May 15, 2020 / 2:41 PM / 21 days ago

U.S. states reopen in a patchwork underscoring political differences

WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - Less populated areas of New York, Virginia and Maryland took their first steps towards lifting lockdowns on Friday, part of a patchwork approach to the coronavirus underscoring political divisions across the United States.

Construction and manufacturing facilities in five out of 10 New York state regions were given the green light to restart operations on Friday, although Greater New York City, the epicenter of the nation’s crisis, remained under strict limits.

Joe Dundon, whose construction business in Binghamton, New York, was able to start up again on Friday after shutting down in March, said he had a long backlog of kitchen and bathroom remodeling projects and several estimates lined up for Friday.

“We are more than excited to get back to work,” he said.

Pockets of Virginia and Maryland were allowing an array of businesses to reopen, in contrast to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, both of which extended their stay-at-home orders for fear of a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.

The piecemeal approach has largely formed along demographic and political lines. Republican governors generally have pushed to reopen more quickly to jumpstart the crippled economy, especially in more rural areas, while Democratic governors have been more cautious, especially in big cities, citing concerns about public health.

PANDEMIC DIVISIONS

Those divisions were on display in Wisconsin this week after the state’s Supreme Court invalidated the governor’s stay-at-home order, causing confusion as local leaders responded in various ways across the Midwestern state.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wisconsin, decided to keep the city’s stay-at-home order in place until May 26. She said on Friday she was not sure when schools could reopen in Madison, home to the sprawling University of Wisconsin.

“Madison is not an island. What happens when somebody else comes in and reinfects us?” Rhodes-Conway asked on CNN.

The eagerness to ease restrictions reflects the devastating economic toll of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. More than 36 million Americans have submitted unemployment claims since mid-March, and government data on Friday showed that retail sales plunged 16.4% last month, the biggest decline since the government started tracking the series in 1992.

The U.S. House of Representatives was due on Friday to vote on a $3 trillion Democratic bill to shore up the economy, but unlike four previous coronavirus-response bills approved in recent months, this one appeared to have little to no support from Republicans, who control the U.S. Senate.

A British medical journal waded into the U.S. political debate by calling on Americans to put a president in the White House who can deal with public health in a nonpartisan way and blasted the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis.

“Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” The Lancet said in a searing editorial on Friday in a reference to U.S. Inauguration Day.

Having staked his Nov. 3 re-election hopes on a strong economy, Republican President Donald Trump has urged states to reopen despite warnings of health experts, including some on his White House task force, that a premature lifting of lockdowns could spark more virus outbreaks. The presumptive Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, vice president under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.

Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller

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