NEW YORK — Restaurants devastated by the coronavirus outbreak are getting a lifeline from the pandemic relief package that’s awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.

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A server tends to a patron in the outdoor patio of a sushi restaurant in downtown Denver on Dec. 28. Restaurants devastated by the coronavirus outbreak are getting a lifeline from the pandemic relief package awaiting President Biden’s signature. Associated Press/David Zalubowski

The bill that gained final congressional approval Wednesday adds money to the Paycheck Protection Program and provides indirect help to small businesses in general through stimulus payments and unemployment benefits. But restaurants got the biggest share of direct help: $28.6 billion in grants for restaurants whose revenue fell in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

The bill calls for grants equal to the amount of restaurants’ revenue losses, up to a maximum of $10 million per company and $5 million per location. Eligible companies cannot own more than 20 locations, and they can’t be publicly traded. The bill sets aside $5 billion for the smallest restaurants, those whose annual revenue is $500,000 or less.

Industry groups welcomed the grants. The National Restaurant Association, an industry organization, noted that the Senate added $3.6 billion to the $25 billion allocated in the original House bill. While the $28.6 billion in the bill was only about a tenth of the amount of money the industry has lost during the pandemic, the restaurant group sees it as a win.

Restaurants were decimated by the pandemic that led to government-ordered shutdowns and that is still keeping many diners away. As of Dec. 1, over 110,000 U.S. restaurants were closed either temporarily or permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association. That’s 17% of the number of restaurants in business before the pandemic. In January, industrywide revenue was down more than 16% from a year earlier, the group said.

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New U.S. coronavirus cases continue slow decline as experts warn against spring break travel

The seven-day average for new daily coronavirus cases in the United States fell below 58,000 for the first time since mid-October, after weeks in which the steady decline in new infections appeared to have plateaued.

The drop comes as the United States is at an inflection point in the pandemic, where mass vaccination means tens of millions of Americans are being inoculated against the virus but new more transmissible variants are taking root and starting to spread.

Over the past week, an average of 2.15 million vaccine doses was being administered each day, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Nearly 32 million Americans have been fully vaccinated while more than 61 million have received the first shot.

On Tuesday, Monmouth University released new poll data, however, showing that a quarter of Americans say that they will probably never get vaccinated for the virus, including about one-third of Republicans. At the same time, public health experts are warning against moves by some states to loosen restrictions before the virus is tamed. In Texas, the state’s mask mandate ended at midnight Wednesday following a directive from the governor to reopen the economy.

This month, tens of thousands of college students will also begin spring break, which scientists worry could accelerate the spread of new variants, including in popular beach destinations such as Florida. There, local health authorities have recorded 689 cases of a highly contagious variant first discovered in Britain.

In California, at least one university — the University of California at Davis — was offering students small cash grants to persuade them to stay home for the break.

Fauci: U.S. virus shots ramping up toward immunity

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top infectious disease expert says the U.S. could see significant steps toward a return to the pre-pandemic normal, even before the country reaches coronavirus herd immunity.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as President Joe Biden speaks during an event to commemorate the 50 millionth COVID-19 shot. Associated Press/Evan Vucci

Dr. Anthony Fauci says best estimates when enough people are immune to end the outbreak range between 70-85% of the population — a figure expected to be attained by late summer or early fall.

He says as the pace of vaccination ramps up and the most vulnerable to the virus are protected, some government restrictions could be lifted.

Said Fauci: “You don’t have to wait until you get full herd immunity to get a really profound effect on what you can do.”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cautioned only about 10% of the population is fully vaccinated, but her agency anticipated loosening federal guidelines as more people receive shots.

Bubble trouble: Australia and New Zealand find it difficult to reopen travel between the two countries

SYDNEY — Travel bubbles were meant to reopen skies between countries across the Asia-Pacific region that have managed to suppress the virus. The on-again, off-again negotiations between Australia and New Zealand show just how hard that is to do.

The Southern Hemisphere neighbors began discussing a two-way bubble in May. Now, Australian citizens aren’t even allowed to leave their country unless they apply for, and are granted, a special exemption.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said the decision had always been in New Zealand’s hands.

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People walk and cycle at St. Kilda Beach in Melbourne in February as the city relaxed its third lockdown. Erik Anderson/AAP Image via Associated Press

“If the New Zealand government doesn’t wish Australians to visit New Zealand and spend money in Queenstown or Wellington or other parts of the country, that’s a matter for them,” he told reporters. “But if Australians can’t go to Queenstown, I’m hoping they’ll go to Cairns,” he said, referring to a popular tourist city in tropical Queensland state.

New Zealand officials, meanwhile, are concerned Australia has been too quick to suspend a half-bubble in place since October that allows people to fly from New Zealand to Australia without having to quarantine for two weeks. The one-way arrangement has been halted several times after small virus outbreaks, such as one at a high school in Auckland last month.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she is worried that travelers would be stranded if one country suddenly shut its border, although she added that risk “may just be the reality we have to build into the system.” She has also questioned whether commercial airlines can operate in an environment where state-level officials can make snap decisions to close borders for multiple days.

Some 600,000 New Zealanders live in Australia. Allowing quarantine-free travel between the two countries would free up space in managed quarantine for those returning from riskier destinations farther afield.

