Israel makes masks in public compulsory as Passover lockdown begins

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government issued orders on Tuesday requiring citizens to wear face masks in public to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus as the country enters a lockdown for the Jewish Passover holiday.

The government also approved a timeline for tightened travel restrictions throughout much of the week-long festival, which begins on Wednesday when Jewish families gather for a meal commemorating the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Israel has introduced the tougher measures in the hope the coronavirus will have been sufficiently contained once the April 8-15 festival is over to begin a gradual easing of restrictions.

But national leaders have made clear a recovery will take time.

“We will return to full routines within a year,” Defence Minister Naftali Bennett told Army Radio on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week urged Israelis to wear masks in public, a measure the government said would become compulsory on Sunday.

Children under six, the mentally disabled or those alone in vehicles or workplaces are exempt. The government said masks could be homemade.

A ban on unnecessary out-of-town travel began on Tuesday evening and will last until Friday morning, effectively preventing large gatherings for Passover.

Food shopping within towns will be forbidden from 3 p.m. Wednesday, a few hours before the meal begins, until the following morning.

The government said the holiday shopping ban would not apply to non-Jewish minorities. Around a fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, mostly Muslims, Druze and Christians.

Israel has more than 9,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. At least 60 people have died.

Ahead of the holiday, Israel’s military distributed some 50 tons of fruit and vegetables to residents of an ultra-Orthodox town that has been hit hard by the coronavirus and was sealed off last week, the military said on Tuesday.

Bnei Brak, a town of some 200,000 near Tel Aviv, was declared a restricted zone on Thursday and police have restricted access.

Around one third of Bnei Brak residents who were tested for the virus were found to have it, Israeli media have reported, citing health ministry data.

Many of the town’s residents are poor and some have heeded rabbis who, distrusting the state, spurned anti-virus measures.

In a broadcast Passover benediction on Tuesday, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sought to reassure the country.

“May the Lord lift the dark and heavy cloud of this pestilence from over us,” he said.

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Swedish government to put forward bill granting it wider powers in pandemic fight

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Swedish government will put forward a bill granting it wider powers to quickly take steps such as closing transport hubs or restaurants if needed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that has infected thousands across the country.

The bill, which was widely expected to be pass parliament in the coming days after several opposition parties voiced their support, primarily cuts the time needed for the minority government to close many public venues.

While parliament can still reverse measures in a subsequent vote, but does not need to be consulted for prior approval.

“Today, we have decided on a bill to give us the tools to be able to act quickly with more measures if needed,” Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin told a news conference after the government had held talks with opposition parties.

“This proposal applies only to actions associated with the coronavirus and for a limited time only.”

Sweden, where nearly 600 COVID-19 patients have died, has taken a more liberal and low-key approach toward fighting the virus than most other European countries, relying primarily on voluntary measures and common sense than outright bans.

While schools, restaurants and most businesses have remained open, the government has banned public gatherings of over 50 people and shut universities, while authorities have also advised those who can to work from home.

The increased powers to impose restrictions without prior approval by parliament would be valid for up to three months.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said that while most measures were not bans he still expected all Swedes to comply.

“The advise from the authorities are not just little hints,” he said. “It is expected that we follow them every day, every minute.”

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Congress presses Trump administration to fix small business relief program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers have urged the Treasury Department to clarify and streamline the government’s small business loan program, after hearing gripes from local businesses.

Several Democrats sent letters to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza on Tuesday, saying businesses and banks were struggling with the program and needed help.

They said some businesses were struggling to understand whether they qualified for the loans, and others found themselves effectively frozen out as banks prioritized applications from existing clients.

“I am concerned that you have been unable to quickly set up the PPP so that these businesses can receive this funding in an expedient and fair manner,” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey said in a letter sent Monday.

“Small businesses…are at grave risk of imminent collapse, and you must act quickly to ensure that they quickly get the help they need. Every lost day matters.”

The complaints from Congress come after a rocky first few days for the program, which has been beset by technical problems and paperwork confusion.

The rush to get the plan off the ground resulted in the government making last-minute changes to the program, which was still being tweaked as loans were processed. On Monday, the Treasury published another document aimed at answering frequent questions about the program.

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The program was intended to quickly distribute $350 billion in relief to small businesses as part of a $2.3 trillion economic relief package. It was launched just one week after that package became law, but the speed has left banks scrambling to process loan applications while borrowers rush to claim a piece of the first-come, first-serve assistance.

