US virus cases smash daily record as global infections soar
People line up to buy coffee in El Paso, Texas.–AFP
New daily coronavirus cases in the United States soared past 50,000 for the first time Wednesday, as the World Health Organization delivered a grave warning that the global pandemic is accelerating.
Restaurants, bars and beaches in the world's worst-hit nation closed from California to Florida, as states reeling from yet another surge in the deadly virus braced for Independence Day festivities.
Global infections have hit their highest level in the past week, WHO data showed, with chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying new cases topped "160,000 on every single day."
The grim milestone came as the European Union left the United States, Brazil and Russia off its final list of nations safe enough to allow residents to enter its borders.
With more than 52,000 new COVID-19 cases in the United States alone in the past 24 hours, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, several US states imposed 14-day quarantines on visitors in the buildup to the long weekend's July 4 celebrations.
California suspended indoor dining at restaurants in Los Angeles and several counties, while New York scrapped plans to allow restaurants to seat customers inside from next week.
President Donald Trump reiterated his belief that the contagion will "at some point... sort of just disappear, I hope."
But the US leader who has yet to be seen in public wearing a face mask during the pandemic added he would have "no problem" doing so.
- EU travel ban eased -
The rollbacks came as the European Union reopened its borders to visitors from 15 countries.
The bloc hopes relaxing restrictions on countries from Algeria to Uruguay will breathe life into its tourism sector, choked by a ban on non-essential travel since mid-March.
Travelers from China, where the virus first emerged late last year, will be allowed to enter the EU only if Beijing reciprocates.
And Brazil -- which has suffered the most deaths globally for the last week, and is the second-worst affected country overall -- was excluded entirely.
It topped 60,000 total fatalities Wednesday, after suffering 1,000 deaths in just 24 hours.
However, with over 10 million known infections worldwide and more than 500,000 deaths, the pandemic is "not even close to being over", the WHO warned.
Data provided by the UN health agency for the seven days from June 25-July 1 showed the highest number of new daily cases ever recorded came on June 28, when over 189,500 new cases were registered worldwide.
- 'Dutch brothels reopen' -
According to the United Nations, the coronavirus crisis could cost global tourism and related sectors from $1.2 to $3.3 trillion in lost revenue.
Greece, which has suffered fewer than 200 virus deaths, has seen its economy hit hard by lockdowns and travel restrictions -- all but ending its lucrative tourism season before it began.
Romanian Cojan Dragos was "the first tourist" in one Corfu hotel after driving there with his wife and daughter. "We have the whole hotel just for us," he told AFP.
Separately, Spain and Portugal held a ceremony as they reopened their land border.
The Netherlands also confirmed the reopening Wednesday of another tourist draw -- its brothels and red-light districts.
"I'm totally booked," said sex worker Foxxy, adding that she had held a "little party" when she heard restrictions would be lifted.
- Clusters spur new lockdowns -
Russia did not make the EU's list of approved countries so its citizens will be absent from the bloc's tourist hot-spots.
The country, however, enjoyed a public holiday Wednesday as it voted in a referendum to approve constitutional changes allowing President Vladimir Putin to stay in power for another 16 years.
Putin was forced to postpone the vote in April as his government tackled an outbreak that has infected almost 650,000 people -- the third-highest in the world.
In other countries, clusters are still causing problems.
Parts of the Australian city of Melbourne suffered sharp rises in infections, spurring new stay-at-home measures.
The Palestinian Authority announced a five-day lockdown across the West Bank after a surge in confirmed cases.
And textile factories in the central British city of Leicester were suggested as the reason for a spike in infections that has prompted the reimposition of local restrictions.
- Americas spike -
In the United States, spikes across southern and western states are driving a surge in national infections.
Texas, which again smashed its daily COVID-19 record with over 8,000 new cases, joined Florida and California in closing some beaches for the upcoming holiday weekend.
Apple announced it would close another 30 US stores on Thursday, half of them in California.
A further 700 deaths nationwide took the US past 128,000 deaths in total.
The Pan American Health Organization warned that the death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean could quadruple to more than 400,000 by October without stricter public health measures.
The US government announced this week it had bought 92 percent of all remdesivir production -- the first drug to be shown to be relatively effective in treating COVID-19.
Britain and Germany, however, said Wednesday they had sufficient stocks of the drug.
- 'Corona baby' -
In Britain, some 1,500 acts from Ed Sheeran and Coldplay to Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones urged the county's government to save the live music industry, which has been collapsing because of the coronavirus.
But while lockdown measures have been a disaster for many, some have welcomed the chance to spend more quality time with hard-working partners.
Trump says he'd have 'no problem' using mask
US President Donald Trump, who has yet to be seen in public wearing a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic, said Wednesday he would have "no problem" doing so, while reiterating his belief that the contagion will just "disappear."
"If I were in a tight situation with people, I would absolutely," Trump said in an interview with Fox Business, as many US states are seeing a surge in the number of cases. But he added: "Usually I'm not in that position."
Trump noted that most people he sees at the White House are tested for COVID-19 before coming in contact with him. "I'm all for masks -- I think masks are good," he said, while adding his doubts about whether face coverings needed to be "mandatory" nationwide to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
"You have many places in the country where people stay very long distance" from each other, he said.
