TOP OF THE HOUR:
— Japan set to lift state of emergency in three prefectures.
— China prepares for country's biggest political meeting of the year.
— Expansion of mail-in voting on hold in Texas.
TOKYO — Japan is preparing to remove a coronavirus state of emergency later Thursday in Osaka and two neighboring prefectures in the west where the infection is deemed slowing, while keeping the measure in place in the Tokyo region and Hokkaido.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, in his opening remark at a government task force meeting, asked experts to evaluate a government plan to lift the measure in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo.
The three are among the eight prefectures still under the emergency status after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the measure last week in all but eight of the 47 Japanese prefectures. Abe declared the state of emergency on April 7 in parts of Japan including Tokyo and later expanded it to nationwide.
Under Japan’s state of emergency which does not enforce lockdowns, many people have followed the social distancing requests but others had to continue commuting, while a sizeable minority continued to dine out or picnicked at parks. More stores, restaurants and bars have started to reopen recently, under new anti-infection guidelines.
Experts are expected to approve the government plan to lift the state of emergency in the three prefectures before endorsement by parliamentary committees and Abe’s formal announcement later Thursday.
BEIJING — China reported two new confirmed cases of coronavirus on Thursday, as the country prepares to hold its biggest political meeting of the year under strict social distancing rules.
One of the new cases was imported and detected in the southern industrial center of Wuhan, while the other was a case of domestic transmission found in the financial hub of Shanghai. No new deaths were reported, leaving China’s total at 4,634 among 82,967 total cases.
Just 84 people remain in treatment, while another 382 were in isolation and being monitored as either suspected cases or for having tested positive while showing no symptoms.
On Friday, China will open the annual session of the National People’s Congress, its ceremonial parliament, which usually brings around 3,000 delegates to Beijing, along with a similar number of members of its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which convenes on Thursday.
Economic issues and health care are expected to dominate the meeting this year, which also comes amid sharpening trade and political frictions with the United States.
Meanwhile, authorities are pressing ahead with an drive to conduct virus tests on all 11 million citizens of the central city of Wuhan, believed to be the epicenter of the global pandemic. More than 2 million people have been tested so far, according to state media citing local health officials, with 71 testing positive but showing no symptoms. The city accounted for more than 50,000 of China’s total cases.
AUSTIN, Texas — A court ruling that paved the way in Texas for a dramatic expansion of mail-in voting over fears of the coronavirus is now on hold.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals voted Wednesday to temporarily put aside any expansion of mail-in voting while the case is under review. The order came less than 24 hours after a federal judge in San Antonio ruled that Texas must give all 16 million registered voters in the state the option of casting a ballot by mail during the pandemic.
The fight in Texas is one of several nationwide over expanding access to mail-in voting during the pandemic. Texas generally limits mail-in ballots to voters 65 or older, or those with a “sickness or physical condition.”
Republican Texas Attorney General Paxton has asserted that fear of getting the virus doesn’t qualify as a disability under the law.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand’s prime minister wants employers to consider switching to a four-day work week as a way to promote tourism, which has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jacinda Ardern said in a Facebook Live video this week that people had learned a lot about flexibility and working from home during the nation’s lockdown, which was eased last week.
New Zealand’s tourism industry had accounted for about 10% of the economy, but has ground to a halt during the outbreak.
The South Pacific nation’s borders remain closed, but Ardern said that as much as 60% of tourism was domestic and that more flexible working arrangements could allow New Zealanders to travel more within their own country.
Ardern said she would encourage employers to think about whether or not a four-day work week is something that would work for their workplace, "because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”
SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea has reported 12 new cases of the coronavirus and one more death, bringing its totals to 11,122 cases and 124 deaths.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said 10 of the new cases came from Seoul and nearby Incheon, where health workers have been scrambling to track and test potential virus carriers following dozens of infections linked to nightspots.
At least 1,191 infections have been linked to passengers arriving from abroad.
