By Dan Whitcomb and Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s state university system, the largest in the United States, canceled classes on Tuesday for the fall semester because of the coronavirus, while Los Angeles County said its stay-at-home order was likely to be extended by three months.
The announcements on the West Coast came after the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Congress that lifting the sweeping lockdowns could touch off new outbreaks of the illness, which has killed nearly 81,000 Americans and devastated the economy.
In one of the first indications the pandemic will continue to have a significant impact into autumn, the chancellor of California State University said classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the semester that begins in September, with instruction moved online.
“Our university, when open without restrictions and fully in person, as is the traditional norm of the past, is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity with each other on a daily basis,” the chancellor, Timothy White, said in a statement.
“That approach, sadly, just isn’t in the cards now.”
Los Angeles County Health Director Barbara Ferrer added her own grim forecast, saying stay-at-home curbs for 10 million residents, including the city of Los Angeles, would probably remain in place, in some form, through the summer.
“While the Safer at Home orders will remain in place over the next few months, restrictions will be gradually relaxed,” under a planned reopening of the local economy as the outbreak ebbs, she said.
Her remarks came after California Governor Gavin Newsom said restaurants in parts of the state could again begin allowing diners inside under modified conditions and outdoor shopping malls could be permitted to open for curbside pickup.
Offices in parts of California can also open with some limitations, Newsom told a daily news briefing. But his latest plan for restarting the world’s fifth-largest economy keeps nail salons, tattoo parlors and fitness clubs closed.
“It’s a mistake to overpromise what re-opening means,” said Newsom, a Democrat who was the first governor to issue statewide stay-at-home orders and has been more cautious in relaxing them than counterparts in other states.
FAUCI URGES CAUTION
Earlier, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate panel that prematurely ending restrictions on commerce and social life could have dire consequences.
“I think we’re going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have by any means total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said during the 3-1/2-hour hearing.
He urged states to follow health experts’ recommendations to wait for clear signs of improvement, such as a significant decline in new infections, before reopening.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control and, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.
The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the new virus has already infected more than 1.3 million Americans and killed at least 80,976, according to a Reuters tally.
That toll is projected to climb significantly in coming months.
The latest forecast from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is for more than 147,000 deaths from COVID-19 by early August, up nearly 10,000 from the last projection, as social distancing is increasingly relaxed, researchers said.
Arizona was the latest state to do away with restrictions. Republican Governor Doug Ducey said stay-at-home orders in place since March 31 will be allowed to expire on Friday.
“This is not a green light to speed,” Ducey told a news conference in Phoenix. “This is a green light to proceed, and we’re going to proceed with caution.”
In New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, Governor Andrew Cuomo said his state needs $61 billion in federal stimulus to help reopen its economy. He called on Congress and U.S. President Donald Trump to support legislation to plug funding gaps.
“This economy has been damaged through no fault of anyone,” said Cuomo, a Democrat. “But to get this economy back up again and running, we are going to need an intelligent stimulus bill from Washington.”
Trump, who has made the strength of the economy central to his pitch for re-election in November, has encouraged states to forge ahead with reopening businesses that had been deemed non-essential during the pandemic.
Reporting by Richard Cowan, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Steve Gorman, Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Clarence Fernandez.