

    Kenneth Ludgood pushed a gurney that carried the body of Gabriel Flores, 50, into the temporary morgue at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles in January, after Mr. Flores died from Covid.
    Isadora Kosofsky for The New York Times

    Hispanic American communities have been pummeled by a higher rate of coronavirus infections than any other racial or ethnic group and have experienced hospitalizations and deaths at rates exceeded only by those among Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

    But new research shows the coronavirus has also attacked Hispanic Americans in an especially insidious way: They were younger when they died.

    They are much more likely than white Americans to have died of Covid-19 before age 65, often in the prime of life and at the height of their productive years. A recent study of California deaths found that Hispanic Americans ages 20 to 54 were 8.5 times more likely than white Americans in that age range to die of Covid-19.

    As a result, many Hispanic American families faced not only the death of a loved one but also the unraveling of income streams and support networks.

    “It matters how old you are when you die, because your role in society differs,” said Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

    Dr. Stephen Hahn, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, joined the venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering.
    Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

    Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Donald J. Trump, has joined the health-focused venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, which 11 years ago birthed Moderna, the biotechnology company that developed a highly effective coronavirus vaccine that the F.D.A. authorized last year while Dr. Hahn led the agency.

    Dr. Hahn, an oncologist and former top executive at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, is starting this week as the chief medical officer of the firm’s “pre-emptive medicine and health security initiative,” a program that researches and develops new drugs and diagnostic tools.

    “This is really about getting out ahead of things like pandemics, but also chronic diseases, obesity, diabetes, heart disease,” Dr. Hahn said in an interview Monday.

    Christine Heenan, a senior partner at the firm, said Flagship was unlike a typical venture capital firm: It employs more than 50 scientists, files patents and has lab space in Cambridge, Mass., near Moderna’s headquarters.

    As a former F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Hahn is barred by federal rules from dealing with the agency on behalf of Flagship for a year, or from ever working with the agency on matters he was involved in while commissioner.

    The rules are aimed at stemming the influence of connections between federal employees and their former colleagues who have moved to the private sector. Other recent top F.D.A. officials have accepted positions with companies subject to F.D.A. decisions, including Dr. Scott Gottlieb, another former F.D.A. commissioner under Mr. Trump. Dr. Gottlieb sits on the board of Pfizer, a coronavirus vaccine developer.

    One of Flagship’s funds maintains 20 million shares of Moderna stock, Ms. Heenan said, and the two firms have close ties: The chief executive of Flagship, Noubar Afeyan, is Moderna’s co-founder and chairman, and Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, is a Flagship adviser.

    Dr. Steven Joffe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said Dr. Hahn would have to walk an ethical fine line in his new job.

    “There are procedures in place, there are ethics officers, and there are clear-cut rules,” Dr. Joffe said of the federal regulations.

    Five months into President Biden’s term, there is still no permanent successor to Dr. Hahn at the F.D.A. He said on Monday that President Biden should move quickly to nominate someone.

    Dr. Hahn praised the acting commissioner, Dr. Janet Woodcock, a longtime drug regulator at the agency and a candidate for the nomination, but said a permanent commissioner would have more “legitimacy” and authority to shape the agency’s goals.

    As commissioner during the pandemic, Dr. Hahn was regularly caught in a thicket of political controversy last year about the F.D.A.’s emergency authorizations, the subject of intense pressure from White House officials eager to claim victories with each new regulatory clearance for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines.

    Twenty-five states will halt some or all emergency unemployment benefits, with many Republican governors blaming the programs for a shortage of workers in many industries as businesses reopen.

    The changes affect four programs:

    • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides eligible individuals with $300 a week on top of their regular benefits.

    • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends benefits for workers who have exhausted their state allotment.

    • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers freelancers, part-time hires, seasonal workers and others who do not normally qualify for state unemployment benefits.

    • Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, which offers additional assistance for people who make their income by combining a salaried job with freelance gigs.

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