Covid-19 Global News: Texas Mask Mandate, Vaccines and Reopening

Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston last week. Some experts have raised concerns about intensifying the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway.
Credit…Mark Felix for The New York Times

HOUSTON — Orders requiring masks and limiting the occupancy of restaurants and other businesses were lifted across Texas on Wednesday, a move that federal health officials and medical experts said was premature while the state was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses are still allowed to require employees and customers to cover their faces and limit the number of people they allow inside. Cities can choose to keep limits in place in municipal facilities, and masks remain required on federal property.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the changes last week, he argued that he was pushing back against the economic devastation wrought by months of limitations on movement and commerce. In a news conference at a restaurant in Lubbock, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, noted the hindrances for workers and small businesses.

“This must end,” he said. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”

Hours before restrictions were lifted across the state, City officials in Austin announced they planned to defy the governor’s new orders and would continue to impose a citywide mask mandate.

The open defiance puts Austin, the state capitol and Democrat-led city, on yet another likely collision course with the Republican-led state Legislature following years of clashes on a range of issues, from homeless regulations to police funding.

A city council member Greg Casar, who co-sponsored an ordinance last year that authorized the city’s health director to establish Covid-19 public health mandates, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that city officials believe their stance is “legal and it’s right.”

“If the state chooses to sue us, then it’s basically them going out of their way to undermine the health of Texas,” said Mr. Casar. “My hope is that they focus on vaccine distribution rather than messing with Austin and putting more lives at risk.”

It was not immediately clear whether the city can legally enforce its mask mandate, which calls for a fine up to $2,000 if violated. Mr. Abbott, in his decree last week, said no jurisdiction in the state can impose fees or jail time if residents choose to not wear a mask.

But in San Antonio, moments after Mr. Abbott’s announcement, patrons at Barflys removed the plexiglass dividers separating themselves from the bartenders.

At Barflys on Tuesday, an hour before the mask mandate was to expire, Amber Jowers, 32, was the bartender on duty. She welcomed the policy change. From now on, she will no longer wear a mask at work, she said.

“And we’re taking the sign down at midnight,” she added. “We have to get back to normal now.”

Barflys is a softly lit pub with a pool table, dartboard, and a slot machine. Metallica, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Texas Tornados play from the sound system.

On the smokey back patio, Sophie Bojorquez, 47, sat at a table with friends. She is a vaccinated nurse and a self-proclaimed anti-masker.

“I’m happy about the governor’s decision. The masks impeded the herd immunity we need. Now they want to vax so fast,” she said, shaking her head.

The patio bartender, Britt Harasmisz, 24, said that most of her customers didn’t wear a mask even before the mandate ended. And though her employer decided that Barflys would no longer require face covers, she said that she would continue to wear one while working.

“A lot of people have been vaccinated, Governor Abbott was vaccinated, but a lot of us on the front lines have not,” she said. “I’m going to wear a mask everywhere I go.”


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The move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And federal health officials and some experts have raised concerns that the moves, especially repealing the mask mandate, could intensify the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, which includes Houston, has argued that lifting the mask mandate means workers must be the ones to enforce rules in retail establishments and restaurants.

“We know better than to let our guard down simply because a level of government selected an arbitrary date to issue an all-clear,” Ms. Hidalgo, a Democrat and a persistent critic of Mr. Abbott, said in an op-ed column published this week by Time magazine. “I am working to clearly explain to the residents of my county that we will spare ourselves unnecessary death and suffering if we just stick with it for a little bit longer.”

Bert Rossel, 39, stopped in for a drink at Barflys on Tuesday evening. He said he had known the pub’s owner for many years and worked for him at one time. Mr. Rossel is in the insurance business nowadays. He said he believed that the pandemic had been hyped on social media as another distraction, or as he calls it, “the latest hot topic.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Mr. Rossel said. “My B.M.I. is higher than normal. Obese people are more susceptible to corona, but it’s been over a year. I would have gotten it already.”

As the evening advanced, the patrons at Barflys drank beer and downed shots, smoked and gossiped, enjoying each other’s company. No one paid attention when, at midnight, Ms. Jowers pulled the sign from the front door that read, “MASKS REQUIRED UPON ENTRY.”

Rick Rojas, James Dobbins and

United States › United StatesOn March 9 14-day change
New cases 55,832 –14{f13b67734a7459ff15bce07f17c500e58f5449212eae0f7769c5b6fbcf4cc0c4}
New deaths 1,885 –20{f13b67734a7459ff15bce07f17c500e58f5449212eae0f7769c5b6fbcf4cc0c4}

World › WorldOn March 9 14-day change
New cases 413,525 +11{f13b67734a7459ff15bce07f17c500e58f5449212eae0f7769c5b6fbcf4cc0c4}
New deaths 10,062 –10{f13b67734a7459ff15bce07f17c500e58f5449212eae0f7769c5b6fbcf4cc0c4}

U.S. vaccinations ›

Where states are reporting vaccines given




New Jersey Increases Indoor Capacity Limits to 50 Percent

On Wednesday, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey announced that indoor dining, casinos, salons and gyms could open at half capacity starting March 19.