South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March, but since managed to stabilize infections with an active test-and-quarantine program, which has so far allowed the country to avoid real lockdowns.
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania is working on guidelines to allow sporting events, exhibitions and leagues, both professional and amateur, to get back to “some semblance of normalcy” after practically everything shut down to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday.
In a conference call with reporters, Wolf said he has been in touch with major professional organizations including NASCAR, the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball and others to figure out how they can resume.
Wolf said he expected that his administration will, in the coming days, produce guidelines for the various venues, sports and activities to resume. But, he said, the ultimate success of the events and leagues will rest on whether people feel safe to attend and participate.
“In the end, the ultimate arbiter of our fate here when it comes to sporting events are going to be individuals who want to participate, individuals who want to be part of sports, whether its amateur or professional,” Wolf said. “And we’ve got to make sure that we give them the confidence to then go to these sporting events and feel safe, that they’re not taking their lives or health into their hands.”
LAS VEGAS -- Nevada gambling regulators are calling casino companies to a health and safety workshop next week aimed at sharpening rules for reopening the state’s shuttered gambling establishments.
With no opening date currently set, the meeting that the Nevada Gaming Control Board scheduled for Tuesday morning could help show when Gov. Steve Sisolak plans to lift his mid-March order that stopped gambling in Nevada and closed casinos to prevent groups from gathering and spreading coronavirus.
A control board statement said regulators are working to determine how reopening will occur, and the governor will determine when.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A member of the Illinois General Assembly was removed from the first gathering in 10 weeks after refusing to wear a face covering.
Republican Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia, 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Chicago, voted “no” on a face-covering rule to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which was adopted 97-12. Bailey said he was speaking for Illinois residents who feel “captive” and “burdened” by state-ordered restrictions on movement.
Bailey, who filed a legal challenge to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, in effect since March 21, represents growing dissent to stay-at-home rules in central and southern parts of the state, which have had far fewer coronavirus infections than Chicago.
Pritzker, who later announced another 147 Illinois deaths related to COVID-19 at his daily briefing, said, “The representative has shown callous disregard for life, callous disregard for people’s health .... The representative has no interest in protecting others.”
HELENA, Mt. -- Armed demonstrators were among a group gathered at the Montana Capitol to protest the state government’s response to the coronavirus.
The Independent Record reported about 60 protesters convened outside the Capitol building in Helena on Wednesday.
Some demonstrators carried guns and others held signs, including many referencing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock enacted travel restrictions and a stay-at-home order March 28 in response to the spread of COVID-19. Bullock lifted the stay-at-home order for individuals April 26 and for many nonessential businesses April 27 as part of a phased reopening plan, while keeping some social distancing requirements in place.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's Tulare County is facing pushback from the state as it pushes the boundaries on reopening beyond what state officials allow.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration told Tulare County officials they could lose out on state and federal disaster funding if they don’t follow the state’s rules. The Central Valley county’s board of supervisors voted Tuesday to allow most businesses and churches to reopen.
More than half the state’s counties have won state approval to reopen things like restaurants for diners and other businesses. Newsom has outlined a four-stage process to ease restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
SAN FRANCISCO — California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond says school districts will make their own decisions about when, and how, to open during this COVID-19 era.
Thurmond said Wednesday he expects most school districts to open as usual in late August or September, but with classes that look radically different to maintain social-distancing standards.
Expected is a mix of in-person and distance learning with fewer children in classes, hallways and other common areas. They will wear masks, as will teachers and staff.
Thurmond plans to hold a virtual meeting Thursday with representatives from 1,000 districts to get an idea of what schools are thinking they’ll have to do to keep students safe and buildings sanitized.
California has 6 million K-12 students.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday unveiled new measures to expand use of chloroquine, the predecessor of an anti-malaria drug promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump as a treatment for COVID-19.
The new guidelines were approved by Gen. Eduardo Pazuello, who became interim Health Minister after his predecessor was fired five days ago. Pazuello had no health experience until he became the ministry’s No. 2 official in April.
