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Coronavirus Live Updates: Retail Sales Show Steepest Drop on Record


A retail report shows the biggest decline in sales in three decades of record-keeping.

Retail sales plunged in March as businesses shuttered from coast to coast and wary shoppers restricted their spending, a drop that was by far the largest in the nearly three decades the government has tracked the data.

Total sales, which include retail purchases in stores and online as well as auto and gasoline sales and money spent at bars and restaurants, fell 8.7 percent from the previous month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

The situation has almost certainly worsened since then. Most states didn’t shut down nonessential businesses until late March or early April.

What happens to retail matters to the broader economy. The sector accounts for more than one in 10 U.S. jobs; only health care employs more. Its stores generate billions of dollars in rent for commercial landlords, ad sales for local media outlets, and sales-tax receipts for state and local governments.

If retailers survive and can quickly reopen and rehire workers, then the eventual economic recovery could be relatively swift. But the failure of a large share of businesses would lead to prolonged unemployment and a much slower rebound.

But programs meant to support businesses, including government-backed loans and grants to keep businesses afloat, have gotten off to a rocky start.

“They need lifeboats, and the lifeboats aren’t getting out there fast enough,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “This is a time when speed matters more than bureaucracy.”

Facing the news about the plunge in retail and a slump in factory output, stocks tumbled on Wednesday, with the S&P 500 dropping more than 2 percent in early trading. Stocks in Europe were also lower, and Asia had a downbeat day.

The retreat came one day after the S&P 500 hit a one-month high. Stocks have been steadily climbing in recent weeks, with the occasional pullback, as investors have begun to focus on the prospect of an eventual rebound from the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic.

But they’ve also been confronted by a number of developments that highlight just how badly the economy is faring right now.

Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heaped praise on the World Health Organization Wednesday morning, saying that questions about what the group did during the pandemic should be left until “after we get through this.”

His comments on the “CBS This Morning” program were at odds with President Trump’s announcement Tuesday evening that he has ordered a freeze on American funding of the W.H.O., accusing the organization of a “China-centric” bias and of contributing to deaths by covering up the spread of the virus.

Dr. Redfield dodged direct questions about Mr. Trump’s accusations, but called the W.H.O. a “a longstanding partner for C.D.C.,” citing ongoing efforts to fight the Ebola virus in Africa and the cooperation to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve worked together to fight health crises around the world. We continue to do that,” Dr. Redfield said.

His comments underscore the clash between Mr. Trump and his health care professionals. Criticism of the W.H.O. has largely come from conservatives who were angered when the W.H.O. leadership praised China for its aggressive actions to limit the spread of the virus after the outbreak in Wuhan.

“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” the president told reporters during a White House briefing. He said the W.H.O., “willingly took China’s assurances to face value” and “pushed China’s misinformation.”

Dr. Redfield also reiterated that public health officials believe that more testing will be required as the nation looks toward an economic reopening.

“This is going to be fundamental to maintain and contain cases as they occur and then make sure they have the health capacity to deal with this as we work to regain the confidence of the American public that it’s safe to go back to work,” Dr. Redfield said.

Mr. Trump’s decision to halt funding for the W.H.O. in the midst of a pandemic fueled widespread criticism of the U.S. and threatened new divisions during a global battle that has already strained some international ties.

“Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds,” Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft who has donated the vast bulk of his fortune to supporting initiatives to bolster public health, wrote on Twitter. “Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”

The United States Chamber of Commerce said it agrees that the organization could use some reforms, but now is not the time.

“Cutting the W.H.O.’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world — in their response,” Myron Brilliant, the organization’s vice president and head of its international affairs division, said in a statement Wednesday.

Mr. Trump’s attack on the W.H.O., which was founded after World War II as part of the United Nations “to promote and protect the health of all peoples,” was the latest example of the president’s attempt to shift the blame for the handling of the crisis.

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, defended the W.H.O. and said it was “possible that the same facts have had different readings by different entities,” but he said that the middle of a pandemic was not the time to resolve those differences.

Universities have suffered major financial losses after closing down their campuses to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and many are anticipating a significant enrollment drop in the fall — especially from foreign students, who usually pay full tuition and help keep schools afloat.