I am pleased to announce that effective next Friday, March 19, the indoor capacities for our restaurants, indoor recreational and amusement businesses, gyms and fitness clubs, and barbershops, salons and other personal care businesses will increase to 50 percent. These businesses have been capped at 35 percent for the past five weeks. Additionally, effective next Friday, same date, we are also announcing changes to our general gathering limits: indoor gatherings that are not religious services or ceremonies, political events, weddings, funerals, memorial services or performances will be capped at 25 individuals. That’s up from 10. And similarly, outdoor gatherings that are not religious services or ceremonies, political events, weddings, funerals or memorial services will be capped at 50 individuals, up from 25. We feel confident in these steps given the data that we’ve been seeing over the past five weeks since the last time we expanded the indoor reality.

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On Wednesday, Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey announced that indoor dining, casinos, salons and gyms could open at half capacity starting March 19.CreditCredit…Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Restaurants in New York City and New Jersey will be able to increase indoor dining to 50 percent of capacity starting March 19, the governors of New York and New Jersey said on Wednesday.

The announcement of the relaxed limits comes as New York and New Jersey continue to lead the nation in new coronavirus cases. The states are both reporting a seven-day average of 37 new virus cases a day for every 100,000 residents, according to a New York Times database.

The change — which will take effect two days after St. Patrick’s Day, traditionally a busy day for restaurants and bars — will bring both places into line with current dining limits in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that his decision to expand dining in New York City was made “in partnership” with Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a fellow Democrat.

“We will continue to follow the science and react accordingly,” Mr. Cuomo said in a news release issued by both governors.

Mr. Cuomo had already announced that capacity limits for restaurants statewide outside New York City could expand on March 19 to 75 percent, from 50 percent.

The new half-capacity limit in New Jersey will also apply to casinos, salons and gyms. In addition, the maximum number of people permitted at private indoor gatherings in New Jersey is also increasing to 25 people from 10. Outdoor gatherings can include 50 people, up from 25.

“We believe that when all factors are weighed, we can make this expansion without leading to undue further stress on our health care system,” Mr. Murphy said.

New Jersey was one of the last states to permit indoor dining to restart, and Mr. Murphy has faced pressure to expand capacity limits.

In New York City, restaurants have been operating with limited indoor capacity for months, including a shut down from December to February when cases started to rise again. Restaurants are currently allowed to serve diners inside at 35 percent capacity, up from 25 percent a few weeks ago.

The New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group, praised the new guidelines, saying they would provide much-needed relief to struggling restaurants.

“While city restaurants may not increase occupancy to 75 percent, like restaurants are safely doing throughout the rest of the state,” Andrew Rigie, the group’s executive director, said on Wednesday, being able to go to 50 percent capacity in the city “is still welcome news to the battered restaurant industry.”

After the announcement on Wednesday, employees at Pizza Moto, a pizzeria between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook in Brooklyn, gathered to discuss what it would mean for the restaurant. Pizza Moto opened for indoor dining for just a few weeks late last year before the shut down in December.

Joe Blissen, the restaurant’s general manager, said that he believed Pizza Moto could safely restart indoor dining at 50 percent capacity because most of the staff would have received their second vaccines by March 19.

“We are just trying to be cautious to make sure everything is nice, clean and safe,” said Mr. Blissen, who got his second shot this week. “It’s reassuring to us that at least our staff will be safe.”

Chris Labropoulos, who works at the Buccaneer Diner in East Elmhurst, Queens, said that an increase to 50 percent would have little impact because few people choose to dine indoors there. He could not recall the last time the diner, which opened in 1976, had reached max capacity under the state’s pandemic guidelines.

“A lot of people don’t come in as it is,” Mr. Labropoulos said, adding that most orders are for delivery or pickup.

In New Jersey, Mr. Murphy last eased restrictions on indoor dining before the Super Bowl, when he raised the limit to 35 percent and ended a 10 p.m. curfew.

Diners must continue to wear masks when not seated at tables, and seating at bars in New Jersey remains prohibited.

“Unlike some states, which are prioritizing, frankly, flat-out politics over public health — Texas and Mississippi come to mind — our mask mandate remains in place,” Mr. Murphy said.

Texas’ mask mandate ended on Wednesday, following Mississippi’s lead, which eliminated its mask rules a week ago over objections from federal health officials, who warned the step was premature.

Over the last week, there were an average of 3,322 new cases of the virus reported each day in New Jersey and 7,177 in New York, fueled in part by the spread of virus variants.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study on Friday that found that counties opening restaurants for on-premises dining — indoors or outdoors — saw a rise in daily infections about six weeks later, and an increase in Covid-19 death rates about two months later.

The study does not prove cause and effect, but the findings square with other research showing that masks prevent infection and that indoor spaces foster the spread of the virus through aerosols, tiny respiratory particles that linger in the air.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland toured a vaccination site in Baltimore in February.
Credit…Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press

Across Maryland on Wednesday, mayors, county executives, business owners and public health officials were parsing Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprise Tuesday announcement that he was loosening statewide Covid restrictions.

The order allows bars, restaurants, churches and gyms to open back up to full capacity starting Friday evening, though with certain social distancing regulations still in place. It also allows larger venues like banquet halls, theaters and sports stadiums to open to the public at 50 percent of capacity. The statewide mask mandate remains in effect.

