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U.S. states extend coronavirus shutdown; Trump to announce plan for return

NEW YORK, April 16 (Reuters) - Seven Northeastern states on Thursday extended a shutdown until May 15 to contain the coronavirus pandemic, even as President Donald Trump prepared to unveil recommendations to begin easing the lockdown in the least-affected U.S. states, possibly as early as May 1.

By Maria Caspani and Steve Holland

The White House said Trump would hold a news conference at 6 p.m. ET (2200 GMT) to “explain the guidelines for opening up America again.” The Republican president, who has staked his re-election in November on the strength of the U.S. economy, has stressed the urgency of an early, phased opening to reverse the sudden economic devastation caused by the shutdown.

But his May 1 target date has raised concerns about the dangers of lifting restrictions before widespread testing and proper protocols have been put in place.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo preempted Trump’s briefing by saying on Thursday morning that he would extend his stay-at-home order by another two weeks in cooperation with six neighboring states that have formed a regional alliance. He ordered the extension even though key metrics such as hospitalizations were pointing to a stabilization in the outbreak in New York state.

Last week, Los Angeles extended its restrictions to May 15, and the District of Columbia did the same on Wednesday.

“What happens after that, I don’t know – we will see, depending on what the data says,” Cuomo, whose state is the hardest hit in the United States with more than 40% of the country’s 32,000 dead, told a news briefing.

In addition to the seven-state East Coast coalition, three governors from the West Coast have vowed to work together on a reopening in their region and seven in the Midwest on Thursday announced a similar alliance.

The restrictions have strangled the U.S. economy to an extent not seen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Another 5.2 million more Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday, lifting total filings for claims over the past month to more than 22 million.

“Really, there’s no comparable event in American economic history,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor recruiting site. “This crisis combines the scale of a national, if not global, downturn with the pace of a natural disaster.”

On Wednesday, Trump said data suggested new cases have peaked and that industry leaders in a round of calls offered him good insights into how to safely restart the economy.

A senior White House official said the guidelines to be released later on Thursday would be backed by medical experts on his coronavirus task force.

“The president’s new guidelines are in fact that. They are recommendations. They are flexible. They are data-driven,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Public health experts and business leaders say that comprehensive testing for the coronavirus is a prerequisite for abandoning stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures to ensure there is no resurgence of infections and in order for people to feel safe.

WHICH STATES?

U.S. cases were nearing 650,000 on Thursday and rose by 30,000 on Wednesday, the biggest increase in five days, according to a Reuters tally. But not all states have been struck equally.

Eighteen states have recorded fewer than 100 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said 19 to 20 states had indicated they could be ready to open as soon as May 1, without naming the states.

North Dakota’s Doug Burgum is the only state governor so far to issue his own guidelines for reopening as soon as May 1.

Even within states, urban areas have been hit harder than rural areas. That divide has inflamed political and social divisions and prompted protests against state leaders who opted to keep residents at home.

In Richmond, Virginia, about 30 people gathered outside the state capitol building on Thursday in defiance of a stay-at-home order that the Democratic governor has instituted until June 10.

“STOP the MADNESS! It’s just a COLD VIRUS! End the shutdown for the GOOD of US all!” read one sign. The state has recorded nearly 7,000 cases and 208 deaths.

Thousands of demonstrators in cars with horns honking thronged the Michigan state capital on Wednesday, some chanting “Lock her up,” to protest against stay-at-home orders imposed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Traffic around the statehouse in Lansing was jammed for hours by the rally, dubbed “Operation Gridlock” and organized by a Republican-aligned group.

Michigan has one of the country’s fastest-growing infection rates for the new coronavirus, with more than 28,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,900 deaths.

Earlier this week, Trump said he had the power to override state governors who did not move to restart activity, but later said he would work with them on their efforts to reopen.

U.S. medical companies and labs have been rushing to expand testing supplies and options, not only to diagnose the virus but also to screen for possible immunity. But months into the crisis, diagnostic tests are still hard to come by. Capacity to process the tests and test accuracy are also issues.

Insurance company Chubb Ltd Chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg, who said he was on one of Trump’s calls, said business leaders were most concerned about how protocols for testing and tracing who has been exposed would work.

“No one knows with any certainty, so we’re all guessing,” he told Fox Business Network, adding that “the quicker we can get the protocols out there so we can… not eliminate, but control the health risks, the better.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Makini Brice in Washington; Jessica Resnick-Ault and Maria Caspani in New York; Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Nathan Layne in Connecticut, Seth Herald in Lansing; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Frank McGurty and Alistair Bell)

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