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said earlier on Tuesday that $50 billion across roughly 178,000 loans had already been authorized under the program. But many banks have yet to distribute those authorized funds, as they wait on a critical form from the SBA for borrowers to sign, according to industry officials.

Spokespeople for the Treasury Department and SBA did not respond to a request for comment.

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Coronavirus lockdown is nothing new for some Moscow residents

MOSCOW (Reuters) – For some elderly Moscow residents, the coronavirus lockdown has a familiar feel – they lived through something like it during a dramatic Soviet-era smallpox outbreak six decades ago.

That crisis, in 1960, was accompanied by emergency measures that were at times more draconian than this time round.

Moscow’s rail, road and air links with the rest of the country were partially suspended, and anyone who came into contact with an infected person was traced and quarantined.

“Immediately in Moscow a special headquarters was set up, which led the hunt for people who had been exposed,” Victor Zuev, 90, a laboratory worker at the time, told Reuters.

“Thousands of people were isolated … they were taken off trains, brought back from abroad,” said Zuev.

This time round, authorities are also tracing and quarantining people.

Smallpox, vanquished worldwide thanks to a vaccine, is a highly infectious disease with a mortality rate of 30%. The Soviet Union officially eradicated it in 1936, but a traveller brought it back to Moscow from India in the final days of 1959.

Self-isolating at home in Moscow now, Vladimir Petrosyan, son-in-law of the traveller who was patient zero, remembers the smallpox emergency.

Petrosyan, 80 and now a professor of chemistry, spent two months in compulsory isolation after contracting the disease.

He was quarantined in Moscow’s Infectious Diseases Hospital N.2. Today it is one of the city’s few centres where patients with the new coronavirus are isolated and treated.

“It was one enormous hall … beds were lined up one after another,” Petrosyan recalled. The hospital was surrounded by a police cordon.

Some Russians question official coronavirus data now. But back then, with Nikita Khrushchev in charge, there was no information.

“There were no announcements in the press, nor on the radio. As always, the government kept people in the dark,” Vladimir Golyakhovskiy, then a doctor at Moscow’s Botkin hospital, wrote in a 2006 memoir.

“So rumours spread around Moscow, each scarier than the last,” he added.

This time, with the official number of coronavirus cases in Moscow still relatively low compared to other European capitals, at 5,181, rumours of unreported cases have swirled online, prompting authorities to introduce penalties for spreading false information.

And whereas in 1960 life in Moscow continued much as normal, this time mayor Sergei Sobyanin has imposed a strict quarantine, shutting cafes and bars and telling residents to remain at home.

PATIENT ZERO

Smallpox was brought to Moscow in December 1959 by a sole carrier, а renowned painter of Soviet propaganda posters, Alexei Kokorekin. He had contracted it in India after visiting a city where funeral pyres were held, including of people who had died of the disease.

Petrosyan, who later married Kokorekin’s daughter, said he and his wife were at the artist’s bedside when he died that month.

“He was buried in a lead coffin, because they suspected he had some sort of infectious disease, but they did not know what,” Petrosyan recalled.

Petrosyan and Zuev told Reuters that Moscow’s way of dealing with the new coronavirus, focused on isolating patients and suspected carriers, echoed what was done in 1960.

But with one crucial difference: there was a vaccine against smallpox but there is none yet against COVID-19.

Within weeks of Kokorekin’s death, smallpox vaccines were shipped to Moscow from across the Soviet Union.

“The mass vaccination of 7 million who live or work in Moscow … was carried out in one week,” an article in the New York Times archive, from Feb. 3, 1960, reads.

Moscow’s 1960 smallpox outbreak caused three deaths. The capital’s new coronavirus outbreak has, according to official figures, led to 31, a figure that increases daily.

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UK PM Johnson in intensive care, needed oxygen after COVID-19 symptoms worsened

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in intensive care on Tuesday after receiving oxygen support for serious COVID-19 complications while his foreign minister took over the helm of government as the outbreak accelerated.

The upheaval of Johnson’s personal battle with the virus has shaken the government just as the United Kingdom enters what scientists say will be the most deadly phase of the pandemic, which has killed 5,373 people in Britain and 70,000 worldwide.

Johnson, 55, was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital across the River Thames from the House of Commons late on Sunday after suffering persistent coronavirus symptoms, including a high temperature and a cough, for more than 10 days.

But his condition rapidly deteriorated over the next 24 hours, and he was on Monday moved to an intensive care unit, where the most serious cases are treated, in case he needed to be put on a ventilator. He was still conscious, his office said.