“With the pace of vaccinations rapidly rising and our health metrics steadily improving, the lifting of these restrictions is a prudent, positive step in the right direction and an important part of our economic recovery,” Mr. Hogan said. He was joined at his announcement by Dr. Robert R. Redfield, a former director the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is now a senior adviser to the governor.

Some business owners applauded the announcement as a sign that they may be able to begin crawling out of an economically punishing year. Public health experts were less welcoming.

“I was shocked, I thought it was a joke,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner.

City and state officials were surprised by the order, but they were particularly taken aback by one part of it, which seemed to say that starting Friday, the ability of local governments to make rules that are more restrictive than the state’s — a flexibility they have had throughout the pandemic — would be “null and void.”

That language seemed to conflict with Mr. Hogan’s remarks at the announcement, when he said that though he discouraged deviations, state law gave local jurisdictions “some powers to take actions that were more restrictive.” The governor’s spokesman said in a tweet that county “emergency powers and authorities” established during the pandemic were unaffected.

County and city officials spent Wednesday reading their local charters and talking with their lawyers about the situation.

In an emailed statement, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski, Jr., said, “leaders across Maryland have been forced to scramble to meet with our legal teams, health officials, and neighboring jurisdictions to understand how this impacts our own executive orders and to determine if and how to use our own local authority moving forward.”

Maryland ranks in the middle of states in the percentage of its people who have been given at least one vaccine dose, and slightly above average in the number of new cases it has been reporting lately relative to its population, according to a New York Times database.

In the early days of the pandemic, Governor Hogan drew bipartisan praise for his aggressive response. He was among the first governors in the country to order schools closed, and he publicly criticized President Trump, a fellow Republican, for leaving states unprepared to deal with the pandemic. “I think a lot of us locally and around the country would have rated him very highly,” Dr. Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner, said.

Her estimation has fallen considerably since then. While she said she was pleased that Mr. Hogan did not lift his statewide mask order, as fellow Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi did last week, she called the broad lifting of capacity restrictions a dangerous gamble.

“It’s really disappointing, because we’ve come so far,” she said. “Why are we letting down our guard down when we’re so close?”




Biden Orders 100 Million More Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Doses

President Biden announced on Wednesday that the government would secure another 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and touted a joint production deal between the company and the pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Today, we’re seeing two health companies, competitors, each with over 130 years of experience, coming together to help write a more hopeful chapter in our battle against Covid-19. During World War II, one of the country’s slogans was, “We are all in this together.” We are all in this together. And the companies took that slogan to heart. For example, one automaker didn’t have the capacity to build enough Jeeps. The competitors stepped in to help. The result is that we’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every American adult by the end of May, months earlier than anyone expected. And today, I’m directing Jeff and my H.H.S. team to produce another 100 million doses and purchase another 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On Saturday, we hit a record of 2.9 million vaccinations in one day in America. And beyond the numbers are the stories. A father says he no longer fears for his daughter when she leaves to go to work at the hospital. The children are now able to hug their grandparents. The vaccines bring hope and healing in so many ways. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of the past year, but we cannot let our guard down now or assume the victory is inevitable. Together, we’re going to get through this pandemic, and usher in a healthier and more hopeful future.”

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President Biden announced on Wednesday that the government would secure another 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and touted a joint production deal between the company and the pharmaceutical giant Merck.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden said on Wednesday that he was directing the federal government to secure an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 single-shot vaccine, a move the White House said could help the country vaccinate children and, if necessary, administer booster doses or reformulate the vaccine to combat emerging variants of the virus.

Mr. Biden made the announcement during an afternoon event at the White House with executives from Johnson & Johnson and the pharmaceutical giant Merck, where he praised them for partnering to ramp up production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — a deal brokered by the White House.

“During World War II, one of the country’s slogans was, ‘We are all in this together,’” Mr. Biden said. “And the companies took that slogan to heart.”

In announcing the agreement between Merck and Johnson & Johnson last week, Mr. Biden said that the United States would now have enough vaccine available by the end of May to vaccinate every American adult — roughly 260 million people. But Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the administration was trying to prepare for unpredictable challenges, from the emergence of dangerous virus variants to manufacturing breakdowns that could disrupt vaccine production.

“We still don’t know which vaccine will be most effective on kids,” she said at the White House’s daily briefing. “We still don’t know the impact of variants, the need for booster shots and these doses can be used for booster shots, as well.” She said the decision to purchase a surplus of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was driven by a desire for “maximum flexibility.”

“It’s a one-shot vaccine,” she said. “It can be stored in the fridge and not a freezer. It’s highly effective as the others are as well against hospitalization and death.”

Mr. Biden said on Wednesday he was directing the White House’s pandemic response team and the Department of Health and Human Services to finalize the supply increase.

The White House had initially intended to hold Wednesday’s event at the Baltimore manufacturing facility of Emergent BioSolutions, another company that partners with Johnson & Johnson to make coronavirus vaccine. But Mr. Biden canceled his trip after The New York Times published an investigation into how Emergent used its Washington connections to gain outsize influence over the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency repository of drugs and medical supplies.

Ms. Psaki has since said that the administration will conduct a comprehensive audit of the stockpile.

Emergent officials did not attend Wednesday’s session. In explaining the change in plans, Ms. Psaki said that the administration thought the White House was a “more appropriate place to have the meeting,” which it is billing as a celebration of what Mr. Biden has called the “historic” partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Merck.