‘Hoping for a flood’: States prepare for a surge in vaccine supply

Margaret Fisher, a special adviser to New Jersey’s health commissioner, has grown accustomed to saying no – no to people vying for vaccines, no to businesses jockeying to reopen and no to anyone asking for predictions about when this plague might end.

But with more vaccine supply on the way, the pediatric infectious-disease specialist is familiarizing herself with a new word. “We’re hoping for a flood by April, and we will be enthusiastically ready to say, ‘yes,’ ” Fisher said.

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Miriam Palomino, right, received the coronavirus vaccine in Paterson, N.J., on Jan. 21. The first people arrived about 2:30 a.m. for the chance to be vaccinated at one of the few sites that does not require an appointment. Associated Press/Seth Wenig

State and local health officials who have spent months rationing shots are now racing to be ready for a surge in supply – enough for everyone over 18 by the end of May, as President Joe Biden promised last week. They’ve been advised to plan for between 22 and 24 million doses a week by early April, an increase of as much as 50% from current allocations, according to two people familiar with the estimates who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them.

This time, health officials want to avoid the obstacles that hindered the early rollout, as doses sat on shelves, sign-up systems crashed and eligibility rules confounded the public. The challenge is that all three problems persist to a degree, deepening questions about whether they will be able to navigate the next phase of the country’s immunization campaign.

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U.S. failure to lock down magnified impact of coronavirus surges, Fauci says

The U.S. refusal to completely shut down over the course of the pandemic led to an increasingly high baseline of new coronavirus infections, according to top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, a failure he said has allowed the pathogen to mutate and spread.

Fauci, who serves as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that the nation’s “historic negative experience” with the virus was due in part to the fact that the outbreak was never fully tamed through lockdowns — ensuring that each surge in cases grew from an ever-higher starting point.

“If you recall the history, which I painfully have lived through, is that in the very beginning … what we had was a surge in the Northeast which went up and then it came down and never got to a good baseline,” he said in a conversation with Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly. The event was hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The baseline was so high that that magnified the impact of the [next] surge” in the summer, he said. “And now, as we’re coming way down, we are reaching a point where we’re beginning to, if not plateau, but the slope of the deflection is starting to maybe go down a little bit more slowly, which means we might plateau again at an unacceptably high level.”

Fauci praised Australia’s pandemic response, including snap lockdowns that have kept total infections at fewer than 30,000. The country has reported just 909 coronavirus-related deaths.

“When Australia shuts down, they shut down, and they really do get the cases, like, almost to nothing. We’ve never had that in the United States,” Fauci said.

He added that the spread of new, more contagious variants in the United States was the result of allowing the virus to run rampant for months. The United States has recorded more than 29 million cases and over 526,000 deaths.

“A fundamental tenet of virology is that viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate, and the more spread that you have in the community the greater chance you’re going to have of the initiation of and propagation of variants,” he said. “And that’s what we’re seeing in the United States.”

EU to evaluate Johnson & Johnson vaccine

AMSTERDAM — An expert group at the European Medicines Agency will meet Thursday to decide whether the one-dose coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson should be authorized for use across the European Union.

If the shot is given the green light, it would be the fourth licensed COVID-19 vaccine in the 27-country bloc. The Amsterdam-based EU medicines regulator has already approved vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca — but all of those vaccines require two doses.

Health experts hope having another authorized COVID-19 shot might speed the slow pace of immunization across Europe, which has been struggling to get enough supplies and vaccinate the vulnerable.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the J&J vaccine an emergency approval last month; Canada and Bahrain have also licensed the vaccine. A massive study across three continents found the J&J vaccine was 85% effective in protecting against severe illness, hospitalizations and death. That protection remained strong even in countries like South Africa, where variants have been identified.

EU, Britain vaccine spat takes another diplomatic dip

LONDON — Relations between the European Union and recently departed Britain took another diplomatic dip on Wednesday when the EU envoy in London was summoned to explain comments that Britain had issued a vaccine export ban.

The United Kingdom was so irate about Tuesday’s comments from EU Council President Charles Michel that Britain had “imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines,” that it called in the ambassador for a morning meeting.

A British government statement said that it “has not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine. Any references to a UK export ban or any restrictions on vaccines are completely false.”

The spat comes against a background that the COVID-19 vaccination drive in Britain is seen as a huge success while that in the 27-nation bloc has been a major failure. The United Kingdom has given about 35% of its adults a vaccine shot while the EU is further back with 9.5%.

One year ago, WHO declared a pandemic

GENEVA — On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, few could foresee the long road ahead or the many ways in which they would suffer — the deaths and agonies of millions, the ruined economies, the disrupted lives and near-universal loneliness and isolation.

A year later, some are dreaming of a return to normal, thanks to vaccines that seemed to materialize as if by magic. Others live in places where the magic seems to be reserved for wealthier worlds.

At the same time, people are looking back at where they were when they first understood how drastically life would change.

On March 11, 2020, confirmed cases of COVID-19 stood at 125,000, and reported deaths stood at fewer than 5,000. Today, 117 million people are confirmed to have been infected, and according to Johns Hopkins, more than 2.6 million people have died.

On that day, Italy closed shops and restaurants after locking down in the face of 10,000 reported infections. The NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks, filming a movie in Australia, announced he was infected.

On that evening, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, announcing restrictions on travel from Europe that set off a trans-Atlantic scramble. Airports flooded with unmasked crowds in the days that followed. Soon, they were empty.

And that, for much of the world, was just the beginning.

 


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