“He’s not on a ventilator, no,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told LBC radio on Tuesday. “The prime minister has received some oxygen support and he is kept under, of course, close supervision.”

“The prime minister is in intensive care,” Gove said. “He’s a man of great zest and appetite for life.”

But the absence of Johnson, the first leader of a major power to be hospitalised after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, at such a crucial time raised questions about who was truly in charge of the world’s fifth largest economy.

While Britain has no formal succession plan should a prime minister become incapacitated, Johnson asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, 46, to deputise for him “where necessary,” Downing Street said.

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WHO LEADS?

Raab on Tuesday chaired the government’s COVID-19 emergency response meeting, though ministers refused to say who had ultimate control the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons – a role held by the prime minister.

“There are well developed protocols which are in place,” said Gove, who himself went into self isolation on Tuesday after a family member displayed symptoms.

Before he was rushed to intensive care, Johnson had said that he was in good spirits and Raab had told a news conference that Johnson was still running the government, although Raab also said he had not spoken to him directly since Saturday.

British leaders do not traditionally publicise the results of their medical examinations as some U.S. presidents including Donald Trump have.

Raab, the son of a Czech-born Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1938, takes the helm at a pivotal time. Government scientists see the death toll rising until at least April 12 and Britain must ultimately decide when to lift the lockdown.

“The government’s business will continue,” said Raab, a staunch Brexit supporter who has served as foreign minister for less than a year.

Johnson’s move to intensive care added to the sense of upheaval that the coronavirus crisis has wrought after its spread caused widespread panic, sowed chaos through financial markets and prompted the virtual shutdown of the global economy.

The United Kingdom is in a state of virtual lockdown, a situation due to be reviewed early next week, and some ministers have suggested it might need to be extended because some people were flouting the strict rules.

The pound dipped in Asian trading on news of Johnson’s intensive care treatment but then rallied in London trading. Against the dollar, sterling traded to a high of $1.2349, up 0.9% on the session.

BORIS

Even before coronavirus, Johnson had had a tumultuous year.

He won the top job in July 2019, renegotiated a Brexit deal with the European Union, fought a snap election in December which he won resoundingly and then led the United Kingdom out of the European Union on Jan 31 – promising to seal a Brexit trade deal by the end of this year.

The government has said it is not planning to seek an extension to that deadline in light of the epidemic.

Johnson has faced criticism for initially approving a much more modest response to the novel coronavirus outbreak than other major European leaders, though he then imposed a lockdown as projections showed half a million people could die.

He tested positive for the virus on March 26.

After 10 days of isolation in an apartment at Downing Street, he was admitted to hospital. He was last seen in a video message posted on Twitter on Friday when he looked weary.

Downing Street said repeatedly on Monday that Johnson remained in charge and was reading documents, but the move to intensive care revealed the gravity of his condition.

James Gill, a doctor and a clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School, said the news of Johnson’s admission to intensive care was “worrying” but not completely out of line with other people suffering complications.

“So far we have seen a deterioration in line with other cases of COVID-19 infections,” he said. “Admission to ITU is worrying news, (but) this is not all together uncommon with this disease, and may be looked at from a positive that the PM is getting the very best care that the NHS has to offer.”

U.S. President Donald Trump said all Americans were praying for his recovery, and other world leaders sent messages of support.

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Indonesia grants Jakarta more powers to tackle coronavirus outbreak

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia approved on Tuesday a request by the Jakarta administration to impose further large-scale social restrictions on the capital, the epicentre for novel coronavirus cases in the Southeast Asian country.

President Joko Widodo has focused on combating the spread of the disease through social distancing policies, but has resisted the tough lockdown measures adopted in many countries.

Official data shows the virus has infected 2,491 people in the world’s fourth most populous country and killed 209, though a low level of testing and data showing a spike in funerals in Jakarta indicates the toll could be higher. A large portion of Indonesia’s confirmed cases are in the city region.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto signed a central government order, which was reviewed by Reuters, giving approval for the Jakarta government to impose a range of social restrictions in the city region over the next two weeks, with state agencies helping to implement them.

The restrictions include limiting religious events, defence-related activities, socio-cultural activities, and the closing of schools and workplaces.

Jakarta had already shut schools and enacted some restriction measures after declaring a state of emergency that runs until April 19, but most are voluntary and Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has pushed for a tougher response.

Pandu Riono, a public health expert at the University of Indonesia, said with some of the restrictions already in place “this is just a stamp that makes it look official.”