Last August, Johnson & Johnson signed an agreement with the government to deliver 100 million doses of its coronavirus, and in an emailed statement on Wednesday the company said it is “on track to meet that commitment.” The government has the option to purchase additional doses under a subsequent agreement.

The administration says the collaboration with Merck will increase manufacture of the vaccine itself, and will also bolster Johnson & Johnson’s packaging capacity, known in the vaccine industry as “fill-finish” — two big manufacturing bottlenecks that had put the company behind schedule.

Wednesday’s announcement is in keeping with Mr. Biden’s aggressive efforts to acquire as much vaccine supply as possible, as quickly as possible. Before Mr. Biden took office, he pledged to get “100 million shots into the arms” of the American people by his 100th day in office — a timetable that seemed aggressive at the time, but more recently has looked tame. He has been trying to speed it up ever since.

At the time, two vaccines — one made by Moderna and the other by Pfizer-BioNTech — had been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. In January, Mr. Biden said the administration would have enough vaccine to cover every American by the end of summer. Last month, the president announced his administration had secured enough doses from those two companies to have enough to cover every American by the end of July.

The recent addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received emergency authorization in late February, opened a path for the administration to move up the timetable yet again. But Johnson & Johnson and its other partners, including Emergent, were behind schedule, which prompted the administration to reach out to Merck.

Noah Weiland and Annie Karni contributed reporting.

President Biden attended vaccinations at a medical center for veterans in Washington on Monday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

When President Biden pledged last week to amass enough shots by late May to inoculate every American adult, the pronouncement was greeted as a triumphant acceleration of a vaccination campaign that seemed only weeks earlier to be faltering.

And it is true that production of two of the three federally authorized vaccines has sped up in part because of the demands and directives of the new president’s coronavirus team.

But the announcement was also a triumph of another kind: public relations. Because Mr. Biden had tamped down expectations early, the quicker vaccine production timetable conjured an image of a White House running on all cylinders and leaving its predecessor’s efforts in the dust.

A closer look at the ramp-up announced last week offers a more mixed picture, one in which the new administration expanded and bulked up a vaccine production effort whose key elements were in place when Mr. Biden took over for President Donald J. Trump. Both administrations deserve credit, although neither wants to grant much to the other.

The Biden administration has taken two major steps that helped hasten vaccine production in the near term. His aides determined that by invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the federal government could help Pfizer obtain the heavy machinery it needed to expand its Kalamazoo, Mich., plant.

Crucially, Mr. Biden’s top aides drove another vaccine manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, to force a key subcontractor into round-the-clock operations so its vaccine could be bottled faster. That company had fallen behind on the production targets laid out in its federal contract. Only after Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s chief pandemic adviser, and Dr. David Kessler, who oversees the vaccine effort, demanded the company commit more resources did it publicly pledge to meet a crucial deadline in May.

At a White House vaccine “summit” on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Biden will announce that he intends to secure an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine by the end of this year, with the goal of having enough on hand to vaccinate children and, if necessary, administer booster doses or reformulate the vaccine to combat emerging variants of the virus.

At the same time, Mr. Biden benefited hugely from the waves of vaccine production that the Trump administration had set in motion. As both Pfizer and Moderna found their manufacturing footing, they were able to double and triple the outputs from their factories.

Mr. Biden had been in office less than a month when Moderna announced that it could deliver 200 million doses by the end of May, a month earlier than scheduled, simply because it had become faster at production. Pfizer was able to shave off even more time, moving up the timetable to deliver its 200 million doses by a full two months, partly because of newfound efficiencies and partly because it was given credit for six doses per vial instead of five.

All this enabled Mr. Biden to announce that his administration would have enough doses in hand by the end of May to cover all 257 million adults, two months earlier than he had promised just a few weeks earlier.

To Trump administration aides, the new president’s crowing rings off-key.

“They criticize what we did, but they are using our playbook every step of the way,” said Paul Mango, the Trump administration’s deputy chief of staff for health policy and a senior official in the vaccine production effort then known as Operation Warp Speed. He said Mr. Trump’s team oversaw the construction or expansion of nearly two dozen plants involved in vaccine production and invoked the Defense Production Act 18 times to ensure those factories had sufficient supplies.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of production, the Biden White House has pursued a starkly different messaging campaign than Mr. Trump’s: underpromise, and then try to overdeliver. Mr. Trump routinely boasted of imminent achievements, including a vaccine rollout before Election Day, only to fall short.

Carefully calibrated goals “avoid losses,” said David Axelrod, the senior strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. The Biden administration, he added, “must have learned that lesson from watching Trump.”

Katie Rogers contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.

Covid-19 information pamphlets with a mask and disinfectant kit distributed in San Jose, Calif.
Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times

Black and Hispanic communities are confronting vaccine conspiracy theories, rumors and misleading news reports on social media.

The misinformation includes false claims that vaccines can alter DNA or don’t work, and efforts by states to reach out to Black and Hispanic residents have become the basis for new false narratives.

“What might look like, on the surface, as doctors prioritizing communities of color is being read by some people online as ‘Oh, those doctors want us to go first, to be the guinea pigs,’” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories.

