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The nine largest brick-and-mortar retail companies, which the National Retail Federation ranks based on global sales, have adopted new policies to require customers to wear masks inside U.S. stores.

Costco began enforcing masks on May 4, but two months passed before other top retailers followed suit. Walmart, Inc. seemed to have triggered a corporate landslide this week with its announcement on Wednesday that masks would be required in its namesake stores and Sam’s Club locations.

Seven more of the largest brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. announced similar policies within two days: Kroger, CVS Health, Walgreens, Target, Albertsons Companies (which owns Safeway, Tom Thumb, and Acme, among other brands). Lowe’s and Home Depot both announced mask requirements Friday.

Here are some significant developments:

  • The number of new infections reported each day is reaching dizzying new heights. On Friday, the daily U.S. caseload topped 75,000, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
  • Covid-19 deaths in the United States have begun to rise again. In some of the worst-hit states, especially across the South and the West, new death records are being set daily. Public health specialists say the numbers are almost certain to continue to climb.
  • The character assault by some top White House advisers on Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, has produced a chilling effect among the government scientists and public health professionals laboring to end the pandemic.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Friday announced new guidelines that will bar schools in 32 hot-spot counties from reopening in the fall unless they meet strict standards for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday the state’s schools must resume in-person instruction.
  • Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) blasted Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp (R), for suing to stop block her city’s mask ordinance, accusing him of “putting politics over people.”
  • An unpublished report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force suggests that nearly 20 hard-hit states should enact tougher public health measures.
  • President Trump faces rising disapproval and widespread distrust on coronavirus, according to a new Post-ABC poll.
July 17, 2020 at 11:06 PM EDT

Mnuchin suggests Treasury, SBA should forgo verifying how small business loans were spent

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested Friday that the government should consider forgiving all taxpayer-backed small loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program without verifying how the funds were used, a decision that could wipe away debt for millions of small businesses but would also substantially increase the risk of fraud.

The Treasury Department and Small Business Administration are grappling with how to handle millions of applications for loan forgiveness, a process that includes verifying that most of the funds were actually used to pay employees as required under the Cares Act. But Mnuchin seemed to suggest during a congressional hearing Friday that a case-by-case approval process should be waived entirely for loans below a certain threshold.

Read more here.

By Aaron Gregg
July 17, 2020 at 9:50 PM EDT

U.S. reports yet another record high of coronavirus cases

The United States on Friday reported another record for daily coronavirus cases, eclipsing 76,000 confirmed infections, according to Washington Post data tracking.

The country has continued to see records for daily cases in the months of June and July, and surpassed 70,000 new infections for the first time Thursday. The United States also reported 963 new deaths related to the virus Friday — the highest one-day total since June 3.

Texas reached new single-day records for cases (14,916) and deaths related to the virus (174). Ohio also reported 1,679 new cases Friday, an increase of 154 from the state’s previous high on July 10.

Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Arizona — largely considered hot spots for the virus — have reported the most new cases in the past seven days, with Florida in the lead. In 22 states, officials have reported new highs for seven-day averages of daily reported coronavirus infections.

By Michael Brice-Saddler and Jacqueline Dupree
July 17, 2020 at 9:30 PM EDT

Football team’s mask-less gathering linked to 36 cases, Ky. governor says

Thirty-six coronavirus cases in Kentucky have been linked to one football team’s gathering in a weight room without masks, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said in a news conference Friday, describing the cluster as an example of rampant community spread and why face coverings, now mandatory statewide, are necessary.

The infected include 18 players, three coaches and 15 family members, Beshear said. He did not name the team.

The coronavirus’s continued surge in much of the United States has thrown football season into doubt at both the pro and school levels.

“So let’s just take this as another lesson that we’re living in really dangerous times,” Beshear said, pointing to mask-wearing and social distancing as known ways to reduce risk.

The governor also praised the state Supreme Court’s decision, just before the news conference, to keep his virus-related executive orders in effect pending that court’s full review, while slamming the state’s Republican attorney general, who has accused Beshear of overreach. Beshear and the attorney general, Daniel Cameron, had both said a circuit judge was ready to sign an order taking aim at the governor’s authority — voiding existing coronavirus-related orders and preempting future ones, Beshear said.

