NEW YORK (Reuters) – Political leaders and health experts urged Americans celebrating Good Friday and the Easter weekend under threat of the coronavirus to avoid church gatherings and observe the holidays at home as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 18,600.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and other health officials pointed to declining rates of coronavirus hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units – particularly in hard-hit New York state – as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
“Now is no time to back off,” Fauci told CNN on Friday. “The virus will decide” when the country can begin to reopen from state-at-home orders imposed in recent weeks across 42 states, he added.
Those measures have taken a staggering toll on American commerce, with some economists forecasting job losses of up to 20 million by month’s end, raising questions about how long business closures and travel restrictions can be sustained.
The Trump administration renewed talk of quickly reopening the economy after an influential university research model this week lowered its U.S. mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by Aug. 4, from at least 100,000, assuming that social-distancing measures remain in place.
The New York Times cited separate forecasts from the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services projecting the death toll could reach 200,000 if stay-at-home orders are lifted after 30 days.
The United States by far accounts for most of the world’s confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highly contagious lung ailment caused by the novel coronavirus, with at least 500,000 known infections and more than 18,600 deaths. Only Italy has recorded more fatalities.
Prisons and jails, along with nursing homes and other institutions with large populations confined in close quarters, have proven especially vulnerable to outbreaks, with hundreds of infections and several deaths reported among inmates in Illinois, New York and Louisiana.
On Friday, officials said 68 residents and two staff members at a San Francisco homeless shelter had tested positive, marking one of the largest known clusters of coronavirus infections yet in such a facility anywhere in the country.
The outbreak there seemed at odds with promising data presented by California Governor Gavin Newsom showing that social distancing has worked so far to flatten the arc of infections in his state.
New York state, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic with some 7,800 deaths to date, likewise has seen glimmers of hope this week.
After three days of record daily deaths, New York state’s COVID-19 toll from April 9 stood at 777, down from 799 deaths a day earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo reported on Friday. But New York’s ICU admissions declined “for the first time since we started this journey,” he said.
In Michigan, more than 200 people died from COVID-19 in the last day. “We are not out of the woods yet,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said.
At his daily White House briefing, President Donald Trump said he was receiving fewer calls from governors urgently seeking equipment and help.
Meanwhile, with more than 90% of the country under stay-at-home orders, the holiest weekend on the Christian calendar began with services livestreamed or broadcast to congregants watching from home. Many churches sat empty on Good Friday, when they would typically be overflowing with worshipers.
“We gather normally at Easter to worship. We gather for children’s Easter egg hunts, for family meals, with friends. We can’t do any of that this year,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy lamented to reporters.
“I’m really missing the community aspect of being with everyone,” said Rebecca Swindle, a 26-year-old mother of two in central Florida whose church began holding virtual services five weeks ago to help curb coronavirus transmission.
Swindle said she planned to watch a livestream of Good Friday evening prayers – normally “a huge gathering of worshiping God” – and to promote her church’s online Easter service on her Facebook profile.
One megachurch in South Carolina turned to the model of once-popular drive-in movies, presenting services filmed live and shown on a big screen with the audio broadcast over the radio to worshipers in their cars.
A handful of holdout U.S. churches planned to go ahead with in-person Easter Sunday services, saying their rights to worship outweighed public health warnings.
“Satan and a virus will not stop us,” said the Reverend Tony Spell, pastor of the evangelical Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He expects more than 2,000 to gather at his megachurch on Sunday.
Friday also ended another week of missed paychecks for millions of Americans, with restaurants, businesses, entertainment venues and schools shuttered across the nation.
In Los Angeles, some 5,000 families waited at the Forum arena to pick up food in a Good Friday donation drive.
“This is slated to be our biggest distribution to date,” said Michael Flood, head of the LA Regional Food Bank. “It’s continuing to demonstrate just how many families and individuals the current economic conditions have hit.”
At the other end of the food supply chain, a beef production plant in Greeley, Colorado, owned by meatpacking company JBS USA said it would spend more than $1 million for coronavirus testing kits to screen its workers after 36 employees became infected.
Two employees have died of COVID-19, according to the union representing workers at the plant. The company said it was shutting down over the holiday weekend to “further enhance previously announced deep cleaning efforts at the facility.”
New York plans to open coronavirus testing sites in five minority neighborhoods to improve testing in a population that has been hit disproportionately hard. Several U.S. states have reported COVID-19 deaths among blacks and Hispanics far higher than their portion of the population.
African Americans comprise 70% of Louisiana’s coronavirus deaths but only a third of its population, said Governor John Bel Edwards, whose state has reported 755 deaths.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Gabriella Borter, Liz Hampton, Barbara Goldberg and Nick Brown in New York; Rich McKay in Atlanta; Michael Martina in Detroit and Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Bill Berkrot and Steve Gorman; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis