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Texas eases virus lockdown despite highest one-day death toll

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Houston (AFP)

Texas on Friday became the largest US state to begin easing coronavirus lockdown measures despite reporting a single-day high in deaths.

Stores, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, museums and libraries were allowed to reopen in the Lone Star State but with limited occupancy -- just 25 percent of their capacity.

Texans will also be allowed to participate in outdoor sports provided no more than four players take part at one time.

But Governor Greg Abbott sounded a note of caution, tweeting that "Texans should continue to practice social distancing" and follow health guidelines.

"Face coverings are not mandatory, but encouraged to protect the lives of individuals at high-risk," he said.

Public swimming pools, bars, gyms, beauty salons, massage establishments, bowling alleys, video games arcades and tattoo parlors remain closed.

More than 28,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Texas, according to the state health authorities, and there have been 782 deaths.

Fifty COVID-19 deaths were reported in the state on Thursday, the most since the outbreak began in mid-March, and 1,000 new cases, the largest single day number since April 10.

The most cases -- over 6,000 -- have been reported in Harris County, the most populous in Texas and home to Houston, the largest city in the state with a population of 2.3 million.

With more than one million confirmed cases, some 63,000 of them fatal, the United States has more infections and deaths than any country in the world.

The number of cases has been on the decline in some of the hardest-hit states such as New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and Florida.

But the daily count of new cases nationwide has been holding steady at 25,000 to 30,000 and the United States recorded more than 2,000 deaths on Thursday for the third day running, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

- Michigan protests -

While Texas began easing its lockdown, one of a number of US states to do so in recent days, stay-at-home orders remain in place in many other states.

And the restrictions have sparked scattered protests, most notably in Michigan, where demonstrators stormed the state legislature on Thursday.

The protestors, some of whom were armed, entered the capitol building in Lansing and demanded the Democratic governor lift lockdown orders.

In a tense standoff, state police wearing masks blocked the demonstrators from storming the floor of the chamber although some reached the public gallery.

"Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us," tweeted Senator Dayna Polehanki along with a photo showing four men, at least one of whom appeared to be carrying a weapon.

"Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them," Polehanki said.

Protesters outside carried signs such as "Free Michigan" and "End the Lockdown." One depicted Governor Gretchen Whitmer as Adolf Hitler.

The demonstration, dubbed the American Patriot Rally, was organized by a group calling itself Michigan United for Liberty and included a number of supporters of President Donald Trump.

The protest came a day after a Michigan court ruled that stay-at-home directives issued by Whitmer on March 24 do not infringe on the constitutional rights of residents of the state, which has more than 41,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,800 deaths.

Following another protest in Michigan earlier this month, Trump appeared to lend his support to the demonstrators by tweeting "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"

On Friday, Trump tweeted that Whitmer should "give a little, and put out the fire."

"These are very good people, but they are angry," Trump said. "They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal."

- 'Doesn't take the weekend off' -

In California, meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom said beaches in some southern parts of the state would be shut from Friday to avoid a repeat of the huge crowds that flocked there last weekend.

"Specific issues on some of those beaches have raised alarm bells," he said, referring to the thousands of people who packed the seafront in Orange County -- notably Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

Newsom urged Californians to heed stay-at-home orders imposed in March to stem the spread of the virus, which he said "doesn't take the weekend off."

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