Research conducted by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-February showed a striking disparity between racial groups receiving the vaccine in 34 states that reported the data.

State figures vary widely. In Texas, where people who identify as Hispanic make up 42 percent of the population, only 20 percent of the vaccinations had gone to that group. In Mississippi, Black people received 22 percent of vaccinations but make up 38 percent of the population. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the vaccination rate for Black Americans is half that of white people, and the gap for Hispanics is even larger.

The belief that doctors are interested in experimenting on certain communities has deep roots among some groups, Ms. Koltai said. Anti-vaccine activists have drawn on historical examples, including Nazi doctors who ran experiments in concentration camps, and the Baltimore hospital where, 70 years ago, cancer cells were collected from a Black mother of five without her consent.

An experiment conducted in 1943 on nearly 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., is one of the most researched examples of medical mistreatment of the Black community. Over four decades, scientists observed the men, whom they knew were infected with syphilis, but didn’t offer treatments so that they could study the disease’s progression.

Researchers who study disinformation followed mentions of Tuskegee on social media over the last year. The final week of November, when the pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer announced promising results in their final studies on the safety of their Covid-19 vaccines, mentions of Tuskegee climbed to 7,000 a week.

Students waiting to be admitted to PS 189 Bilingual Elementary School in Brooklyn last December.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

New York City’s public schools have seen remarkably low virus transmission compared with the citywide rate of positive test results in the months since the nation’s largest school system reopened for thousands of students, according to a major new peer-reviewed study in the medical journal Pediatrics.

Of over 200,000 people who were tested in city school buildings from October to December, only .4 percent of tests came back positive for the coronavirus. That was during a period when virus cases were spiking in the community.

And even when cases were detected, relatively few close contacts in the school ended up testing positive for the virus during the same period: .5 percent of school-based contacts who quarantined contracted the virus.

“In-person learning in New York City public schools was not associated with increased prevalence or incidence overall of Covid-19 infection compared with the general community,” the study’s authors wrote. The study was led by Dr. Jay Varma, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s senior health adviser.

Still, school-based testing has been random and therefore focused more on identifying asymptomatic cases, while many New Yorkers who got tested outside schools had symptoms or had been exposed to the virus.

Mr. de Blasio reopened classrooms last September, months before many other large districts, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The city closed schools in November as virus cases surged, and has gradually reopened throughout the winter and spring. Still, the vast majority of city school students, roughly 700,000 children, have elected to learn from home for the rest of the school year.

The mayor faced significant criticism for his push to reopen schools, and there was widespread fear among families and educators that it was not yet safe to return to school buildings. But the strict safety measures the city put in place, including required masking, social distancing between students and teachers, and weekly random testing seem to have helped keep positivity rates in schools extremely low, the study said.

“We’ve said that our public school buildings are some of the safest places in New York City — and we’ve got the numbers to back it up,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement on Wednesday.

Los Angeles students inside a Boys & Girls Club in August.
Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers’ union have reached a tentative agreement to restore in-person instruction, clearing the way for a mid-April reopening of some classrooms in one of the last large school districts to bring students back in substantial numbers.

The deal, contingent on teacher vaccinations, extensive health measures and the county’s impending exit from the state’s most restrictive tier of health regulations, was announced on Tuesday evening in a joint statement by the district superintendent, Austin Beutner, and the union president, Cecily Myart-Cruz.

“The right way to reopen schools must include the highest standard of Covid safety in schools, continued reduction of the virus in the communities we serve and access to vaccinations for school staff,” they said. “This agreement achieves that shared set of goals.”

The agreement is subject to approval by the district’s school board and ratification of the union’s membership.

Under the tentative deal, elementary school and high-need students will be brought back in about six weeks, to allow time for returning school employees to be fully vaccinated, according to officials familiar with district negotiations. As middle school and high school teachers become inoculated, those students will then be phased in.

The agreement will not immediately restore instruction to pre-pandemic levels. At most, officials said, it will be a blend of remote and in-person teaching, allowing students to come into school for several hours a week in small, stable cohorts while still taking classes online. The last day of school is June 11, and the district expects to offer summer school as it did last year.

This month, California began immunizing teachers statewide, with Gov. Gavin Newsom setting aside 10 percent of new doses for school employees and channeling 40,000 doses specifically to Los Angeles school employees.

About 38,000 of the district’s 86,000 teachers and other support personnel have been vaccinated, given appointments or waived the privilege, Mr. Beutner said. Most of those have been employed in the district’s preschools and elementary schools.

In the governor’s State of the State address on Tuesday, Mr. Newsom said that “there’s nothing more foundational to an equitable society than getting our kids safely back into classrooms.”

“Look, Jen and I live this as parents of four young children,” Mr. Newsom noted, echoing the pandemic frustrations of many California parents. “Helping them cope with the fatigue of ‘Zoom school.’ The loneliness of missing their friends. Frustrated by emotions they don’t yet fully understand.”

He also noted that the state has committed $6.6 billion for tutoring, summer school, extended school days and mental health programs.

“We can do this,” the governor said. “The science is sound.”

Residents of a nursing home near Paris waiting under observation after receiving their vaccines last month.
Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The European Union exported 25 million doses of vaccines produced in its territory last month to 31 countries around the world, with Britain and Canada the top destinations, just as the bloc saw its own supply cut drastically by pharmaceutical companies, slowing down vaccination efforts and stoking a major political crisis at home.