Governor Baswedan and his representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

There has been friction between the central and local governments on social distancing measures, with some regional leaders attempting to lock down their borders to stem the coronavirus spread.

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Hundreds of thousands of Jakarta residents have left in recent weeks for their home villages to find a safe haven, or after losing their jobs, officials said.

There are also growing fears that the annual exodus of tens of millions of people to homes across the archipelago for the Muslim Ramadan holiday would accelerate the outbreak.

Indonesia said last week it would give cash to poor families to persuade them to stay in Jakarta, but the government has rejected calls for a ban on the “mudik”, as the migration is called locally.

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Fifteen elderly die from coronavirus at single care home in northern Portugal

LISBON (Reuters) – A total of 15 elderly people died from coronavirus at a care home in the Portuguese city of Aveiro, the worst case in a single home since the outbreak hit the southern European nation, the city’s mayor Ribau Esteves said on Monday,

Esteves told local news agency Lusa that 77 other residents and 22 staff members had tested positive last week, and guaranteed all necessary preventive measures were taken, including creating a separate area for those infected.

However Esteves blamed the national health authority DGS, saying it failed to send enough swabs to his municipality. The mayor said there were currently no resources to test residents at other care homes.

“Our hospital has nothing,” Esteves told Portuguese broadcaster RTP.

DGS could not be immediately reached for comment.

Portugal has reported 11,730 confirmed cases of the virus so far, with 311 deaths. Dozens of care homes across the country have already seen many residents and workers affected and several deaths, mainly in the north.

Visits to homes were banned nationwide after Portugal declared a state of emergency on March 18, which was extended on Thursday by 15 days, and health authorities urged homes to come up with their own contingency plans.

Care home workers fear a situation similar to that in neighboring Spain, where soldiers sent to disinfect nursing homes found elderly people dead in their beds.

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Tegna looks into investor claim against Standard General

(Reuters) – Tegna Inc (TGNA.N) said on Monday it was investigating an investor’s claim that the U.S. regional TV station operator should recover trading profits from its largest shareholder, hedge fund Standard General LP.

Hunter & Kmiec, a law firm representing a small Tegna shareholder, wrote to Tegna’s board last week asking it to investigate whether Standard General breached U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules in its trading of Tegna’s stock, according to people familiar with the letter.

Standard General, which is engaged in a proxy contest to replace four of Tegna’s board directors, had disclosed earlier last week it converted about a quarter of its 9.7% stake in the company into swaps. These are derivative contracts that allowed Standard General to cash out on these shares while keeping economic exposure to them. The trades occurred between March 25 and March 31, according to a Standard General regulatory filing.

Hunter & Kmiec partner James Hunter argued in his letter to Tegna that if the swaps that Standard General entered into are settled by Tegna stock rather than cash, the hedge fund would have crossed the SEC’s 10% beneficial ownership threshold, that requires shareholders to forfeit profits from trades occurring within six months of each other.

Swaps that Standard General previously entered into for Tegna shares were also to be settled with more shares, as opposed to cash, according to the hedge fund’s regulatory filings.

This is because the SEC defines beneficial ownership as equity ownership or voting control, and regards shareholders who divest shares following Tegna’s record date of March 25 as still being be able to vote them in the company’s upcoming annual meeting of shareholders on April 30.

Hunter & Kmiec wrote in the letter that after Standard General crossed the 10% beneficial ownership threshold on March 25, any subsequent trading gain can be claimed by Tegna, and gave it 60 days for it to do so. It estimated Standard General’s profit from the trades at $4.84 million. Hunter declined to comment when contacted by email.

“We have received a stockholder demand alleging Section 16 short-swing trading liability by Standard General and are investigating the claim,” Tegna said in a statement.

“All our trading has been fully transparent and on-the-record, as well as in full compliance with all applicable laws. This is simply another attempt by Tegna to distract from the fact that we have expanded our ownership,” Standard General said in a statement. The hedge fund on Friday disclosed it had bought more Tegna shares, raising its stake to about 12%.

The SEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While companies and hedge funds often engage in bitter rows during proxy fights, such a dispute over the trading of shares is rare. Hedge funds are generally mindful not to inadvertently cross the 10% beneficial ownership threshold in a company, because it can severely restrict their ability to trade its stock.

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Factbox: Reaction as UK PM Johnson moved to intensive care

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care on Monday after his coronavirus symptoms worsened and he has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to deputize, Downing Street said.