"I think we are going to be very good with the coronavirus. I think that, at some point, that's going to sort of just disappear, I hope," he said.
When pressed by the interviewer whether he truly believed the virus would vanish, he said: "I do. I do. Yes, sure, at some point. And I think we're going to have a vaccine very soon too."
Trump made similar statements in February, when he said: "It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear."
Last patients leave Barcelona hotel
At Barcelona's Melia Sarria hotel, a line of employees form a corridor to wave goodbye to the last COVID patients who have been staying there.
After months of supporting the healthcare system, this medicalised hotel is closing its doors to get ready for its own return to normality although it will be some time before its regular clients return.
Since the end of March, more than 500 virus patients have stayed at this 300-room hotel, which at one point counted full occupancy.
On Wednesday, the last six left the hotel to the applause of the staff, who were exhausted but elated after months of hard work.
"We're empty again, we're used to the hotel always being busy. It's been a very special experience, nearly 100 days with patients," said Hugo Figueroa, 45, a mid-level manager standing at reception. "It's been emotional."
At the hotel's entrance, where coaches and ambulances dropped off dozens of patients every day at the height of the crisis, things are beginning to get back to normal.
Even so, a nurse can be seen at the back of the lobby -- near the breakfast room that for months served as medical staff's makeshift office -- organising boxes of medical gear next to a rail on which blue protective suits are hanging.
Outside in the street, deserted when the hotel was taking in COVID patients, cars and people are now passing normally, although everyone is wearing a mask.
"The epidemiological situation has changed, we have moved forward a lot. And to be shutting down the hotel now is a reason to be glad," doctor Maria Pérez-Huerada told AFP.
It was here that she spent most of the lockdown as Spain battled the worst of an epidemic that has so far claimed more than 28,300 lives, and infected nearly 250,000 people in the country.
"At the start, patients came from hospitals, almost all of them had been in intensive care and some had complications and had to go back," she said.
Uruguay rides out threat without lockdown
Uruguay's president was recently photographed surfing in the early morning ahead of a cabinet meeting, symbolizing his government's relief that a policy of "freedom with responsibility" in containing the COVID-19 pandemic is succeeding.
Photos of 47-year-old Luis Lacalle Pou emerging from the South Atlantic in a wetsuit with a board under his arm and a smile on his lips hit the newsstands on Tuesday, as Europe reopened its borders to 15 countries.
The list included only one Latin American country: Uruguay.
With less than 1,000 registered novel coronavirus cases and just 27 deaths, the country of 3.4 million is a notable exception in a region that has become the epicenter of the global health crisis.
Uruguay currently has just 83 active cases, while its giant neighbor Brazil is the world's worst-hit country after the United States.
This success is especially remarkable as there never was an official lockdown.
- Closures, but no lockdown -
Instead, amid industry furloughs and school and border closures, officials urged people to stay indoors and strictly adhere to social distancing.
The message was drilled home in the media and by police helicopters flying overhead.
The center-right president, who took office in early March as the pandemic was heating up, has said he opted for "individual freedom" rather than "a police regime."
The calls for self-isolation were widely followed.
Infectious diseases specialist Alvaro Galiana attributes Uruguay's success to early tracing.
"The early appearance of well-known cases, at a time when the circulation of the virus within the population was very limited, led to adequate measures being implemented -- even if at the time they seemed exaggerated -- right at the start of the school year," Galiana said, referring to the southern hemisphere's school year.
Uruguay's demographics were also in its favour, given a low population density and the absence of large urban centres outside of the capital Montevideo.
Canadians celebrate holiday online
Forced indoors by the COVID-19 pandemic, ceremonies marking Canada's national holiday on Wednesday were mostly held virtually, as even the traditional fireworks were cancelled.
Gone were the festive parades, open-air concerts and large gatherings held each year to celebrate Canada Day.
Instead Canadian artists held online virtual events.
Some Canadians did gather outdoors in places like Newcastle, New Brunswick, to watch drive-by parades that moved slowly in order to comply with social distancing regulations.
The fireworks display that traditionally culminates a day of celebrations in Ottawa was replaced by a 3D show.
Canadians were urged to turn their mobile phones to the sky at 10 pm local time to witness a three-minute display of artificial fireworks.
"The augmented reality experience will give you the same visual and sound effects as a real fireworks display!" the government promised on the department of Canadian Heritage website.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked the occasion by visiting with his family a farm that supplies an Ottawa food bank. At the farm he donned a face mask and harvested broccoli.
"The last few months have been hard and on this Canada Day, we need to continue to be there for each other," Trudeau said, speaking next to his wife in a video recorded at the farm.
Panama's crisis worsening
Panama's President Laurentino Cortizo warned Wednesday that his country faced a worsening health crisis in the coming weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an Instagram message marking his first year in office, Cortizo said the virus was subjecting his country to "unprecedented and demanding tests."
"We are convinced that in the case of Panama the most difficult phase in this global situation is to come."
Panama is the Central American country worst hit from the pandemic, with more than 33,500 infections and 631 deaths, according to official figures.