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Global death toll tops 200,000 as some virus lockdowns eased

SAVANNAH, Ga. – As the global death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 200,000 on Saturday, countries took cautious steps toward easing lockdowns imposed amid the pandemic, but fears of a surge in infections made even some outbreak-wounded businesses reluctant to reopen.

The states of Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska started loosening restrictions on businesses despite warnings from experts that such steps might be premature.

Shawn Gingrich, CEO and founder of Lion’s Den Fitness, decided after the Georgia governor’s announcement that his Atlanta gym would remain closed for now.

“We’ve sacrificed so much already,” Gingrich said. “I feel like if we do this too soon, we’ll see a spike in cases and we’re back to square one.”

Others were eager to get back to business, with precautions. Russ Anderson, who owns four tattoo studios in south Georgia, said he “couldn’t get up out of my chair quick enough” when restrictions were lifted. His main shop served 50 or 60 customers Friday when it reopened, with customers and tattoo artists wearing masks, he said.

The worldwide death toll was over 202,000, according to a count by John Hopkins University from government figures. The actual death toll is believed to be far higher.

India reopened neighborhood stores that many of the country’s 1.3 billion people rely on for everything from beverages to mobile phone data cards. But the loosening didn’t apply to hundreds of quarantined towns and other places hit hardest by the outbreak that has killed at least 775 people in the country where many poor live in slums too crowded for social distancing.

Shopping malls also stayed closed nationwide. Still, for owners of small stores, being allowed to open again brought relief.

“This is a good decision,” said Amit Sharma, an architect. “We have to open a few things and let the economy start moving. The poor people should have some source of income. This virus is going to be a long-term problem.”

India also allowed manufacturing and farming to resume in rural areas last week to ease the economic plight of millions left jobless by the March 24 lockdown. The restrictions have allowed people out of their homes only to buy food, medicine or other essentials.

Elsewhere in Asia, authorities reported no new deaths Saturday for the 10th straight day in China, where the virus originated. South Korea reported just 10 fresh cases, the eighth day in a row its daily increase was under 20. There were no new deaths for the second straight day.

Underscoring the unknowns about the virus, the World Health Organization said “there is currently no evidence” that people who have recovered from COVID-19 cannot fall sick again.

Some countries extended or tightened restrictions, confirming a pattern of caution.

Sri Lanka had partially lifted a monthlong daytime curfew in more than two thirds of the country. But it reimposed a 24-hour lockdown countrywide until Monday after a surge of 46 new infections, its highest daily increase.

Norway extended until at least Sept. 1 its ban on events with more than 500 participants.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spaniards will be allowed to leave their homes for short walks and exercise starting May 2 after seven weeks of strict home confinement, though he said “maximum caution will be our guideline.”

“We must be very prudent because there is no manual, no roadmap to follow,” he said.

Kids in Spain will get their first fresh air in weeks when a ban on letting them outside is relaxed starting Sunday. After 44 days indoors, they’ll be allowed out for adult-supervised one-hour excursions but not permitted to play with others.

“I really want to get outside, and Ema does as well,” Madrid resident Eva Novilo said of her 7-year-old daughter. But Novilo predicted “difficult situations” if they see her friends and have to stay apart. “I don’t know if we will be able to maintain control.”

In Italy, where restrictions will be eased May 4, authorities warned against abandoning social distancing practices when millions return to work. Free masks will be distributed to nursing homes, police, public officials and transportation workers. Workers painted blue circles on Rome’s subway platforms to remind commuters to keep their distance.

The country continues to have Europe’s highest death toll, with 26,384. The 415 deaths registered in the 24-hour period that ended Saturday evening was the lowest toll since Italy registered 345 on March 17, but only five fewer than Friday.

Italians celebrated the 75th anniversary of their liberation from occupation forces in World War II by emerging on balconies or rooftops at the same time to sing a folk song linked to resistance fighters.

Britain held off on changes to its lockdown as the virus death toll in hospitals topped 20,000. The figure doesn’t include nursing home deaths, likely to be in the thousands.

France prepared to ease one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns from May 11. The health minister detailed plans to scale up testing to help contain any new flare-ups.

Testing shortages are a problem in Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, which is veering closer to becoming a pandemic hot spot.

Officials in Rio de Janeiro and four other major cities warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or already overwhelmed. In Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon, officials said they have been forced to dig mass graves in a cemetery. Workers have been burying 100 corpses a day — triple the pre-virus average.

Along with Georgia, Oklahoma allowed salons, spas and barbershops to reopen, while Alaska cleared the way for restaurants to resume dine-in service and retail shops and other businesses to open their doors, all with limitations. Some Alaska municipalities chose to keep stricter rules.

Though limited in scope, and subject to social-distancing restrictions, the reopenings marked a symbolic milestone in the debate raging in the United States and beyond about how quickly to ease economically devastating lockdowns.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health, on Saturday stressed a step-wise approach, with restrictions gradually lifted as areas reach certain milestones.

“Any attempt to leapfrog over these almost certainly will result in a rebound, and then we can set ourselves back,” Fauci told an online meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

President Donald Trump skipped conducting a press briefing on the coronavirus response and later tweeted that the near-daily briefings were “not worth the time & effort” because of what he claimed was negative and erroneous media coverage. Trump lashed out at the media two days after using a briefing to muse about the injection of chemical disinfectants, which drew warnings from manufacturers and the nation’s top medical professionals.

A survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Americans overwhelmingly support stay-at-home measures and other efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Texas, where retailers are allowed to sell items for curbside pickup, Allison Scott said most customers of her women’s clothing store in a Dallas shopping mall seem to feel more comfortable having their purchases shipped.

“I want to be open more than anything but I don’t think that society is ready to come out either,” she said.

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This story has been corrected to show that Russ Anderson owns four tattoo studios in south Georgia, not one.

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Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.

Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak