News Brief: COVID-19 Cases Surge, Economy Struggles, Trump Reelection Bid
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Right now, Florida is flooded with the coronavirus. The state reopened early, but more than 11,000 Floridians tested positive for the virus on Saturday alone.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That's right. And young people have been a major factor here. Many in their 20s and 30s have few, if any, symptoms. And with clubs, bars and restaurants open, they are contributing to this explosion of infections. Right now hospitals across the state of Florida are feeling the impact.
MARTIN: So we've got NPR's Greg Allen with us this morning from Miami. Hi, Greg. Good morning.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: What's going on? I mean, just how bad is the situation there?
ALLEN: Well, you know, while things were getting really bad in the Northeast, Florida stayed relatively flat in terms of the numbers. It took the state three months to register 100,000 cases of the coronavirus, but that was two weeks ago. Since then, the number of cases has doubled. We now have more than 206,000. For medical experts, more troubling than the number of cases, though, is the percentage of people who are testing positive. In Florida, it went from single digits a few weeks ago to around 15% now. Public health experts say that shows that cases are increasing not just because Florida is doing more tests, as some officials have said, but because a rising percentage of people - more and more people are becoming infected.
At some hospitals in the state, ICUs are near capacity or at capacity in some cases. Overall, there is still adequate capacity plus surge capacity - extra beds hospitals can bring online. But at Miami's largest hospital, Jackson Health, the CEO, Carlos Migoya, recently told officials in Miami-Dade County that staffing's the area he's most concerned about.
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CARLOS MIGOYA: In the last 14 days, we have seen our numbers of patients in bed for COVID double.
ALLEN: Yesterday, the hospital had 345 patients who were positive for COVID-19. That's up from 150 last month. Jackson Health and many other hospitals in Florida have now suspended elective procedures for all but urgent or emergency cases.
MARTIN: OK. So what is the governor's plan here? What's his response?
ALLEN: Well, you know, he did roll back a little bit last week. They closed all bars in the state. But he's really resisted taking stronger measures as many people have been calling for since the statewide, you know, face covering mandate. On Monday, here's what he had to say.
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RON DESANTIS: There's no need to be fearful. Let's just focus on the facts we understand what we've got to do as a state. And let's - let's get it done.
ALLEN: What he says he's doing is they're focusing on the most vulnerable people, which are the elderly, especially people in nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. Those people account for more than half of the fatalities in Florida and many other states as well. The state is also requiring some 200,000 workers in those facilities now to be tested for the coronavirus every two weeks. And as for the surge in cases among young people, DeSantis asked everyone just to keep it in perspective.
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DESANTIS: The No. 1 age for cases in Florida is 21. And if you're 21 and you don't have significant comorbidities, your - your fatality rate is pretty much zero.
ALLEN: You know, the governor says he thinks Floridians are listening to the pleas from medical experts and officials that people should behave responsibly and avoid large gatherings. And as for the young people, he says he found it, quote, "comforting" that it's affecting an age group that's less likely to see big consequences - although we should say that the health consequences from COVID-19 are still unknown, the long-term consequences.
MARTIN: So that's the state perspective. What about local governments? How are they responding?
ALLEN: Here in Miami-Dade County, the mayor, Carlos Gimenez, has announced he's closing restaurants' indoor dining. He's also closing Airbnbs - you know, short-term rentals - gyms, fitness centers. And also, they have a late-night curfew. So they're taking steps at the local level.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Allen reporting from Miami. Thank you, Greg.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: So the U.S. economy is caught in this seemingly unbreakable cycle that is directly tied to the pandemic.
GREENE: That's right. A state starts to see the virus recede. Businesses open back up. The economy starts to get better. And then, because people are out and about again, the virus comes back and the economy takes another plunge. Well, analysts from Goldman Sachs are warning that the economic gains from reopening could be in real jeopardy for June and July.
MARTIN: We've got NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley with us this morning. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: We'll start with some good news. Why not? The Nasdaq hit another high yesterday. There was this news, also, that service-oriented businesses are seeing a pickup. What's happening?
HORSLEY: Right. Last week, we learned manufacturing activity had picked up in June after shrinking in March, April and May. And now we know the much larger services sector - that's everything from construction to coffee shops to chiropractors - is also bouncing back. And that June rebound was both faster and stronger than a lot of analysts had expected.
MARTIN: So why are they putting up these caution flags?
HORSLEY: The fear is this comeback could be short circuited by this sharp jump in coronavirus cases that we're seeing in many parts of the country. Economist Tim Quinlan, who is with Wells Fargo Securities, says if that were to happen, then this early June rebound would not look nearly so positive.
TIM QUINLAN: Well, a skeptic might reasonably argue that what's being captured here is the sugar high of a rushed reopening.
