As US virus cases soar, conflict over mitigation efforts


Houston (AFP)

Political divisions deepened in the US Monday over new coronavirus restrictions including the requirement to wear masks, as outbreaks flared and led to long lines at testing sites in southern hot spots Texas and Florida.

With the world-topping US toll surging past 125,000 deaths, and many of the 50 states experiencing alarming rises in new cases, governors have been forced to reimpose lockdowns on businesses like restaurants and bars.

But the government and the White House have been sending mixed messages that have complicated efforts to rein in the pandemic's spread in a country that has now recorded more than 2.5 million confirmed cases.

As President Donald Trump signals his eagerness to move beyond the pandemic, his own health advisor has warned that the country is reaching an inflection point.

"The window is closing for us to take action and get this under control," US Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar told CNN on Sunday.

With Trump refusing to wear a mask, and many of his supporters following suit at recent crowded campaign rallies, pressure has mounted for the administration to publicize a firm strategy for containing COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday advocated the use of masks "wherever social distancing is not possible" or when state or local authorities demand it.

But he also said the administration will "defer to governors," a signal it is not prepared to take a lead role in mandating action.

Pence met in Dallas Sunday with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who days earlier ordered all bars closed in big cities as he acknowledged he re-opened his state too quickly.

"We need to understand that COVID-19 has taken a very swift and very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past few weeks," Abbott said Sunday.

The state's drive-up testing sites are busy. On Monday in front of United Memorial Medical Center in northern Houston, an hours-long line of more than 200 cars snaked through a parking lot.

- Situation 'critical' -

In neighboring Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson said he was "encouraging mask wearing," a step that falls short of the mandatory orders such as the one issued by California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

With confirmed cases spiking in several communities, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee castigated the vice president, saying it was "maddening" for Pence to tell Americans that Trump has taken great strides to combat the virus.

"The situation is critical in many places across the United States, and all the happy talk and wishful thinking in the world is not going to wash that away," Inslee told CBS News on Sunday, as he urged his state's residents to "mask up."

Trump has largely turned away from the crisis. He spent much of Sunday at his golf club in Virginia, and fired off dozens of incendiary tweets, including retweeting a video of a supporter yelling "white power," deleting it hours later following an outcry.

While Trump largely steered clear of COVID-19 issues, his November election rival Joe Biden offered a short, sharp directive to his followers Sunday.

"Wear a mask," he tweeted, along with a photograph of his own covered face.

While Democrats have urged Trump to reissue an emergency declaration on coronavirus, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday the president had "no interest" in doing so.

"The president's always said there will be embers, but he's always said that the cure cannot be worse than the problem," she told Fox News.

In Florida, which recently notched a record 9,585 cases in 24 hours, Governor Ron DeSantis conceded there had been an "explosion" in new cases.

But he suggested he was powerless to stop the spread among "socializing" young people who have poured back to the state's beaches and bars, often without masks.

Miami announced beaches would close over the July 4 holiday weekend and bars are also shuttering.