Bolsonaro wrote on his official Facebook page that “there is still no scientific evidence, but it is being monitored and used in Brazil and worldwide.”
Health officials say the virus has killed nearly 18,000 Brazilians and infected at least 271,600 people in the South American country.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city, authorities announced a six-day “mega-holiday” in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, after the state’s death toll surpassed 5,000 this week.
MOSCOW — The Russian military has set up a quarantine facility at a Siberian gold mine where hundreds have been infected with the novel coronavirus.
The Olimpiada mine in the town of Yeruda has emerged as a top spot of contagion, with more than 800 workers testing positive for COVID-19.
The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that it has set up a quarantine camp capable of accommodating 2,000 people. Those who get sick will be treated at a nearby field hospital set up by the military, which has sent 77 medics and hundreds of support personnel to the mine to deal with the outbreak.
Russia has ranked second behind the United States in the number of infections, with more than 300,000 coronavirus cases.
MADRID — The regional authority of Madrid is appealing to Spain’s Supreme Court over the Spanish government’s refusal to ease its lockdown.
The Madrid regional government said in a statement Wednesday it believes that technical assessments over what areas can loosen restrictions adopted to stem the new coronavirus outbreak are not being applied in the same way in different parts of the country.
The Madrid region has officially recorded almost 67,000 of the country’s 232,000 COVID-19 cases, making it the hardest-hit area.
The conservative Popular Party, which is the Socialist-led national government’s main opposition, has a controlling majority in the Madrid regional authority.
TORONTO — Canada is recommending that its citizens wear masks if proper social distancing can't be maintained.
Canada’s Chief Public Health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says the use of non-medical masks, or face coverings, is recommended as an added layer of protection when physical distancing of 2 meters (6 feet) is difficult.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s started wearing a mask when he’s out of his home and can’t keep a safe distance from others at all times. He was wearing one when he arrived at Parliament on Wednesday.
Canadian health officials once recommended against the wearing of face masks but adjusted that advice in early April when it became clear the novel coronavirus can be spread by people who aren’t showing symptoms.
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state’s unemployment rate shot up to 15.4% in April and the state’s economy lost 527,000 jobs in the month as a result of the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s the highest jobless rate the state has seen since it started keeping records in the 1970s. The previous record was 12.2% in November 1982, said Paul Turek, an economist for the state’s Employment Security Department.
April’s rate, released Wednesday, is a significant jump from March’s 5.1%, though officials had warned April’s numbers would more truly reflect the widespread closing of restaurants and other businesses, which began in mid-March.
February’s unemployment rate was 3.8%.
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the country won’t be cutting foreign aid due to the coronavirus pandemic, and further relief for poor nations is needed.
Speaking Wednesday after a video meeting with heads of the World Bank, the International Monetary fund and three other global economic bodies, Merkel noted last month’s agreement to freeze poor countries’ debt obligations and said that “as far as the sustainability of debt is concerned further steps need to follow.”
Merkel didn’t spell out whether Germany would go so far as agreeing to debt relief.
CHICAGO — Ford resumed production of the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator on Wednesday morning at its Chicago SUV factory, only to shut down again after running short of seats made at a Lear Corp. factory in nearby Hammond, Indiana.
Lear confirmed that production was suspended after an employee told the company of a positive COVID-19 test.
Ford temporarily halted production at the factory twice on Tuesday after two workers tested positive for the disease, and on Wednesday a worker at the company's pickup truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan, also tested positive for COVID-19, forcing a work stoppage there.
Employees who came in contact with the worker in Dearborn were sent home for 14 days. Production was expected to resume Wednesday night.
The company says all three workers contracted COVID-19 outside the factories, triggering protocols that included sanitizing equipment and isolating employees who came in contact with the affected workers.
The shutdowns on Tuesday came just a day after Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler restarted their U.S. factories after being idle for about two months due to the disease.
