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U.S. considers new ways of working, living as some states ease coronavirus restrictions

Georgia on Monday will start allowing residents to dine inside restaurants or watch a movie at a theatre, as more U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi took steps to ease coronavirus restrictions despite the warnings of health experts.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to reopen some businesses to start reviving their battered economies. Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown at least 26 million Americans out of work.

In Georgia, restaurants and theatres on Monday joined hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, which were allowed to reopen last week with physical distancing restrictions.

One restaurant chain, Waffle House, was imposing seating arrangements in Georgia that will keep patrons at least two metres apart, stricter sanitization measures and a requirement that employees wear masks, CEO Walt Ehmer told WSB-TV.

“I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families,” Ehmer said. “I think it’s going to give them some hope.”

Operating manager Barry Lennon cleans up the table of customer Duke Scott in the empty dining room of the J. Christopher’s restaurant on Monday in Brookhaven, Ga. As of Monday, restaurants around Georgia are allowed to offer dine-in service. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a fresh surge of infections just as physical distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

Meanwhile, the number of known infections in the United States kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Officials in some of the hardest-hit states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have been emphasizing for weeks that more testing and contact tracing for the virus needed to be in place before they could implement road maps for restarting their economies.

Contact tracing involves tracking down and testing people who may have been around anyone already infected.

“Testing is the way forward, and it’s been a long fight just to get the testing,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a briefing on Monday.

He said a new “self-swab” test, which allows patients to administer it to themselves under the supervision of medical personnel, will be available this week at sites run by New York public hospitals.

Protesters demonstrate against safer-at-home orders at the Colorado Capital in Denver on Sunday. Some counties there have implemented stricter measures than the state, which had announced an easing for some businesses starting Monday. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theatres to follow.

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‛Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colo., told Reuters.

Colorado’s experience is not uniform. A few counties, including Denver’s, have stay-at-home orders that extend into May.

In a further step to ramp up supplies to fight the pandemic, Trump planned to meet with American textile industry representatives Monday as clothiers seek to shift their production lines to face masks and other critical items, the White House said.

Companies are aiming “to repurpose their factories from making things like T-shirts into gowns and masks and things like cotton swabs” used for coronavirus testing, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News.

Executive says food supply chain is ‘vulnerable’

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Monday said she hoped Smithfield’s Sioux Falls pork processing plant can reopen soon, a day after U.S. labour regulators urged the meat industry to adopt certain measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus among workers.

“I’m hopeful that we can get it opened as soon as possible,” Noem told Fox News Channel in an interview. “They have some mitigation measures to put in place, but I think in a matter of days it could be opened, as long as everybody continues to work together and get it done.”

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, has shut down several U.S. plants due to a rash of coronavirus cases among employees, raising concerns about the nation’s meat supply and worker safety.

Its cases in Sioux Falls triggered a so-called hot spot of U.S. coronavirus cases. Noem, a Republican, was among the small number of governors who did not issue stay-at-home orders.

WATCH | Clusters of cases also seen in Canadian meat processing plants:

COVID-19 outbreaks at three meat processing plants in Alberta and B.C. have forced the facilities to temporarily close, raising concerns about meat prices and supply.   5:13

On Sunday, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new interim guidelines with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that call for meat industry workers to be at least two metres apart, have their temperatures checked and wear face masks.

Tyson Foods Inc chairman John Tyson, whose company has also had to close some facilities, on Sunday said in an open letter that closures could lead to meat shortages.

“This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable,” he wrote.

NYC mayor reverses course on pedestrian traffic

New York City will close some streets to vehicle traffic, expand sidewalks and create temporary bike lanes to offer New Yorkers more space to stay apart outside as lockdown measures continue, de Blasio said on Monday.

“Over the next month, we will create a minimum of 40 miles [64 kilometres] of open streets. And as the crisis continues, the goal is to get up to 100 miles [160 kilometres],” de Blasio said.

He said the city would focus on streets in and around parks, where officials expect many people to congregate as the weather gets warmer.

The road is empty in front of the MetLife Building and Grand Central Terminal in New York City on April 21. The city said Monday it favours streets near parks as candidates to be open for pedestrian traffic during the pandemic. (Ted Shaffrey/The Associated Press)

The debate comes as cities around the world experiment with ways to gradually ease restrictions without compromising safety.

Several cities, including San Francisco and Denver in the United States, and Milan, Dublin, Budapest and Berlin in Europe, have closed some streets to cars and expanded sidewalks and bicycle lanes to provide more outdoor space.

De Blasio himself in mid-April shot down the idea of closing streets to traffic, saying he did not believe it would work.

Asked about his change of mind on Monday, he said he was reassured after city council proposed community partners to help the New York Police Department keep streets safe.

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