Below is early reaction to the news:

ROYAL REACTION

Buckingham Palace said Queen Elizabeth had been kept informed by Downing Street.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT

“All my support for Boris Johnson, his family and the British people at this difficult time. I wish him to overcome this ordeal quickly.”

IVANKA TRUMP, ADVISER TO HER FATHER U.S. PRESIDENT TRUMP

“My thoughts and prayers are with Boris Johnson and his family. Godspeed Mr Prime Minister!”

JUSTIN TRUDEAU, CANADIAN PRIME MINSTER

“Sending my best wishes to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a full and speedy recovery. My thoughts are with you and your family right now. Hope to see you back at Number 10 soon.”

MICHEL BARNIER, CHIEF EU BREXIT NEGOTIATOR

“Wishing Boris Johnson all the best and a speedy recovery. My thoughts are with you and your family.”

BRITISH POLITICAL REACTION

KEIR STARMER, LEADER OF UK’S MAIN OPPOSITION LABOUR PARTY

“Terribly sad news. All the country’s thoughts are with the Prime Minister and his family during this incredibly difficult time.”

RISHI SUNAK, BRITISH FINANCE MINISTER

“My thoughts tonight are with Boris Johnson and (his fiancée) Carrie Symonds. I know he’ll be getting the best care possible and will come out of this even stronger.”

DAVID CAMERON, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER

“Thinking of Boris Johnson and his family tonight. Get well soon. You are in great hands and we all want you safe, well and back in 10 Downing Street.”

THERESA MAY, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER

“My thoughts and prayers are with Boris Johnson and his family as he continues to receive treatment in hospital.”

LINDSAY HOYLE, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS

“This is terrible news. I know the thoughts and prayers of everyone across the House are with the Prime Minister and his family right now. We all wish him a speedy recovery.”

LONDON MAYOR SADIQ KHAN

“Praying for the Prime Minister’s swift recovery tonight. Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS has some of the finest medical staff in the world, and he couldn’t be in safer hands.”

NICOLA STURGEON, SCOTLAND’S FIRST MINISTER

“My thoughts are with the PM and his family – sending him every good wish.”

JUSTIN WELBY, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY

“The news that our Prime Minister has been moved to intensive care deepens our compassion for all who are seriously ill and for those caring for them. I invite all people of faith to join me in praying for Boris Johnson and his loved ones.”

EPHRAIM MIRVIS, CHIEF RABBI

“May Almighty God bless our Prime Minister as he battles against Covid-19 in hospital. May he be strengthened and granted a swift and complete recovery, together with all those who continue to suffer at the hands of this terrible virus.”

HARUN KHAN, SECRETARY GENERAL OF MUSLIM COUNCIL OF BRITAIN

“Saddened to hear that our PM Boris Johnson has been taken into intensive care. My thoughts are with him and his loved ones wishing him a speedy recovery. We know he will receive the best care and attention from our world class #NHS.”

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Albania's coronavirus cases drop but fears grow for 'time-bomb' town

TIRANA (Reuters) – Albania urged citizens on Monday to do better at social distancing after a localized rise in infections led the government to call one city a coronavirus time-bomb.

Aware of its lack of intensive care facilities if it were to suffer a surge of cases, and chastened by images of overwhelmed hospitals elsewhere, Albania imposed stringent restrictions on movement and businesses almost immediately after detecting its first two cases on March 9.

Prime Minister Edi Rama on Monday urged the roughly 100,000 citizens of Shkodra to show “iron discipline”, while also announcing a slight easing of restrictions elsewhere.

“Please show extreme care and respect the rules because Shkoder has turned into a wound-up time-bomb,” he said in his daily Facebook message.

The number of new infections in Albania fell on Monday to 16 from 28, for a total of 377 cases, of whom 22 have died.

With a population of around 2.8 million, the Balkan country has also continued to trace the contacts of confirmed cases and those with symptoms, so far conducting 2,571 tests.

But opposition parties have demanded more testing.

Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said another 30,000 kits had been ordered: “Experts chose the strategy of testing. We are applying the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organization) for testing, testing, testing every suspected case.”

She said Albania had joined the WHO’s international Public Health Emergency Solidarity Trial, intended to optimize protocols for treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Rama said that if Albania had not enforced such a tough and rapid lockdown, its number of infections and deaths would be 10 times higher.

He said the government would now allow shopping trips outside the home of 90 minutes a day instead of 60, and let people drive to work as long as they did not carry family members or pensioners, the most vulnerable to the disease.

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