Obama tells graduates the virus shatters the idea that ‘folks in charge know what they’re doing.’
Former President Barack Obama delivered a virtual commencement address on Saturday to thousands of graduates at historically black colleges and universities, telling them “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The speech combined the traditional inspirational advice given to graduates with pointed criticism of the government handling of a public health crisis that has killed more than 88,000 in the United States and crushed much of the economy.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said in an address streamed online. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
It was one of Mr. Obama’s few public addresses to a national audience during the outbreak, and the remarks were billed as a commencement speech for 27,000 students at 78 historically black colleges and universities. But they also appeared to be an effort to comfort and assure an American public divided by the pandemic response led by President Trump.
With the election just months away, Mr. Obama also used the moment to attempt to rally support around values traditionally championed by Democrats such as universal health care, and environmental and economic justice.
And he charged the graduates with helping to shape the post-pandemic world.
“If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he said. “Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore, ‘This is how it’s always been done.’ More than ever, this is your moment — your generation’s world to shape.”
A number of states lifted or relaxed restrictions on business and public life on Friday, joining others that have pushed for a speedy reopening in recent weeks and pushing the total to over two-thirds of the country.
In Maryland, new regulations allow retail stores to open at 50 percent capacity. Churches and other houses of worship were pressed to halve their capacity and offer outdoor services where possible. Salons and barbershops can only take appointments.
In Oregon, retail stores can reopen statewide, so long as they follow distancing guidelines. Thirty-one of the state’s 36 counties were approved for other, limited reopenings. Restaurants and bars can provide dine-in service until 10 p.m. Gyms must follow new social distancing guidelines, limit the size of fitness classes and consider holding classes and activities outdoors.
More states will continue to reopen in the coming weeks. Tennessee, which already allowed restaurants and retail stores in most counties to reopen last month, will allow businesses like theaters and amusement parks to reopen on May 22, with restrictions to limit contact between customers and employees. The new guidelines do not apply to counties that are developing their own plans.
But in testimony before Congress last week, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said that relaxing restrictions too soon could prompt another uncontrollable outbreak.
The number of new coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States has steadily declined in recent days. In New York, the figure has dropped over the past month. The numbers have also plunged in hard-hit Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and some states, including Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska, are reporting few new cases at all.
But that progress is tenuous and uncertain.
Only about 3 percent of the population has been tested. More than 20,000 new cases are identified on most days. And almost every day this past week, more than 1,000 people in the United States died from the virus. The total death toll has surpassed 87,000.
That has left the nation at a perilous moment, beginning to reopen businesses and ease social distancing measures despite the risk of a resurgence.
Investigators uncovered an effort to defraud U.S. unemployment systems.
With states scrambling to pay out unemployment claims to tens of millions of Americans, a vast attack flooding unemployment agencies with fraudulent claims appears to have already siphoned millions of dollars in payments.
Investigators from the Secret Service said they had information implicating a well-organized Nigerian fraud ring, and that stolen information such as social security numbers had allowed the network to file claims on behalf of people who in many cases had not lost their jobs.
Most of the fraudulent claims have so far been concentrated in Washington State, but evidence also pointed to similar attacks in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wyoming.
The challenge of pre-empting fraudulent claims has increased as the pressure to get money into the hands of unemployed workers has grown. Unemployment offices accustomed to dealing with jobless claims in the thousands have been inundated with over a million claims during recent months in more populous states.
The attacks, which the Secret Service warned could conceivably target every state, could result in “potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to a memo obtained by The New York Times.
The discovery has added to concerns that jury-rigged efforts to rapidly dispense economic relief could be easily exploited by fraudsters. The I.R.S. last month documented losses of at least $16.9 billion because of identity theft as it raced to dole out trillions of dollars in economic stimulus checks.
The Food and Drug Administration announced on Saturday that it had granted emergency clearance for another coronavirus test that allows users to check themselves for the virus at home.
The newly approved kits, made by Everlywell and available by prescription only, would allow individuals to take a nasal sample and send it to a laboratory for diagnostic testing.
The agency granted its first approval for an in-home test in April, and has authorized two other tests besides the Everlywell kit to date. One, sold by LabCorp, also uses a nasal swab to collect a sample, which is then sent to a lab. The other, developed by a Rutgers University laboratory, called RUCDR Infinite Biologics, in partnership with Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostic Labs, allows users to collect a saliva sample for analysis.