“Until about an hour, hour and a half ago, we faced a horribly uncertain future where a request had been made to have zero rules,” Beshear said Friday.

Cameron had said the judge’s move would relieve Kentucky businesses and stop an abuse of power.

Beshear lamented the coronavirus situation in Florida, Texas and Arizona, three states that have been making headlines for their rising infections, but also sounded alarms about his own state, which on Friday reported its third-highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in a single day: 531.

The highest one-day total, he said, came on May 5, when many tests of prisoners came back at once.

“We are seeing an escalation in Kentucky,” he warned.

By Hannah Knowles
July 17, 2020 at 9:09 PM EDT

Top health official violated federal contracting rules, HHS inspector general finds

A top Trump administration health official broke federal contracting rules by using more than $5 million in taxpayer money to pay politically connected contractors and subcontractors, according to an inspector general report released Thursday.

Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) within the Department of Health and Human Services, brought in high-paid contractors from June 2017 to April 2019 to provide strategic communications advice to boost her personal profile, spending that was first reported by Politico. The inspector general’s finding details how Verma leveraged personal and political relationships to award personal contracts for work that should have been done by government employees, adding that the agency “paid some questionable costs.”

Read more here.

By Yasmeen Abutaleb
July 17, 2020 at 8:53 PM EDT

Virginia man threatened Tulsa mayor over Trump rally, prosecutors say

A man from Norfolk was arrested Friday and accused of sending dozens of harassing, threatening messages to the mayor of Tulsa for acquiescing to President Trump’s rally in Oklahoma last month.

In the messages sent to G.T. Bynum and his wife, Susan, Adam Donn claimed to be an emergency room doctor in Tulsa and said the mayor was “putting healthcare workers like myself at risk,” according to the papers. In fact, he lives in Norfolk and is not known to have practiced medicine.

In profane emails and voicemails sent in the days leading up to Trump’s rally, prosecutors say, Donn told Bynum that he, his wife and his children all deserved to contract the novel coronavirus. He threatened to post their personal information online and show up at their home, according to prosecutors. He is also accused of sending inappropriate emails to Susan Bynum’s colleagues at her law firm, pretending to be her.

Bynum, a Republican, expressed concern over the June 20 rally and did not attend it, but he did not bar the event despite other local officials urging against hosting it.

An attorney for Donn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

By Rachel Weiner
July 17, 2020 at 8:27 PM EDT

Report: Houston judge rules Texas GOP convention can be held in person

After more than a week of twists and turns, a federal judge ruled Friday that the Republican Party of Texas can hold its convention in-person in Houston, lawyers involved in the decision told news outlets in the state.

Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas ruled that the city of Houston could not interfere and permitted the party to hold an in-person convention this weekend or next, the Houston Chronicle reported. According to the outlet, the judge argued that the city had violated the party’s constitutional rights by canceling it in the first place. The news of the decision comes as coronavirus cases in Texas have continued to soar since June.

Earlier in the month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) pleaded with Republicans in Texas to cancel the convention scheduled for July 16-18, asking them to instead hold a virtual event because it was “not a good idea” to have thousands of people gather in-person.

“If they are going to host an in-person convention they must follow the governor’s guidelines, including wearing a face mask and maintain social distancing,” Turner tweeted July 6. The week before, the state’s GOP voted to hold the convention despite dramatically rising cases in Houston and other areas of Texas.

On Monday, the Republican Party of Texas conceded and agreed to host its convention virtually after losing court battles to hold it in-person, the Associated Press reported at the time. The party had unsuccessfully sued after Turner told city lawyers to terminate the party’s contract to host the event at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston activist Steve Hotze — who assisted in filing the lawsuit — told the Chronicle and the Texas Tribune about Hughes’s decision Thursday.

Woodfill told the Tribune that the Republican Party of Texas joined in on the lawsuit Friday before a hearing on the matter, adding that the party had made a “good faith effort to have a virtual convention,” and were not granted enough time. Technical difficulties caused convention leaders to postpone the event shortly after it began Thursday, according to the Chronicle.

Turner told the Tribune he was reviewing the court’s decision, and the outlet reported it was unclear how the Texas Republicans would move forward after the decision.