The European Union — whose 27 nations are home to 450 million people — came under criticism last week, when Italy used an export-control mechanism to block a small shipment of vaccines to Australia. The move was criticized as protectionist and in sharp contrast to the bloc’s mantra of free markets and global solidarity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The issue of vaccine production and exports has also created a bitter dispute between the European Union and Britain, which recently departed the bloc, prompting accusations that Brussels wants to deprive London of doses out of spite, in part because Britain is doing so much better with its rollout.

The tensions culminated in a diplomatic spat on Wednesday, after a top E.U. official accused the United States and Britain of implementing an “export ban” — a charge the British government vehemently denied.

Practically speaking, ban or no ban, Britain is not exporting vaccines authorized for use at home. The country has said that it would be prepared to give excess shots to neighboring Ireland but only after it was done with its own vaccination efforts.

The United States has also been hoarding doses, in part through a wartime mechanism known as the Defense Production Act which permits the federal government greater control over industrial production. President Biden last week promised each adult American at least one vaccine dose would be offered to them by May.

But information made public for the first time, recorded in detailed internal documents seen by The New York Times, shows that the European Union, far from being protectionist, is in fact a vaccine exporting powerhouse.

Of the nearly 25 million total vaccines made in the European Union that were exported from Feb. 1 — when the export mechanism came into force — to March 1, about a third, more than eight million doses, went to Britain.

And while the United States kept doses for itself, the European Union shipped 651,000 vaccines to the country last month, and made vaccines for others across the Atlantic: The country that received the second-largest number of shots made in the European Union was Canada, with more than three million doses last month, while Mexico received nearly 2.5 million.





Chaos in the Streets: Protests Turn Violent in Athens

Around 6,000 people gathered to protest against police violence and officers’ coronavirus lockdown tactics in Athens on Tuesday night. Police said 10 officers were wounded and 16 people were arrested.

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Around 6,000 people gathered to protest against police violence and officers’ coronavirus lockdown tactics in Athens on Tuesday night. Police said 10 officers were wounded and 16 people were arrested.CreditCredit…Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

A protest in Greece turned violent on Tuesday night as anger grew about tactics used by police officers who were enforcing coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

The clashes came on the same day that Greece said it was aiming to open to vacationers in mid-May. Later, the country reported 3,215 new infections, its highest daily tally since mid-November.

The protest on Tuesday was provoked after a video emerged two days earlier seeming to show an officer beating a man with a baton in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni. The man was apparently among several who had expressed objections to officers issuing fines to people in the square. The officer has since been suspended, the police said on Wednesday.

Around 6,000 people gathered in the normally quiet suburb on Tuesday evening to protest against police violence. The demonstration began peacefully but spiraled into violence after about 500 people appeared to pelt officers with firebombs. The police said that 10 officers were wounded, one seriously after he was dragged off a motorcycle and set upon. Sixteen people were arrested and were to face a prosecutor on Wednesday on charges including attempted homicide, possession of explosives and arson.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared on television on Tuesday night, calling for calm and restraint. The violent turn of the protest has fueled debate in the Greek media about police tactics in enforcing the lockdown.

The Greek ombudsman said on Tuesday that reports of police violence had increased by 75 percent over the past year. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the leftist opposition party Syriza, referred on Monday to a “crescendo of police violence on the pretext of enforcing health measures.” Mr. Mitsotakis countered by calling Mr. Tsipras’s support for large rallies at the peak of a pandemic “the height of irresponsibility.”

The conservative government of Mr. Mitsotakis has urged Greeks to be patient for a little longer so that it can start gradually reopening the country’s battered economy without provoking a new surge in infections. However, public tolerance appears to be waning as government officials have been accused of flouting restrictions that thousands of ordinary Greeks have been fined for violating.

Mr. Mitsotakis himself came under fire last month for apparently disregarding his own government’s restrictions for the second time in two months, violating limits on public gatherings by attending a lunch at a politician’s home on an Aegean island.

In other news from around the world:

  • Mauritius went into a two-week nationwide lockdown on Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reported, the second time that the Indian Ocean archipelago nation has imposed such a restriction since the pandemic began. “We had no other choice but total containment in order to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the population,” Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth announced Tuesday evening in a televised address. Only essential services will be operational from Wednesday, including hospital services and emergency relief. As of Thursday, supermarkets, bakeries, petrol stations and pharmacies will have limited accessibility. The country, which has a population of about 1.4 million, has reported 641 cases of the virus and 10 deaths.

  • Kenya and Morocco have approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, according to RDIF, a Russian sovereign wealth fund, Reuters reported. The fund, which is promoting the vaccine globally, said that 48 countries had now approved Sputnik V.

Delivering items in New York in January. Workers have often been targeted for their electric bikes, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The delivery of restaurant orders and other goods has become a bigger part of daily life across the United States since the pandemic forced millions of people indoors. And in New York City — where the disease has taken nearly 30,000 lives — delivery workers have become a lifeline for people working from home and for vulnerable residents who have been warned against going outside.

On any given day, thousands of men, and a growing number of women, can be seen crisscrossing city arteries, transporting meals, groceries and medicine in plastic bags on top of their well-worn bikes.

