US COVID-19 toll passes 50,000 as some states ease restrictions

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Barber shops, nail salons, gyms and a few other businesses reopened in Georgia on Friday as the Republican governor eased a month-long shutdown despite warnings from health experts of a potential new surge of coronavirus infections.

As some customers ventured back to these venues, the confirmed number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States surpassed 50,000, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from government figures. The actual death toll is believed to be far higher.

Even though limited in scope, the reopenings in Georgia and at least two other states marked a symbolic milestone in the debate raging in the United States – and the world — as to how quickly political leaders should lift economically damaging lockdown orders.

With deaths and infections still rising in Georgia, many business owners planned to stay closed despite of Gov. Brian Kemp’s assurance that hospital visits and new cases have leveled off enough for barbers, tattoo artists, massage therapists and personal trainers to return to work with restrictions.

Kemp’s timeline to restart the economy proved too ambitious even for President Donald Trump, who says he disagrees with the fellow Republican’s plan.

On Friday, Trump signed a $484 billion bill to aid employers and hospitals under stress from the pandemic — the latest federal effort to help keep afloat businesses that have had to close or scale down. Over the past five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless aid, or about 1 in 6 U.S. workers.

Without a tried-and-tested action plan for how to pull countries out of coronavirus lockdown, the world is seeing a patchwork of approaches. Schools reopen in one country, stay closed in others; face masks are an obligation here, a simple recommendation there.

Kids still attend soccer practice in Sweden while they are not even allowed outside in Spain. As governments and scientists fumble around, still struggling with so many unknowns, individuals are being left to take potentially life-affecting decisions.

In Georgia, David Huynh had 60 clients booked for appointments at his nail salon in Savannah, but a clothing store, jewelry shop and chocolatier that share a street corner with his downtown business, Envy Nail Bar, remained closed as he opened.

“The phone’s been staying ringing off the hook,” Huynh said. “We’ve probably gotten hundreds of calls in the last hour.”

Four women clutching face masks were waiting outside when the salon opened for the first time since March 26.

“Yes, I am ready to get my nails fixed,” said Alina Davis, a police officer for the local school system, who kept working throughout the crisis.

Meanwhile, Nikki Thomas is overdue for a visit to her hair stylist, but she’s barely ventured outside her house in the six weeks since her employer, an Atlanta advertising company, mandated working from home on March 12. She had no plans to change that now just because of Kemp’s decision.

“It’s obviously extremely stupid and I’m simultaneously exhausted and so angry I can barely see straight,” Thomas, 40, said in a phone interview.

The gradual reopenings come as coronavirus testing continues to lag across the United States. To date, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, just under 4.7 million people have been tested in the country of 330 million people.

A lack of tests and supplies has hampered the U.S. effort from the beginning. About 193,000 people were tested on Thursday. That’s an increase from the two-week daily average of 163,000, but far less than what public health experts estimate is needed to get a handle on the virus.

Researchers at Harvard have estimated a minimum of 500,000 daily tests are needed, and possibly much more, in order to safely reopen the economy.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lengthened her stay-at-home order through May 15, while lifting restrictions so some businesses can reopen and the public can participate in outdoor activities like golf and motorized boating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michigan has nearly 3,000 deaths related to COVID-19, behind only New York and New Jersey among U.S. states.

New York reported its lowest number of daily COVID-19 deaths in weeks on Friday. The state recorded 422 deaths as of the day before — the fewest since March 31, when it recorded 391 deaths. More than 16,000 people have died in the state from the outbreak.

In France, the government is leaving families to decide whether to keep children at home or send them back to class when the nationwide lockdown, in place since March 17, starts to be eased May 11.

In Spain, parents face a similarly knotty decision: whether to let kids get their first fresh air in weeks when the country starts Sunday to ease the total ban on letting them outside. Even then, they will still have to abide by a “1-1-1” rule: no more than one hour per day, within a few minutes walk of their house and with no more than one supervising adult.

The slowing of Spain’s horrific outbreak, which has killed more than 22,500 people, made the prospect of letting kids out feasible. For the first time Friday, Spanish health authorities counted more people recovering from the disease in a 24-hour span than new infections.

Shutdown hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes in Germany placed empty chairs in streets and squares Friday to highlight their economic suffering. The prospect of sipping wine on a Paris sidewalk also is still far off: French authorities announced that restaurants, bars and cafes won’t reopen before June.

The coronavirus has killed more than 190,000 people worldwide, including more than 100,000 in Europe, according to the John Hopkins University tally. New cases are surging in Africa and Latin America as outbreaks subside in some places that were hit earlier.

In Muslim communities, the pandemic is casting a shadow over the holy month of Ramadan — marked by daytime fasting, overnight festivities and communal prayer. Ramadan begins for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims with this week’s new moon. Many Muslim leaders have closed mosques or banned collective evening prayer to ward off infections.

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