Katie Shepherd and Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

By Michael Brice-Saddler
July 17, 2020 at 8:18 PM EDT

Trump says he does not back national mask mandate, supports ‘freedom’

Masks mandates have taken effect in more than half of U.S. states as the country’s top health officials increasingly frame them as key to containing the coronavirus — but President Trump, long a skeptic, affirmed in a Fox News interview he does not favor requiring face coverings nationwide.

“I want people to have a certain freedom,” Trump told Chris Wallace in an interview set to air in full on Sunday.

Wallace asked Trump about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield’s claim earlier this week that the virus could be brought “under control” within four to eight weeks if “we could get everybody to wear a mask right now.”

“I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wore a mask everything disappears,” Trump said, going on to emphasize health officials’ changing recommendations on the use of face coverings over the course of the crisis.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Don’t wear a mask,’ ” Trump said. “All of a sudden everybody’s got to wear a mask.”

He noted that Anthony S. Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-diseases expert, and Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams both said early on that Americans generally did not need to cover their faces in public. At the time, both emphasized the need to reserve scarce personal protective equipment for health-care workers on the front lines.

As new evidence emerged, the CDC in early April recommended that everyone wear simple cloth face coverings while in public when social distancing is not feasible — a call that local leaders, governors and businesses, including the largest retailers, have heeded with new policies. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who chairs the National Governors Association, has said masks should be mandated throughout the country.

But mandates remain controversial: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), for example, has sued Atlanta over its masking rules.

Trump said he’s a “believer in masks” and thinks they are “good,” while also stating — without elaborating in the short clip shared Friday by Fox — that they “cause problems" too.

By Hannah Knowles
July 17, 2020 at 7:44 PM EDT

Top nine U.S. retailers require customers to wear masks inside stores

The nine largest brick-and-mortar retail companies, which the National Retail Federation ranks on the basis of global sales, are requiring customers to wear masks inside their U.S. stores.

Seven of the largest brick-and-mortar retailers in the United States — Kroger, CVS Health, Walgreens, Target, Albertsons Companies (which owns Safeway, Tom Thumb, Acme and other brands), Lowe’s and Home Depot — announced mask mandates Thursday and Friday.

The top retailers’ restrictions come two months after Costco started enforcing a mask mandate on May 4. Walmart Inc. announced earlier this week that masks would be required in its Walmart and Sam’s Club stores.

On Friday, Home Depot revealed its mask mandate, which will take effect Wednesday, spokeswoman Margaret Smith said, with exceptions for small children and shoppers with medical conditions that preclude the wearing of masks.

Retailers often place the responsibility on employees to ensure that customers follow mask mandates. Walmart, Costco and Target have had widely publicized store incidents in which requests for shoppers to wear masks erupted into verbal clashes and even violence.

Mixed messaging from local and state governments, and varying business policies, have politicized mask use despite CDC guidance that suggests masks can help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Home Depot and Lowe’s will post signage at store entrances to remind shoppers to wear masks, and they continue to offer no-contact shopping options, storewide audio reminders and hand sanitizing supplies, as well as maintaining the policy requiring all employees to wear masks. Some employees specifically work to enforce social distancing. The Lowe’s mask mandate will go into effect Monday. The company will offer free masks at the customer service desk, while supplies last, to customers who arrive unequipped.

Here are when the other retailers’ mask mandates go into effect:

  • Walmart: Monday, July 20
  • CVS Health: Monday, July 20
  • Walgreens: Monday, July 20
  • Albertsons: Tuesday, July 21
  • Kroger: Wednesday, July 22
  • Target: Saturday, Aug. 1
By Hannah Denham
July 17, 2020 at 7:07 PM EDT

Nationals decide to play at Nationals Park this season after exploring alternate sites

The Washington Nationals will play this season at Nationals Park after the city approved a tweak to its novel coronavirus regulations for the team. Doubt arose because of D.C.’s strict self-quarantine rules, and the Nationals had explored alternate sites in Fredericksburg, Va., and, as a last resort, their spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla.