But their visibility has also made them targets for criminals looking for a quick profit through robbery. The unemployment rate has surged into double digits and economic desperation has grown in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, which had already been pummeled by the pandemic.

Stolen electric bikes can be easily sold on the streets for cash or dismantled for their parts, the police and workers say. The bikes can cost thousands of dollars and are vital tools for the workers, who often make less than $60 a day. Many have come to rely on the bikes, despite the steep price tag, because they can go about 20 miles per hour, enabling workers to travel farther and make more trips to increase their slim bottom lines.

The theft of electric bikes doubled during the first year of the pandemic, rising to 328 in 2020 compared with 166 the year before, according to police data obtained by The New York Times.

Investigators said robbers often use fraudulent credit cards to call in bogus orders and lure delivery workers to secluded locations. The delivery workers then are faced with two dire options: let go of the expensive bikes they need to remain employed, or risk injury and even death.

Ligia Guallpa, director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a nonprofit that represents immigrants working in low-wage jobs, said that many delivery workers did not report robberies and assaults. A large percentage of them lack the documentation to work in the country legally and don’t speak English fluently. Many fear filing a police report could lead to deportation.

The Covaxin vaccine in cold storage.
Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

An Indian-made Covid-19 vaccine that was rolled out in an ambitious inoculation campaign even before some questions about it had been fully answered appears to be safe to use, a leading British medical journal reports.

Writing in The Lancet, researchers said the vaccine, Covaxin, did not produce any serious side effects in trials.

But the researchers said they were not yet able to say how well the vaccine works.

Covaxin was developed by Bharat Biotech and was authorized for use by India’s top drug regulators in January. That was done before it had been publicly established whether the vaccine was either safe or effective, prompting many people in India, including some front-line health care workers, to voice concerns.

Bharat Biotech said last week that initial results from its clinical trials indicated that the vaccine was both safe and effective, but many public health officials prefer to rely on independent assessments like that published in The Lancet, rather than a company’s own announcements.

Around the time that the Indian government green-lit Covaxin, it also authorized the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is known in India as Covishield and is manufactured there, among other places.

India has set out on one of the most ambitious and complex nationwide health campaigns in its history: immunizing 1.3 billion people against the coronavirus. It has also bet heavily on its growing pharmaceutical industry, which produces drugs and vaccines for export around the world as well as domestic use.




Variants Comprise About Half of N.Y.C. Virus Cases, Officials Say

New York City health officials said genetic analysis suggested that 51 percent of the city’s coronavirus cases were now caused by two new variants, but emphasized that vaccines remained effective.

“Unfortunately we have found that the new variants of Covid-19 are continuing to spread. And when you combine the variant of concern, B.1.1.7., the one first reported in the U.K., and the new variant of interest, B., that was first reported here in New York, together these new variants account for 51 percent of all cases that we have in the city right now. So for the variant of interest, B., that was reported here first in New York, our preliminary analysis indicates that it is probably more infectious than older strains of the virus. You know, what I referred last week to ‘Covid Classic.’ It may be similar in infectiousness to the B.1.1.7., the U.K. strain, but we’re not certain about this yet. We need to understand and study it more. Very important: Our preliminary analysis does not show that this new strain, B., causes more severe illness or reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.” “The B. variant, in particular, is increasing in prevalence across New York City, representing about 39 percent of all samples sequenced by the pandemic response lab during the most recent week with full data, compared to 31 percent the week prior. The B.1.1.7. strain, sometimes known as the U.K. variant, which also spreads more easily, has increased to 12 percent of samples analyzed in the most recent week, up from 8 percent the prior week. We know the virus is a formidable foe, but we also know what has worked to curb its spread. And that’s true for the new variants too. It’s the Safe 6: masking, distancing, handwashing, getting tested, staying home if you’re feeling ill and getting vaccinated when it’s your turn.”

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New York City health officials said genetic analysis suggested that 51 percent of the city’s coronavirus cases were now caused by two new variants, but emphasized that vaccines remained effective.CreditCredit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Genetic analysis suggests that roughly half of coronavirus cases in New York City now are caused by two new forms of the pathogen, city officials reported on Wednesday.

One of the so-called variants, first detected in the city, now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all cases analyzed in local laboratories. The increase in the variant, B.1.526, was so striking that officials said they believed it was more infectious than the original form of the coronavirus.

Another more contagious variant, B.1.1.7, first discovered in Britain, also is spreading steadily in the city, accounting for 12 percent of cases analyzed in the last week of February, up from 8 percent the prior week. B.1.1.7 may be more lethal than earlier versions of the virus.

Rather than sound an alarm, officials said that they believed continued health practices — from masking to getting vaccinated — were sufficient to control the virus. Vaccines remain effective against these variants, as well as the original coronavirus.

So far, deaths and serious hospitalizations continued on a downswing in the city, the officials noted. “So far, thank God, what we’re finding is the variants are not posing the worse kind of problems that we might fear,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news briefing on Wednesday.

Dr. David Chokshi, the city health commissioner, said that the B.1.526 variant had been detected in samples across the city, and not just in one community. The variant first appeared in samples in November, particularly those from Washington Heights in Manhattan, and was first described in academic papers released in late February.