GENEVA — The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization says an end to U.S. funding for the U.N. health agency would have a “major implication for delivering essential health services to the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Dr. Michael Ryan was responding to questions from reporters about a letter sent by U.S. President Donald Trump threatening an end to funding from the United States, its biggest donor, unless the agency reforms.
The comments came on a day when a total of 106,000 COVID-19 cases were reported to WHO over a 24-hour period, the most in a single day since the outbreak began.
Ryan said the U.S. funding that reaches the WHO emergencies program was “on the order of $100 million a year” and much of it goes to “humanitarian health operations all over the world, in all sorts of fragile and difficult settings.”
Ryan expressed concern about any such funding cuts and said, if necessary, the agency would have to work with other partners to make sure the money is there.
MILAN — More than two weeks into Phase II of gradual reopening in Italy, the number of reported new coronavirus infections grew by 665 on Wednesday to 227,364, with nearly half in the northern region of Lombardy that has been the epicenter for Italy’s epidemic.
Five regions reported no new cases of COVID-19 and nine regions reported no deaths, according to the civil protection agency.
Deaths in the country rose by 161 to 32,330, the lion’s share in Lombardy, and pressure on hospitals continued to ease, with 400 fewer beds occupied with COVID-19 patients, including 40 in ICUs.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s health minister does not expect a second wave of infections in the country in the coming months, but says his ministry is monitoring the possibility of a risk in September or October.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday following a weekly meeting of the country’s scientific advisory council, Fahrettin Koca said the country is preparing to open to domestic travel next month by introducing a system of certification that will allow passengers with no health issues to travel on planes and trains. The system will also allow health authorities to easily track travelers and anyone they came into to contact with if they fall ill, he said.
The country is also preparing to accept travelers from 31 nations who want to visit Turkey for medical purposes, Koca said.
The announcement came as the number of confirmed infections and deaths in the country continued to drop. Turkey registered 23 COVID-19 deaths and 972 new confirmed cases in the most recent 24-hour period, the first time the number of infections was below 1,000 in two months. The total number of confirmed infections now stands at nearly 153,000 with 4,222 deaths.
ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s long-awaited tourist season will begin on June 15 with the opening of seasonal hotels.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says international flights will begin heading directly to tourist destinations on July 1. In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, Mitsotakis says visitors would be subject to sample coronavirus testing and “our general health protocols will be adhered to.”
The government imposed a lockdown early in Greece’s outbreak, which has been credited with keeping the number of deaths and critically ill people at low levels.
Mitsotakis announced a reduction in consumer taxes on transportation from 24% to 13%, which will lead to cheaper boat, plane and bus tickets during the tourist season. There’s also a cut on tax on coffee, soft drinks and open-air movie theater tickets.
Health authorities announced one death Wednesday and 10 new confirmed coronavirus cases. That brings the total confirmed cases to 2,850 and 166 dead in the country of nearly 11 million people.
MADRID — Spain has registered a fourth consecutive day of fewer than 100 deaths from the coronavirus.
That’s down from more than 900 fatalities a day at the height of its outbreak in early April.
The Spanish Health Minister reported 95 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 Wednesday, taking the overall death toll to 27,888.
The health ministry also reported 416 new infections over the last 24 hours confirmed by laboratory tests. More than 232,000 infections have been confirmed by laboratory tests, and 49,600 Spaniards have tested positive from an antibody test.
Spain is edging toward reactivating its economy, and wearing a face mask is mandatory while outside the home.
BERLIN — Germany hopes to reach agreement with fellow European countries on rolling back travel restrictions in time for the summer holiday season.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says “we hope to be able to lift the worldwide travel warning at least for the European Union after June 14 and replace it with lower level travel advice.”
Maas says countries had gotten “a good bit closer” to that goal with Germany’s nine neighbors and an earlier round of negotiations with 11 other European countries this week.
Maas says Germany wants a “coordinated and transparent process” across the EU that avoids individual countries pressing ahead in a bid for income from tourism when the pandemic isn’t yet defeated.
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