Even some wealthy universities have already frozen salaries and new hiring, while delaying construction projects and anticipating the need to slash scholarships.

In the wake of the pandemic, lucrative spring sports seasons have been canceled, room and board payments have been refunded, and students at some schools are demanding hefty tuition discounts. Other revenue sources like study abroad programs, campus bookstores and research grants have dried up.

Some institutions are projecting $100 million losses for the spring, and many are now bracing for an even bigger financial hit in the fall, when some are planning for the possibility of having to continue remote classes. They anticipate that many students will choose not to return for online learning, or may need to to take a gap year or choose less expensive educational options amid widespread unemployment. A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide.

“The combination of fear for health and safety and the economic impact at the same time is one that I haven’t experienced, and I don’t think most university leaders have,” said Kent D. Syverud, the chancellor of Syracuse University.

At the president suggestion, his name will appear on the economic stimulus checks that will be mailed to millions of Americans beginning next month, the Treasury Department said on Tuesday. Adding Mr. Trump’s name is a break from protocol, and it will appear on the “memo” section of the check because Mr. Trump is not legally authorized to sign such disbursements.

A Treasury official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said adding the president’s name would not delay the disbursements, set to begin the week of May 4 for up to 20 weeks. Some Americans who are set to receive the stimulus funds through direct deposit will not even see the checks.

The addition of the president’s name to the stimulus checks comes at a time when Mr. Trump is trying to assert control of the country’s plan to reopen the economy after being decimated by the virus. Earlier this week, he claimed he had “total” authority on this matter, even though these decisions are made by the states.

Mr. Trump announced a list of advisers with varied backgrounds who he said will counsel him on how and when to reopen the economy, a mix that includes more than 200 prominent business owners and leaders, labor union executives, the president of the United States Tennis Association, and the commissioner of the W.N.B.A. Also on the list was Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who owns The Washington Post and who is a frequent target of the president’s criticism, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots.

During his Rose Garden announcement on Tuesday, Mr. Trump was vague about whether everyone on the list had agreed to serve on the task force or were even aware they were on it. At least one person on the list, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering the White House, said that no request had been made to join the list, and that there had been no advance notice of an announcement.

Some stimulus payments have begun arriving electronically.

The relief payments authorized as part of a $2 trillion stimulus package have started showing up in Americans’ bank accounts. Here’s a page where you can check on the status of your payment.

Most adults will get $1,200, although some will get less, depending on their income. For every qualifying child age 16 or under, the payment will be an additional $500.

Payments will arrive most quickly to those who have given their banking information to the government. The Treasury Department opened a free “Get My Payment” mobile app and web portal on Wednesday that allows Americans to submit their banking information in order to receive their economic relief payments via direct deposit and track the status of those payments.

Even before Mr. Trump provoked a fury among governors this week with his claim that he had “total” authority over the decision to restart the economy, state officials were warning that the resumption of business would be a slow, step-by-step process.

And that was as they watched the pandemic’s ballooning costs put an unexpected strain on their finances, forcing states to hurriedly divert funds from elsewhere to fight the outbreak even as the economic shutdown squeezes their main source of revenue: taxes.

States are responsible for most of America’s public health, education and policing services, and a lot of its roadways, mass transit systems and waterworks. Now, sales taxes, the biggest source of revenue for most states, have fallen off a cliff as business activity grinds to a halt and consumers stay home.

Personal income taxes, usually states’ second-biggest revenue source, started falling in March, when millions lost their paychecks and tax withholdings stopped. April usually brings a big slug of income-tax money, but this year the filing deadlines have been postponed until July.

Even if states are able to stretch their finances temporarily, the economic recovery is expected to be slow. That means tax revenues from tourism, oil and gas drilling, conventions and other activities are probably not going to bounce back.

“We can’t spend what we don’t have,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told the New York Legislature this month.

Paris Banks sprayed the seat with Lysol before sliding into the last row on the right. Rochell Brown put out her cigarette, tucked herself behind the steering wheel and slapped the doors shut.

It was 8:37 a.m., and the No. 17 bus began chugging westward across Detroit.

On stepped the fast-food worker who makes chicken shawarma that’s delivered to doorsteps, the janitor who cleans grocery stores, the warehouse worker pulling together Amazon orders.