The variant was detected in about one-quarter of samples analyzed by the two academic groups in mid-February, one led by a group at Caltech, the other by researchers at Columbia University.

But the city’s own analysis found that the prevalence of the B.1.526 variant was even higher, at 31 percent in the third week of February, and 39 percent by the end of the month, Dr. Chokshi said.

Dr. Anthony West, a computational biologist at Caltech, said in an interview on Wednesday that his ongoing research also showed that the B.1.526 variant was “increasing at a considerable pace in New York City” but that it remained “fairly localized” in the area.

He and his colleagues have found two subtypes of the B.1.526 variant: one with the E484K mutation seen in South Africa and Brazil, which is thought to help the virus partially dodge the vaccines; and another with a mutation called S477N, which may affect how tightly the virus binds to human cells.

Epidemiologists have expressed concern about the variant, but city officials said that despite the E484K mutation, they still had no evidence that the B.1.526 variant was partially evading vaccine protection. “Our preliminary analysis does not show that this new strain causes more severe illness or reduces the effectiveness of vaccines,” said Dr. Jay Varma, an adviser to Mr. de Blasio.

Earlier this year, experts had said the city’s capacity for genetic analysis was inadequate to understand the dynamics of New York’s outbreak. The United States’ overall ability to track variants is much less robust than in Britain, and federal health officials have expressed significant concern that variants may spread here undetected. New York has been increasing the number of samples it analyzes in recent weeks.

Nationally, epidemiologists have been sounding alarms about B.1.1.7, which is on track to be the dominant form of the virus in this country by the end of March. That variant is believed to have contributed to steep case increases and full hospitals in Britain and elsewhere.

“What we’ve seen in Europe when we hit that 50 percent mark, you’ll see cases surge,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. He urged the public not to let up on health measures and to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the City University of New York, said Wednesday that while he was worried about the new variants, more questions than answers remain about how they will impact the spread of the virus in New York City.

“It’s anybody’s guess, given the vaccine, the competition among the variants and everything we are trying to do to keep the virus low,” he said.

“The same things we always do have the ability to reduce the impact of the virus,” he added, urging continued vigilance and precautions. “If there is an exposure that gets past those defenses, there is potential that it could more easily take hold, or last longer. But if we keep doing everything we have been doing to prevent spread, we should be able to manage the variants too.”

Apoorva Mandavilli contributed reporting.

A resident of a nursing home near  Barcelona getting a second dose of vaccine last month.
Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Some of Spain’s largest regions are pressing the central government to speed up the country’s Covid-19 vaccination program, in particular by increasing access for older people to the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

When the vaccine was first approved in Europe in February, a number of countries — including Spain — set an age limit for its use, because there was relatively little data available then on its safety in older people. Spain set its age ceiling at 55.

Those limits have since been relaxed in countries like Germany and France, and on Wednesday, Spain’s neighbor Portugal announced that it would start allowing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to people over 65.

That added to mounting pressure on the Spanish government to do the same.

The health minister of Catalonia, the northeastern region that includes Barcelona, issued an ultimatum on Wednesday, saying that if national officials did not soon follow Portugal’s example, Catalonia would do so unilaterally.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the leader of Spain’s capital region, has also been asking the central government to raise the age ceiling to at least 65.

Spain’s vaccination rollout has also come in for criticism from members of the main association of doctors, who have complain about red tape slowing the process and about people like teachers and police officers starting to get shots while some health care workers have not yet had a chance.

As of the start of this week, the health ministry said, some 3.4 million people in Spain, or about 7 percent of the population, had received at least one dose of vaccine. The Spanish government has pledged to vaccinate 70 percent of the population by the end of summer.

Robbie Fairchild, a former dancer at New York City Ballet, lost his health insurance during the pandemic. He is now running a flower business to help with finances.
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Across the United States, thousands of actors, musicians, dancers and other entertainment industry workers are losing their health insurance or being saddled with higher costs in the midst of the pandemic. Some were simply unable to work enough hours last year to qualify for coverage. Others were in plans that made it harder to qualify for coverage.

The insurance woes came as performers faced record unemployment. Several provisions in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which passed the Senate on Saturday and is expected to pass the House on Wednesday, offer the promise of relief. One would make it a lot cheaper for people to take advantage of the federal government program known as COBRA, which allows people to continue to buy the health coverage they have lost. Another would lower the cost of buying coverage on government exchanges.

Many of the more than two dozen performers interviewed by The New York Times said that they had felt abandoned for much of the year — both by their unions and by what many described as America’s broken health care system.

“You never think it’s going to be you,” said Robbie Fairchild, a former dancer at New York City Ballet who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2015 for his star turn in “An American in Paris” on Broadway and who later appeared in the film adaptation of “Cats.”

Unlike other workers who simply sign up for a health plan when they start a new job, the people who power film, television and theater often work on multiple shows for many different employers, cobbling together enough hours, days and earnings until they reach the threshold that qualifies them for health insurance. Even as work grew scarce last year, several plans raised that threshold.

Musicians are struggling, too. Officials at Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the New York local that is the largest in the nation, estimate that when changes to its plan take effect this month, roughly one in three musicians will have lost coverage.

Insurance plan officials say they were left with no choice but to make painful changes to ensure their funds survive because health care costs have been rising at rates that have outpaced contributions.