HORSLEY: With the typical crash that follows. Some states, as we know, are now pausing or even backtracking in their push to reopen. When the services sector survey was done last month, one respondents said, quote, "the economy seems to be on the road to recovery, but let's not get too complacent." Remember COVID-19 is still a pandemic, and this person said you've got to be really careful and follow all the recommendations religiously if you want to run your business safely in this environment.
MARTIN: So how are businesses - individual businesses, individual consumers - how are they responding to the spike in new infections?
HORSLEY: In hard-hit states, you can already see some decline in people's willingness to go out and spend money. And you can see a resulting drop in demand for workers. What looked like a pretty robust recovery for consumer spending in early June starts to stall out as the virus picks up speed. As a result, as you mentioned, the economists at Goldman Sachs have now lowered their forecast for economic growth in July and August.
MARTIN: Do they have any prescriptions?
HORSLEY: Yeah. The investment bank's chief economist, Jan Hatzius, says we could keep the economy open and still keep a lid on infections if the government would simply order people across the country to wear face masks when they're out in public. Hatzius says that could cut the infection rate by more than 60% without the nearly trillion-dollar price tag of a government lockdown.
JAN HATZIUS: Face masks are very effective in reducing virus spread that would bring down the growth rate of confirmed virus cases significantly and reduce the need for what otherwise would be a significant hit to the economy.
HORSLEY: It's certainly late, but Hatzius says it's not too late for a nationwide mask mandate. And he points to Texas Governor Greg Abbott's about-face on this issue as a sign that, you know, policymakers can make changes here.
MARTIN: But the bottom line being, the economy's not going to get better until the virus has abated. Finally, Scott, I've got to ask you - there are these reports that a lot of big businesses got small business loans as part of the recovery effort for the pandemic. What can you tell us?
HORSLEY: Yeah, the federal government's made more than half a trillion dollars in loans under the Paycheck Protection Program to keep businesses afloat. And yesterday, the Trump administration sort of grudgingly released the names of some of the companies that got bigger loans. And there are some surprises. Companies connected to wealthy people like Kanye West or Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, got loans. There's going to be some second-guessing here. Like other elements of the government's relief program, there's a trade-off between trying to shovel money out the door quickly and being really targeted about where that money goes.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. As the country wrestles with surging outbreaks and economic uncertainty, President Donald Trump is leaning into a culture war.
GREENE: Yeah. Yesterday alone, the president criticized sports teams from Washington, D.C., and Cleveland for considering name changes. He demanded an apology from a Black NASCAR driver who had done nothing wrong. And he said NASCAR's ratings were down because they banned the Confederate flag from their races. Actually, the ratings for NASCAR are up. The president is pretty clear here on where he stands in this national moment of racial reckoning. But how does all this fit into his strategy for reelection in November?
MARTIN: We're going to ask NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So incumbent presidents usually try to broaden their base with a message that attempts to bring more people into their tent. President Trump appears to be doing the opposite.
KEITH: Yeah. President Trump has had a hard time recently articulating an affirmative pitch for his reelection. It basically comes down to a second-term agenda of Make America Great Again again, as Vice President Pence recently said. President Trump had planned to run on the strength of the economy, but the pandemic blew a hole in that. And his handling of the coronavirus response is not polling well either. So he has returned to themes that he used during his first run for office - racial resentment, grievance and really trying to set up this battle for the soul of America, essentially, as one person put it to me, running against other Americans.
MARTIN: You've been talking to some pollsters about this. What are they saying? Is there an appetite out there for this kind of messaging?
KEITH: Well, the problem for President Trump, they say, is that this messaging doesn't match the mood of the moment. I talked to Christine Matthews. She's a Republican pollster who has been critical of President Trump. And she's spent a lot of time in recent years talking to suburban women, doing focus groups with suburban women. And she told me there is no polling to suggest that the president's strategy here is a good idea.
CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: They think somehow that there are suburban women, you know, living in fear of these angry mobs taking down these statues and that's the direction to go. So when the polls don't reflect that, the campaign has decided to say to themselves - well, people are lying to the pollsters.
KEITH: The president calls it the silent majority. In fact, Matthews says suburban women support the Black Lives Matter movement - not all of them, but the majority.
MARTIN: So that's suburban women. I mean, is there any evidence out there about whether the strategy is working for President Trump with any constituency?
KEITH: Well, certainly with some constituency. With his base, it is working. But his base is not enough to reelect him. Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden is way ahead, including in key swing states. The president is set to hold another rally on Saturday in New Hampshire. It will be outdoors, and they are strongly encouraging supporters to wear masks. That's a change from the last one. We'll see if the president recalibrates his messages at all, as well.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith for us this morning. Tamara, thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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