By 9:15, every available row on the bus was occupied. Strangers sat shoulder-to-shoulder. The city might be spread across 139 square miles, but one morning last week, there was no way to social distance aboard this 40-foot-long New Flyer bus. Passengers were anxious and annoyed. Resigned, too.

Detroit has become a national hot spot, with more than 7,000 infections and more than 400 deaths. One reason for the rapid spread, experts say, is that the city has a large working-class population that does not have the luxury of living in isolation. Their jobs cannot be performed from a laptop in a living room. They do not have vehicles to safely get them to the grocery store.

And so they end up on a bus. Just like the No. 17 — a reluctant yet essential gathering place, and also a potential accelerant for a pandemic that has engulfed Detroit. It is a rolling symbol of how the virus is affecting Americans in disparate ways, often based on class and wealth.

Similar protective measures are taking place across the country.

On Sunday, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey announced that transit riders older than 3 would need to wear masks on trains and buses or else be denied service. Mr. Murphy also mandated that transit employees wear gloves and masks after one of its conductors died from virus complications.

And the transit system serving Eugene, Ore., Lane Transit District, also recently required bus riders to wear masks.

Further complicating the matter, scientists agree that while six feet is a sensible and useful minimum distance for people to separate from one another when possible, some say that farther away would be better.

Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study, as a Times 3-D simulation shows.

Rubber boots hung from a tree of wooden pegs in soggy Central Park after being sterilized with chlorine. Workers observed a one-way flow into and out of what they referred to as “the hot zone” of patient treatment tents. Step by step, they removed their isolation suits in a designated area, as a monitor barked instructions.

“I like to liken it to a checklist that a pilot goes through before he starts the engine,” Dr. Elliott Tenpenny, the unit’s medical director, said on Monday. “You do it exactly the same way every single time.”

The field hospital began treating patients on April 1 for Mount Sinai Health System and is directly across Fifth Avenue from one of its main hospitals. The tents, which are operated by the evangelical Christian relief group Samaritan’s Purse, have the look of an Ebola treatment unit in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some of its staff have previously been deployed.

The group has set up field hospitals in wartime Iraq, after an earthquake in Ecuador, following a hurricane in the Bahamas, and during a diphtheria outbreak in Bangladesh, among others.

The Central Park tent hospital is the group’s first medical deployment in the United States.

Protesters plan to encircle the Michigan State Capitol in their cars at noon on Wednesday in a demonstration organized by conservative groups who accuse Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of going too far with stay-at-home orders.

The orders by Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, are among the strictest in the nation, even barring residents from crossing the street to visit with neighbors or driving to see friends. They also stop large stores from selling nonessential items like carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden supplies or paint.

Organizers of the demonstration, the Michigan Conservative Coalition and Michigan Freedom Fund, asked protesters to display flags and signs, to honk horns and to surround the building. Given the dangers of viral transmission when assembling in a crowd, they have cautioned drivers not to leave their cars for what they called “Operation Gridlock.” By Wednesday morning, more than 4,000 people had said on the group’s Facebook page that they would be attending the event in Lansing.

With Michigan having recorded about 27,000 cases, and more than 1,700 deaths, Ms. Whitmer has said the state has to stay the course with its decision to close business and restrict movement.

Other states have seen protests in recent days, too. A demonstration in North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh, on Tuesday resulted in the arrest of protesters, some of whom were carrying signs that said “Reopen NC” and standing close by one another. In Columbus, Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said last week that he could hear the protesters outside chanting their opposition to his stay-at-home orders and that he understood their frustration and supported their right to protest.

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This short list can guide our priorities in tech consumption even after we come out of this uncertain period. It also means that we don’t have to spend so much money to maximize our happiness.

Reporting was contributed by Alan Blinder, Eileen Sullivan, Ben Casselman, Sapna Maheshwari, Sheri Fink, John Eligon, Sabrina Tavernise, Michael D. Shear, Anemona Hartocollis, Karen Barrow, Kenneth Chang, James Gorman, Maggie Haberman, Annie Karni, Aimee Ortiz, Marc Santora, Adeel Hassan, Knvul Sheikh and Alan Rappeport.


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