But in a letter to the Nationals on Thursday night, Christopher Rodriguez, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, approved reworked guidelines for the team. Rodriguez stated that, in Washington, “close contacts of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 are directed to self-quarantine for 14 days.” The Nationals were unsure whether they could be competitive under that restriction, because contact tracing could force the entire team into self-quarantine in the middle of a 60-game season that starts July 23.

Since the Nationals began training July 3, up to 11 players and one coach have been affected by these regulations. On July 10, the Nationals asked the city for an exception: While their players or coaches are observing the 14-day self-quarantine, they would be allowed to leave home only to go to the ballpark. The Nationals’ proposal otherwise mirrored Major League Baseball’s process for clearing a potentially exposed individual, which includes daily testing.

Read more here.

By Jesse Dougherty, Julie Zauzmer and Dave Sheinin
July 17, 2020 at 6:46 PM EDT

California rules would bar in-person learning in most schools unless infections subside

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Friday announced new guidelines that will bar most schools in California from reopening in the fall unless their counties meet strict standards for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the requirements, counties must stay off the state’s “watch list” for coronavirus outbreaks for at least two weeks before schools can resume in-person classes. Currently, 32 of California’s 58 counties are on the list.

The governor also ordered all public and private schools in the state to mandate that staff and students in the third grade and higher wear masks, and said younger students would be encouraged to do so.

California’s biggest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, had already announced, four days earlier, that they would go online-only this fall — meaning some of the largest districts in the country are bucking rising federal pressure to get kids back inside classrooms. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week urged local officials to resume in-person instruction when possible as a matter of public health.

Newsom agreed Friday that in-person was far better than online — “but only if it can be done safely.”

California has progressively rolled back its reopening over the past few weeks, citing spiking coronavirus cases and increases in the percentage of positive results for people getting tested. Newsom announced July 1 that counties on the watch list, comprising most of the state’s population, would have to halt indoor dining and close bars.

The shutdowns expanded when Newsom said Monday that a ban on indoor operations for restaurants and some other establishments would become statewide. Facilities including gyms, salons and places of worship would have to close in watch list counties posted online, the state ordered.

By Derek Hawkins and Hannah Knowles
July 17, 2020 at 6:15 PM EDT

Refrigerated trucks from FEMA head to Texas for morgue backup amid record infections and deaths

Fourteen refrigerated trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are set to arrive in Texas next week in preparation for a potential strain on morgue capacity due to covid-19, officials said, as the increasingly hard-hit state reported record-high single-day tallies of infections and deaths once again.

Texas already received eight trucks from FEMA in the spring and continues to have those staged around the state in case they are needed, said Texas Division of Emergency Management spokesperson Seth Christensen. The new trailers requested last week will be spread out and are not required in any particular place at this time, he said.

Christensen described the latest round of trucks as proactive: “This is purely a planning and preparedness effort. … I mean, our state is so large that we have to have resources staged around the state so that they’re closer to local officials if a request was to come in that needs to be filled,” he said.

However, local partners have already requested some morgue backup that will be filled with non-FEMA resources already on hand, Christensen said. He could not immediately give details.

Texas often requests these kinds of resources in planning for natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, according to Christensen. Hurricane season is underway — but these trailers are a reflection of the growing toll of covid-19, he said.

Christensen was not sure of the expected trailers’ capacity, and FEMA said it could not immediately respond Friday to inquiries about that and about the number of refrigerated trucks deployed to support mortuaries nationwide.

Texas on Friday reported more than 14,900 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 174 new deaths for the past 24 hours, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. That means the seven-day average for new cases has jumped 168 percent since a week ago, while the average for deaths has shot up 189 percent.

There are 10,457 people currently hospitalized with covid-19 in the state.

Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

By Hannah Knowles
July 17, 2020 at 5:50 PM EDT

Arkansas governor calls new mask policy a ‘local issue,’ as officials push back against enforcement

One day after issuing an order requiring Arkansas residents to wear masks in public, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Friday conceded that it was up to law enforcement to set their priorities for enforcement, as some sheriffs have pledged not to support it.

The statewide mandate calls for an initial warning to people who aren’t wearing a mask, followed by a citation and fine for a second violation, according to Hutchinson.

