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Jobless ranks swell toward Great Depression levels as Trump presses plan to reopen business

A man looks at the closed sign in front of Illinois Department of Employment Security in Chicago, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. With half-a-million people bounced out of jobs in the past month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois' unemployment safety net has been stretched to the limit. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The ranks of America’s unemployed swelled toward Great Depression-era levels Thursday, and President Donald Trump reacted to the pressure on the economy by outlining a phased approach to reopening businesses in parts of the country where the coronavirus is being brought under control.

Under the plan, outlined in a call with the nation’s governors, Trump will ease its social-distancing guidelines to allow states to start getting back to business over the next several weeks in places that have strong testing and have seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told the governors, according to an audio recording obtained by The Associated Press, after a week in which he clashed with them over his claim that he has “total” authority over how and when the country reopens.

The move came on the same day the government reported 5.2 million
more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the
four-week total to 22 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job
losses on record. The losses translate to about 1 in 7 workers.

bleak picture intensified the debate over how and when to start lifting
the lockdowns and other restrictions that have all but strangled the

While many Americans have chafed at the damage to their
livelihoods, business leaders and governors have warned that more
testing and protective gear are needed first. And health authorities has
cautioned that easing the restrictions too soon could allow the virus
to come storming back.

“My No. 1 focus is to keep my family safe,
so I’m really not in a hurry to put an end to this,” said Denise
Stockwell, who is about to lose her job in marketing at Cornell
University in Ithaca, New York.

But conservative economist Steven
Moore, a Trump ally, said there will be 30 million people out of work
in the country if the economy doesn’t open back up soon. “And that is a
catastrophic outcome for our country. Period,” he said. “You’re going to
have social chaos.”

Worldwide, the outbreak has infected more
than 2.1 million people and killed over 140,000, according to a tally by
Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be
much higher. The death toll in the U.S. reached about 31,000, with
around 650,000 confirmed infections.

The spread of the virus is
declining in such places as Italy, Spain, France but is rising or
continuing at a high level in Britain, Russia and Turkey, authorities

In other developments:

— Vladimir Putin postponed Russia’s grand Victory Day parade
May 9 in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s
defeat in World War II. Since Soviet times, Victory Day has been the
nation’s most important holiday, reflecting its wartime losses, put at
more than 27 million dead.

— New York, the most lethal hot spot in
the U.S., reported more encouraging signs, with the daily number of the
deaths statewide and the overall count of people in the hospital with
the virus are dropping. “We’ve controlled the beast. We’ve brought the
rate of spread down,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. Still, Cuomo extended the
state’s lockdown through at least May 15, and New York City is lining up
11,000 empty hotel rooms to quarantine people living in crowded
apartment buildings.

— Police acting on an anonymous tip found at
least 18 bodies over two days at a nursing home in Andover Township, New
Jersey. Corpses were packed into a room used to hold the dead until
they can be picked by a funeral home.

Under the new Trump
administration roadmap, places that are turning the corner on the virus
would begin a three-phased gradual reopening of businesses and schools,
with each phase lasting at least 14 days, meant to ensure that the
outbreak doesn’t accelerate again.

Many Americans,, especially in
rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major
outbreaks, have called on governors to reopen stores, factories and
schools. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 turned out this week to decry the
Michigan governor’s restrictions, police broke up a demonstration in
North Carolina, and protests also took place in Oklahoma, Kentucky and

“Those people that know they’re vulnerable,
self-quarantine. And everybody else, let them go back to work,” Aaron
Carver, a laid-off housing contractor, said at a protest outside the
governor’s mansion in Richmond, Virginia.

The decision of whether
to relax the restrictions rests not with the White House but with the
state and local leaders who imposed them in the first place. Seven
Midwestern governors announced Thursday that they will coordinate on
reopening their economies, after similar pacts were reached among states
in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of
New York City, with more than one-third of the nation’s coronavirus
deaths, was among those urging caution.

“Everyone wants our
economy to restart,” he said. But “if we can’t provide the basics for
our people, then you can kiss your recovery goodbye.”

European countries, like the U.S., have seen heavy job losses, but the
social safety nets there tend to be stronger. Places like Germany and
France are using government subsidies to keep millions of people on
payrolls instead of letting them go on unemployment,

In the U.S.,
economists said the unemployment rate could reach 20% in April, the
highest since the Depression of the 1930s. Layoffs are spreading well
beyond stores, restaurants and hotels to white-collar professionals such
as software programmers and legal assistants.

“It’s just shut
down everything, turned off the whole city,” said Jacques Primo, 40, who
was laid off from his bartending job at a Savannah, Georgia, seafood
restaurant and found himself in line at a food pantry. “Before, I’ve
never been worried, because I’ll go find another job. Now you can’t.
It’s impossible.”

By all accounts, the lifting of restrictions,
when it happens, won’t be like flipping a switch. Restaurants and other
businesses may be reopened in phases, with perhaps a limited number of
entrances or reduced seating areas, while grocery stores may stick with
one-way aisles and protective shields at the cash registers, experts

Even then, it could take awhile before business comes back, if China and certain places in Europe are any indication.

Juncker, manager of the Rappourt pub in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wonders
whether anyone would come if he were even allowed to re-open.

might be ‘back to normal’ for everyone else, but people still don’t feel
comfortable gathering at restaurants and bars,” he said.

Political leaders on the Continent are likewise trying to find a balance between the country’s health and its wealth.

hard-hit Lombardy region is pushing to restart manufacturing when the
nationwide lockdown ends in early May, with perhaps staggered opening
hours to avoid crowding on public transportation.

Britain, with
over 13,700 dead, extended its nationwide lockdown for at least three
more weeks in a move that appeared to have wide public support. Foreign
Secretary Dominic Raab said, “Any change to our social distancing
measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the

Swiss authorities announced a staggered series of
reopenings, starting in late April with medical and dental offices, hair
salons and other select businesses, followed in May and June by other
stores, schools, zoos, libraries and museums.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the transition is beginning,” Home and Health Minister Alain Berset said. “We want to go as fast as possible, and as slow as necessary.”

Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.