Americans spent Sunday on lockdown as the U.S. toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic surpassed 21,300 deaths and more than half a million confirmed cases over the Easter weekend.
With almost all the country under stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the disease, many turned to online church services to mark the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
"Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth," Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles wrote to priests and parishioners nationwide, urging them to hold steadfast. "Our churches may be closed but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains."
The United States has recorded more fatalities from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus than any other country in the world. Roughly 2,000 deaths a day were reported for the last four days in a row, the largest number in and around New York City. Even that is viewed as understated, as New York is still figuring out how best to include a surge in deaths at home in its official statistics. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T)
As the death toll has mounted, President Donald Trump mulled over when the country might begin to see a return to normality.
The sweeping restrictions on non-essential movement that were imposed in recent weeks across 42 states have taken a huge toll on commerce and raised questions over how long business closures and travel curbs can be sustained.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks surpassed 16 million.
The Trump administration sees May 1 as a target date for relaxing the stay-at-home restrictions, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, said on Sunday. But he cautioned that it was still too early to say whether that goal would be met.
"We see light at the end of the tunnel," Hahn told ABC's "This Week," adding, "Public safety and the welfare of the American people has to come first. That has to ultimately drive these decisions"
Most states have issued broad stay-at-home orders that prohibit any large gatherings. In some states, that has sparked legal battles over whether there should be exceptions to attend Easter services in person.
On Saturday, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld an executive order barring more than 10 people from gathering for religious and funeral services. The decision, a victory for Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, followed an attempt by a Republican-led legislative body to overturn the order.
Some religious leaders plan to defy coronavirus bans, saying their right to worship outweighed the warnings.
Reverend Tony Spell told Reuters he expected more than 2,000 to congregate for services on Sunday at his evangelical Life Tabernacle megachurch near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr will be monitoring the regulation of religious services, Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupac wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
"While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs," Kupac wrote. "Expect action from DOJ next week!"
In recent days, U.S. public health experts and some governors have pointed to signs that the country is starting to see a turnaround in the fight against the outbreak.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top U.S. infectious disease expert, said he was cautiously optimistic and pointed to the New York metropolitan area, which had its highest daily death toll last week but also saw a decrease in hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and the need to intubate critically ill patients.
"Once you turn that corner, hopefully you'll see a very sharp decline and then you can start thinking about how we can keep it that way," Fauci said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"If all of a sudden we decide 'OK, it's May whatever,' and we just turn the switch on, that could be a real problem."
Fauci and other public health experts say widespread testing will be key to efforts to reopen the economy, including antibody tests to find out who has already had the disease and could be safe to return to work.
The FDA's Hahn said he was concerned that some antibody tests on the market that had not gone through the FDA scientific review process "may not be as accurate as we'd like them to be."
"I can assure the American people that what we're doing is using data and science to look at those tests to make sure that they're valid, they're accurate and they're reproducible," he said.
New government data shows a summer surge in infections if stay-at-home orders are lifted after only 30 days, according to projections first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Department of Homeland Security official.
Christians around the world, meanwhile, celebrated Easter at a distance on Sunday, with most churches closed and family gatherings canceled amid wide-ranging coronavirus shutdowns. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to test positive for the virus, was released from the hospital after a week but is not immediately returning to work.
Southern Europe and the United States, whose death toll of over 20,600 is now the world's highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic. But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting constantly and new concerns are rising in Japan, Turkey and Britain, where the death toll on Sunday surpassed 10,000.
Uncertainties loomed about the months ahead, with a top European Union official suggesting people hold off on making any summer vacation plans.
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis deliver his "Urbi et Orbi” speech and blessing “to the city and the world,” was empty of crowds Sunday, ringed by police barricades. Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely vacant basilica, with the faithful watching on TV at home.
Similar scenes played out around the world. With the Church of England's churches shut, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby — the spiritual leader of 85 million Anglicans worldwide — celebrated the Easter service from his kitchen in London.
In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines and other tactics to keep people from traveling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather. As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily virus infections and deaths, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life to fight off the pandemic.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his compatriots in a rare televised address: “Every one of you has changed his life radically; every one of you has saved human lives in doing so and is saving more every day.”
When and how the restrictions are loosened is something that “all of us have ... in our hands, with our patience and our discipline,” he said.
Some European nations are starting tentative moves to ease their shutdowns. Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return to factories and construction sites Monday.
But much uncertainty remains. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an open letter to Austrians that the virus will “be with us for months yet.”
And asked by Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper whether people should book summer holidays now, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen replied: “I would advise waiting with such plans.”
“No one can make reliable forecasts for July and August at the moment,” she said.
Restaurants and bars have already missed out on holiday business.
“Sales are zero and we have a series of expenses: rent, stock, and we have even had to increase spending with security personnel to prevent robberies,” said Pablo Gonzalo, a bar manager in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.
In his Easter address, the pope called for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic. Francis urged political leaders in particular to give hope and opportunity to the millions laid off work.
“This is not a time for self-centeredness, because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons,” he said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older people and the infirm, it can cause severe symptoms and lead to death.
More than 1.79 million infections have been reported and 110,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
While some nations think about a pandemic exit strategy, others are dealing with alarming rises in infections or deaths.
Turkey took many by surprise in imposing a partial weekend lockdown after previously taking a more relaxed approach. A sudden Friday evening announcement of a 48-hour curfew in 31 cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, prompted crowds to rush to grocery stores.
The country had previously imposed a curfew on those under 20 and over 65, exempting most of the workforce to keep its beleaguered economy on track.
In Japan, emergency medical groups warned that health care facilities are getting stretched thin, and masks and surgical gowns were running short amid a surge in patients.
The Israeli government approved a tight quarantine of several areas of Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, to slow the spread of the virus in its most susceptible neighborhoods.
Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this article.
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