US virus surges prompt tough action

New Jersey's governor has ordered face masks be worn outdoors when social distancing isn't possible.
New Jersey's governor has ordered face masks be worn outdoors when social distancing isn't possible.

New Jersey has adopted a strict coronavirus face-mask order, and New York City has unveiled a plan to allow public school students back into classrooms for just two or three days a week, as new US virus cases soared to a daily global record.

Officials in New Jersey and New York, the hardest-hit states at the outset of the US outbreak, are trying to preserve progress in curtailing spread of the virus in the face of a resurgence elsewhere across the country, especially the South and West.

More than 47,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the two northeastern states, accounting for more than a third of the 132,000-plus Americans killed by the virus, according to a Reuters tally.

More than 60,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the US on Wednesday, the greatest single-day tally of cases by any country since the virus emerged late last year in China.

And US deaths rose by more than 900 for the second straight day, the highest level seen since early June.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy unveiled an executive order requiring face coverings outdoors where social distancing is not possible, citing a rise in the state's coronavirus transmission rate.

"It's about life and death," Murphy, a Democrat, said at a briefing.

Many states require masks in public indoor settings and recommend them outside but have stopped short of mandating their use outdoors.

"I think that's the right thing to do," said Jordan Grant, 23, a real estate accountant who expressed dismay at seeing people congregating without masks. "It's what we should have been doing months ago."

Republican state Senator Michael Doherty, however, accused Murphy of "exploiting a public health crisis for power," calling the new mask directive "oppressive."

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan for 1.1 million students in the nation's largest public school district to return to classes in September. Pupils would alternate attending school two or three days weekly and spend the remaining time at home under the "blended learning" schedule, which requires state approval.

Republican President Donald Trump threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that fail to reopen on their normal schedule due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in 42 of the 50 states over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. Meanwhile, the percentage of people testing positive among those who are screened has climbed above 5 per cent - to levels health experts deem concerning - in some two dozen states.

On Tuesday, the number of confirmed US cases crossed the 3 million mark, roughly equivalent to 1 per cent of the population and about 25 per cent of all known infections worldwide.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden accused Trump of putting the nation in a precarious spot by not ramping up testing and deliveries of protective equipment.

The virus is sweeping through a number of heavily populated states, including California and Texas, both of which reported their highest daily toll of COVID-19 deaths to date. Twenty states have reported record increases in cases this month.

Houston, the largest city in Texas and the US oil industry's hub, registered more than 1000 new cases on Tuesday, a single-day record, Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted on Wednesday, calling the spread "severe and uncontrolled."

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory closures reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill in March and April and put millions of Americans out of work.

Australian Associated Press