“We believe this is important from a public health standpoint, it has been adopted national, it’s something that is necessary in Arkansas with the cases that we’ve had,” Hutchinson said. But he also called enforcement of the mandate a “local issue.”

“It’s the county sheriffs, but it’s also just as significantly the city chiefs of police and city police officers that have a role to play — and they will be acting based upon the direction of their mayor, city council and local priorities,” he said. “That’s how we do things.”

On Thursday, after Hutchinson unveiled the new mandate, Polk County Sheriff Scott Sawyer took to Facebook to say his office would not be writing tickets on mask-wearing anytime soon.

“I have neither the time, the personnel or (in my opinion) the right to write tickets to anyone for not wearing a mask,” Sawyer wrote. “I value our individual freedoms and will fight to protect our rights.”

Sawyer’s stance mirrors the ideology of law enforcement leaders across the country who have rebelled against mask mandates, some of whom have called them “unenforceable” and “unconstitutional.” In his statement, Sawyer said he hadn’t talked to all Arkansas sheriffs, “but all the ones that I have spoken to this afternoon are in agreement on the issue.”

Hutchinson also said some legislators had pushed back on the mandate, asserting they “did not like it.” Cases of the novel coronavirus in Arkansas rose dramatically in June, and despite tapering off slightly in recent days, the state still has more than 31,000 cumulative cases.

“That’s what’s beautiful about our country, there’s a lot of different viewpoints out there,” the governor said. “I have to be in the position as governor to make a decision. I made a decision. I know it will be second-guessed.”

By Michael Brice-Saddler
July 17, 2020 at 5:24 PM EDT

Google to ban ads with coronavirus conspiracy theories

Google will ban “dangerous content” and advertisements on websites and apps that clash with scientific consensus during public health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, the company said Friday.

As the numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge in the United States, there have been calls for the Alphabet subsidiary and other digital advertisers to address misinformation that could threaten lives.

Google’s policy update, which will be effective Aug. 18, applies to publishers and advertisers and follows safeguards the world’s largest search engine launched in March in the early days of the pandemic. Conspiracy theories in ads and content that Google will remove with this policy update include claims that the coronavirus is a bioweapon created in a Chinese lab, that Bill Gates created the virus and that the virus is a government hoax.

Google has already removed more than 200 million ads for tactics such as hoarding and price-gouging during medical supply shortages and stopped publishers sharing content with harmful health claims such as miracle cures, anti-vaccine content and misinformation about how the coronavirus is spread.

“There are real-world implications and harm that can be done with some of these conspiracy theories,” Google spokeswoman Christa Muldoon said. “We currently are slowly allowing more advertisements back in.”

In June, Google allowed ads for cloth face coverings and some businesses with new hours as states began to phase reopening. Muldoon added that Google put these protections in place to address misinformation now during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to be prepared in the case of future public health crises.

By Hannah Denham
July 17, 2020 at 4:50 PM EDT

Miami-Dade County hospitals add ICU beds amid case surge

Hospitals in Miami-Dade County are making daily adjustments and adding new intensive care unit beds as the region continues to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases, Mayor Carlos Gimenez (R) said Friday.

Although the county’s hospitals have exceeded their normal ICU capacity and stand at 119 percent full, space remains available because beds can be converted, the mayor said. The challenge is in staffing those units; to do so, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has deployed medical personnel to hospitals in the county. Local officials are talking to the governor about getting more.

“We’re finding that some of the health-care professionals are actually getting sick, and so, they’re losing people that way,” Gimenez said during a news conference. “We need to replace them, we need to augment them so that we can open up more spaces.”

He said he was monitoring hospitalizations to determine whether additional steps are needed. In the past four days, the increase in hospitalizations appears to have plateaued, though officials are watching closely to see whether a spike develops.

Already, the county has imposed a curfew and closed indoor dining areas. And Thursday, the county commission approved an ordinance to make refusal to wear masks or comply with social distancing a civil offense punishable by a civil citation and fine. Previously, violators could face a misdemeanor charge; the new measure “simplifies the process,” Gimenez said.

Officials are waiting to see whether those measures have an impact, he said. “It doesn’t make sense to do a lot of stuff, one right after another,” the mayor said, “because you don’t really know how it worked.”

By Brittany Shammas