The agency expressed hope that the availability of another kit would increase access to testing nationally, as well as reduce the risks facing health care workers who mainly administer tests in person. The kits could also provide a safer alternative to drive-through testing centers that companies like CVS and Walmart have set up.
Some public health experts have cautioned that at-home sampling kits still have limitations, including longer delays between the initial test and the diagnostic reporting. Because of the virus’s incubation times, experts have cautioned that the lag could result in some people receiving false negative test results.
As the pace of testing in the United States has picked up, laboratories have also faced shortages of materials needed to conduct the tests and analyze samples.
Recreational activities are, in drips and drabs, returning to New York State.
After two months of lockdown and as new cases continue to fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Saturday that horse racing tracks and the Watkins Glen International auto racing track could reopen in June. But fans will not be able to attend — the events will be televised.
“Great, we can have economic activity without having a crowd, that’s great,” Mr. Cuomo said.
In Warwick, N.Y., cabin fever and movies drew carloads of people to the drive-in theater as it opened for business again.
“There were some power glitches, but it was a very good night,” said Beth Wilson, who owns and manages the drive-in with her husband. “We sold out. People were just so happy to be outside.”
Ms. Wilson had received only four day’s notice that she would be allowed to open on Friday. On Monday, Mr. Cuomo authorized the opening of drive-ins and also cleared the way for other “low-risk” activities like landscaping, gardening and tennis.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that opening New York City’s 14 miles of public beaches was “not in the cards” by Memorial Day weekend, when they have traditionally opened for swimming, and that they would stay closed until officials were confident they could be used without a serious risk of spreading the virus.
The announcement came the same day Mr. Cuomo said that all state-run beaches in New York would be open for swimming by the Memorial Day weekend, with restrictions in place to ensure social distancing.
The governor made his decision in concert with his counterparts in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, who offered similar announcements.
Their brittle unity collapsed as coronavirus deaths exploded in the United States. The White House and the Republican Party tried to shift the focus of ire, blaming China for reacting slowly and covering up crucial information. And China has hit back.
The bitter recriminations have plunged relations between China and the United States to a nadir, with warnings in both countries that the bad blood threatens to draw them into a new kind of Cold War.
The clash is fanning broader tensions on trade, technology, espionage and other fronts — disputes that could intensify as Mr. Trump makes his contest with Beijing a theme of his re-election campaign.
The president has also accused the World Health Organization of being too soft on China over its response to the virus, and froze funding to the organization last month. Mr. Trump said on Saturday that the United States had “not made a final decision” about restoring some funding to the organization. His comments, posted on Twitter, were in response to a Fox News report on Friday that suggested that the White House was considering such a move.
As unemployment in the United States crept higher in April and May, passing 36 million claims this week, the sudden crush of jobless Americans in need of free food has tested the limits of many food banks.
Even as new cases of the coronavirus appear to have ticked downward nationally in recent days, the stress on food banks has persisted, with daunting numbers of people who are thrust into food insecurity forced to use a system that many have not used before.
According to Feeding America, which represents 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across the country, roughly two out of five people visiting food banks in the organization’s network since the outbreak are seeking free food for the first time.
The sudden pressure has only aggravated challenges for food banks in regions already dealing with significant hunger. According to the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves a number of economically stressed areas of the Washington metropolitan area, one of 10 residents were already facing food insecurity before the pandemic. Since March 13, nearly 100,000 people in Washington alone have filed for unemployment.
While some federal efforts to ease hunger have been stepped up during the coronavirus crisis, the overall response has been inconsistent. The Trump administration has been criticized for continuing efforts to enact stricter requirements for claiming food stamps, even as rates of childhood food insecurity have quadrupled, according to some estimates.
The World Health Organization, along with the presidents of Chile and Costa Rica, announced plans on Friday to pool data and intellectual property that could be used to develop drugs and other treatments to stop the coronavirus.
The pool, which the W.H.O. said is scheduled to debut on May 29, is intended to attract other governments and organizations as well, and seemed designed to address the concerns that geopolitical rivalries and nationalism could affect which countries gain access to a vaccine or other promising drugs as they become available.
President Trump insisted on Friday that international cooperation was certain even if another country developed a vaccine before the United States. “Whoever gets it, we think it’s great and we’re going to work with them,” he said.
Behind the scenes, however, efforts to understand the virus have been intensely competitive, and secrets have been jealously guarded.
On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron of France also took to task the head of a French multinational pharmaceutical company after he suggested the U.S. should have priority access to a vaccine because of its investment in research and development.
Since early March, nearly 500 people have died of the virus in New Orleans. Roughly three-quarters of those who died were black.
