Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence said that 16 states are seeing an increase in infections and that the federal government is focused on rising cases in the South.
Texas and Florida have clamped down on bars again in the biggest retreat yet amid a surge across the South and West that sent the number of confirmed new coronavirus infections per day in the US to an all-time high of 40,000 on Friday.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered all bars closed, while Florida banned alcohol consumption at all such establishments. Together the two states joined the small but growing list of those that are either backtracking or putting any further reopenings of their economies on hold because of a comeback by the virus.
Abbott had pursued up to now one of the most aggressive reopening schedules of any state and had not only resisted calls to order the wearing of masks but had also refused until last week to let local governments take such measures.
“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” he said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”
The Florida agency that governs bars acted after the daily number of confirmed cases neared 9,000, a record that was almost double the previous mark set just two days earlier.
Texas, meanwhile, reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. The day’s tally of over 4,700 hospitalisations was also a record.
A number of the hardest-hit states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona and Arkansas, have Republican governors who have resisted mask-wearing requirements and echoed President Donald Trump’s desire to quickly reopen the economy.
US in 'better place'
US Vice President Mike Pence sounded a note of optimism about the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying that 34 states show a measure of stabilising numbers of new cases, but encouraged people to continue social distancing and other strategies to help contain the spread of the virus.
Pence, at the first US coronavirus task force briefing in months, said that 16 states are seeing an increase in infections and that the federal government is focused on rising cases in the South.
"As we see the new cases rising, and we're tracking them very carefully, there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago, that we're in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we're in a much better place," Pence said.
"The truth is we did slow the spread. We did flatten the curve," he added.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed new infections in the US per day soared past the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches in the crisis so far, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The average number of new cases per day has risen about 60 percent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Surges in the South and West
While the increase is believed to reflect, in part, greatly expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the virus is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalisations in parts of the country, especially in the South and West.
Deaths from the coronavirus in the US are down to around 600 per day, compared with about 2,200 in mid-April.
The virus is blamed for 127,000 deaths in the US and 2.5 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins' count. But US health officials said the true number of Americans infected is about 20 million, or almost 10 times higher. Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives, according to Johns Hopkins.
In addition to closing bars again, Abbott scaled back restaurant capacity and shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from the local government. The move came as the number of patients at Texas hospitals statewide more than doubled in two weeks.
On Thursday, Arizona put on hold any further efforts to reopen the economy, with Republican Governor Doug Ducey saying the numbers “continue to go in the wrong direction." Arizona reported over 3,000 additional infections on Thursday, the fourth day in a week with an increase over that mark.
Nevada’s governor ordered the wearing of face masks in public, Las Vegas casinos included.
Little more than a head fake
Already fitful, the situation may become murkier as some localities backtrack on reopening plans, stores re-shutter, and Americans sort themselves into those willing to risk more exposure and those still abiding by health guidelines.
It's a recipe, economists and epidemiologists warn, for a muted recovery that could turn recent good news into little more than a head fake. A recent drop in daily deaths may also prove fleeting. Hospitalisations are increasing in Texas, and health experts warn that the spread of the virus among those at lower risk of serious illness, like young adults, will eventually spill over to those more at risk of serious complications.
"There is an inevitable mixing," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. "You will likely see an uptick in deaths."
And that dynamic could prove poisonous to any economic recovery.
"If you add in the risk-tolerant going maskless to indoor parties, then the virus will be prevalent ... and the risk-averse will still be afraid to go back to shopping," said James Stock, a Harvard University economics professor. "Thus, the recession lengthens and maybe deepens."
Stock, along with other researchers, has proposed ways to balance reopening the economy with measures to control the spread of the virus. Yet there's little sense of national agreement on any sort of system like that, or what happens if Covid-19 begins to spread more uncontrollably.
Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims— US Labor Department (@USDOL) June 25, 2020
Initial claims were 1,480,000 for the week ending 6/20 (-60,000).
Insured unemployment was 19,522,000 for the week ending 6/13 (-767,000).https://t.co/ys7Eg5LKAW
Top economists are struggling with what the recent surge in cases might mean.
Does it show, as Evercore ISI Vice Chairman Krishna Guha recently noted, the fragility of the US market if people are scared to cross state lines? Or, as suggested by St Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, are varying judgments about risk and risk management among different people, firms and regions simply how the recovery will proceed to some new balance?
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, has cautioned against travel to Myrtle Beach, after cases in his state were linked to infections at the popular South Carolina resort, and some quick-to-reopen politicians have changed tack.
Speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic said if significant numbers of people returned to public life without following health rules, it would put the economy "on a different kind of trajectory."
There have been positive surprises. US employment unexpectedly rose in May and retail sales rebounded sharply from a historic collapse.
But that may prove to be a false dawn if states where activity was rebounding more quickly prove to have given the pandemic a new foothold.