“In April we did four times what we would normally do in one month,” said Malcolm Gibson, the owner of Professional Funeral Services in New Orleans. “I probably had five husband-and-wife funerals. I’ve never had that.”
The hardest part for Mr. Gibson has been telling families that only 10 people were allowed at funeral services because of state social-distancing restrictions.
“That’s my grandmother!” distraught family members would say to him. “She raised me! You’re telling me I can’t be in the room?”
Many families are waiting to have funeral ceremonies for those they have lost. Some are going forward with burials this weekend, as state restrictions are scheduled to loosen slightly. But packed sanctuaries and crowded repasts are still a long way off.
Normally, a service would last for hours, with large crowds of family and friends singing hymns and telling stories together.
“We are beyond normal,” the Rev. Juan Crockett said. He has lost four of his friends. Two others, he said, were recently told they had a short time left to live.
With baseball and other major sports desperately seeking avenues for a return amid the pandemic, some fans wonder if leagues are conflating their economic stakes with pleas full of emotion and nostalgia.
Are big-time sports actually the healing force so many public officials and sports leaders purport them to be? And do their fleeting thrills provide necessary entertainment right now, justifying the risks posed by large gatherings?
“I don’t think now is the time,” said Pedro Urbaez, a devoted Mets fan who has seen firsthand the peril caused by the pandemic while working at a New York food rescue nonprofit. “We need other things to be healed, if you want to call it that, before we get to baseball.”
Sports could serve as a cue of sorts: In the same way that the N.B.A.’s decision in March to shut down, which made it the first major American sports league to suspend operations, helped awaken the public to the severity of the coronavirus, the resumption of games could serve as a crucial sign of recovery.
But Americans in general have expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of sports returning. An ESPN survey of people who identified themselves as sports fans found that just over half missed watching live competition on TV, and many said games should come back even if — as generally proposed by leagues seeking to play again — fans are forbidden to attend. Yet in a Seton Hall poll conducted last month, 70 percent of respondents said that if social distancing continued in the fall, the N.F.L. should protect the health of its players by not starting the season.
Dr. Brian P. Monahan has been a calm and professional voice of reason during the pandemic, according to interviews with more than two dozen lawmakers, Capitol officials and medical professionals who know him. They say he has taken a personal interest in his influential clientele, which also includes the nine Supreme Court justices, even as he fields politically charged questions about reopening, testing and precautionary measures.
“He is both an executive with lots of health care responsibilities — particularly now — and also has the unique relationship with members that a small-town doctor would have with the patients he knows and sees,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. “He’s in a unique role at a unique time.”
But as government doctors have emerged as trusted public voices and political figures in the face of a fearsome pandemic — appearing in White House news conferences and as witnesses at marquee hearings — Dr. Monahan has maintained an uncommonly low profile.
His approach shows him working to stay out of the political fray, and he is known in the halls of the Capitol as much for his meticulous attention to medical detail as he is for his efforts to stay completely out of politics.
Global updates from Times correspondents.
The virus is upending Saudi Arabia’s big dreams and easy living. Greece opened hundreds of beaches, Amazon reached an agreement to reopen warehouses in France and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity surged in India.
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Edith Duran quickly found herself in a difficult spot as the pandemic crippled the local businesses she counts as clients. She could not draw her full salary in February, and by March, she was seeking relief on her mortgage.
She was allowed to pause her payments for three months starting in April, but the company that handles her mortgage made a seemingly impossible request: Pay back the $4,450 in skipped payments on July 1.
“That is a lot of money to come up with all at once when we are struggling to get things aligned and get our lives back in order,” said Ms. Duran, who owes about $163,000 on her four-bedroom ranch in DeLeon Springs, Fla.
With unemployment soaring, millions of borrowers have flooded mortgage firms with requests to hit the pause button. Federal officials have made it possible for borrowers with government-backed mortgages to suspend their payments for up to a year without immediately paying it back. But about 30 percent of homeowners with mortgages are like Ms. Duran. Their loans are owned by banks or private investors and are not governed by the same rules.
And for them, there has been little in the way of relief.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Julie Bosman, Chris Buckley, Emily Cochrane, John Eligon, Nicholas Fandos, Annie Flanagan, Amy Harmon, Julia Jacobs, Sheila Kaplan, Corey Kilgannon, Zach Montague, Steven Lee Myers, Sarah Maslin Nir, Kwame Opam, Campbell Robertson, Mitch Smith and James Wagner.