Canada to impose retaliatory tariffs on C$3.6 billion worth of U.S. goods

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada will slap retaliatory tariffs on C$3.6 billion ($2.7 billion) worth of U.S. aluminum products after the United States said it would impose punitive measures on Canadian aluminum imports, a senior official said on Friday.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told a news conference the countermeasures would be put in place by Sept. 16 to allow consultations with industry.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday moved to reimpose 10% tariffs on some Canadian aluminum products to protect U.S. industry from a “surge” in imports. Canada denies any impropriety.

“A trade dispute is the last thing anyone needs – it will only hurt an economic recovery on both sides of the border. However, this is what the U.S. administration has chosen to do,” said Freeland.

“We do not escalate and we do not back down,” she said later, describing the U.S. decision as unjust and absurd.

The Canadian list of goods that might be subject to tariffs include aluminum bars, plates, household articles, refrigerators, bicycles and washing machines.

It is the second time in two years that Canada has struck back at Trump over trade. In 2018, Ottawa slapped tariffs on C$16.6 billion ($12.5 billion) worth of American goods ranging from bourbon to ketchup after Washington imposed sanctions on Canadian aluminum and steel.

Canadian officials may be calculating that the measures will be short-lived. An Ottawa source briefed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said Canadian officials are increasingly sure that Trump will lose the Nov. 3 presidential election to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Trump acted just weeks after a new continental trade pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico took effect. The North American economy is highly integrated and Canada sends 75% of all its goods exports to the United States.

The premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, said earlier on Friday that he had encouraged Freeland to impose tariffs on as many U.S. goods as possible.

“For the President to come and attack us during these times, during a pandemic when we need everyone’s support, is totally unacceptable,” Doug Ford told a news conference.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler)

U.S. travel warning puts virus-battered Mexico on par with war-torn nations

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department urged citizens on Thursday not to travel to Mexico, despite easing a global travel ban, and warned of the rapid spread of coronavirus in the neighboring nation, in addition to rampant crime and kidnapping.

The United States and Mexico have close commercial ties and share the world’s busiest land border, crossed by many of their citizens for work, travel or family visits.

Mexico’s health ministry reported 6,590 new infections and 819 more deaths, taking its virus tally to 462,690 confirmed cases and 50,517 fatalities.

On Twitter, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, said his country had issued a “Level 4: Do not travel,” warning for all nations at the beginning of the pandemic in March.

But the stringent advisory, usually reserved for countries at war, was not lifted for Mexico, because of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

“Its own government recognizes that contagion rates are still high,” Landau added.

The state department said, “Travelers to Mexico may experience border closures, airport closures, travel prohibitions, stay at home orders, business closures, and other emergency conditions within Mexico due to COVID-19.”

Reiterating earlier concerns about crime, its website said the Level 4 warning covered Mexico and many other countries.

Also citing the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention  (CDC)  issued a separate “Level 3 Travel Health Notice.”

(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. imposes sanctions on Hong Kong’s Lam, other officials over crackdown

By David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the territory’s current and former police chiefs and eight other officials for their role in curtailing political freedoms in the territory.

The sanctions were imposed under an executive order U.S. President Donald Trump signed last month to punish China for its moves against dissent in Hong Kong and are the latest action by his administration against Beijing in the run-up to his November re-election bid.

As well as Lam, the sanctions target Hong Kong Police commissioner Chris Tang and his predecessor Stephen Lo; John Lee Ka-chiu, Hong Kong’s secretary of security, and Teresa Cheng, the justice secretary, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

It said Beijing’s imposition of draconian national security legislation had undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy and allowed mainland security services to operate with impunity, “setting the groundwork for censorship of any individuals or outlets that are deemed unfriendly to China.””Carrie Lam is the chief executive directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes,” it said.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. asset of the officials and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.

Tensions between the United States and China have been increasing daily. China’s foreign ministry said on Friday it firmly opposes executive orders that Trump announced this week to ban U.S. transactions with the Chinese owners of the WeChat and TikTok apps.

Last month, Carrie Lam postponed a Sept. 6 election to Hong Kong’s legislature by a year because of a rise in coronavirus cases, dealing a blow to the pro-democracy opposition that had hoped to make huge gains.

The United States condemned the action, saying it was the latest example of Beijing undermining democracy in the Chinese-ruled territory.

A source familiar with the matter said U.S. deliberations on the sanctions intensified after the election postponement.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, David Brunnstrom, Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Chris Reese and Frances Kerry)

UK’s Hikma making Gilead’s COVID-19 drug remdesivir to increase supply

By Pushkala Aripaka

(Reuters) – Britain’s Hikma Pharmaceuticals said on Friday it has started manufacturing Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir under contract in Portugal, as the U.S. company outsources to increase availability of the COVID-19 treatment.

Remdesivir is one of only two medicines to have shown to help hospitalized COVID-19 patients in clinical trials, making it a front-runner treatment for the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Hikma’s Chief Executive Siggi Olafsson said the company will start supplying batches of the drug “soon,” and Gilead is expected to distribute it.

“The terms of the deal are confidential, we are simply a contract manufacturer for Gilead – they order products from us as they expect the sales to be,” Olafsson told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Remdesivir, which is administered intravenously, has been conditionally approved or supported in many regions to treat COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 people globally.

A pledge by Gilead to send nearly all of its supplies to the United States between July and September stirred concerns about availability elsewhere.

This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. state attorney generals urged Washington to allow other companies to make the treatment to increase availability and lower the price.

On Friday, Pfizer said it had signed a multi-year deal with Gilead to manufacture and supply remdesivir.

Gilead said on Thursday that its manufacturing network for the drug had grown to more than 40 companies in North America, Europe and Asia.

The company had said in June that it was aiming to supply enough of the drug by the end of the year to treat more than 2 million COVID-19 patients, more than double its prior target of 1 million.

Gilead has signed several pacts with generic medicine makers in Egypt, India and Pakistan to distribute remdesivir in 127 countries. The deals include those with Cipla Jubilant and privately held Hetero.

Hikma’s announcement of the deal with Gilead helped its shares jump more than 10% on Friday as it also reported a jump in first-half operating profit and lifted its sales outlook.

Analysts said the deal highlights Hikma’s “growing importance as a trusted source of essential medicines.”

(Reporting by Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur/Josephine Mason/Susan Fenton)

CalPERS investment chief steps down at $400 billion pension fund

By Alexandra Alper and Aishwarya Nair

(Reuters) – The investment chief of CalPERS, Yu Ben Meng, has resigned effective immediately, the largest public U.S. pension fund said on Wednesday, amid pressure from the Trump administration to curb investments in China.

Dan Bienvenue, deputy chief investment officer at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), will become interim chief investment officer, the $400 billion fund said in a statement, adding it will begin an immediate search for a permanent successor.

A U.S. citizen born in China, Meng has twice worked for CalPERS, the first time starting in 2008 and the second time beginning in January 2019 when he became CIO, according to the CalPERS website.

In between the CalPERS stints, Meng worked for three years as deputy CIO with China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which oversees China’s U.S. Treasury security holdings.

Meng cited the need to focus on health and family in the statement, released late on Wednesday. But the resignation comes amid growing pressure on U.S. funds to divest from Chinese companies.

Last month, White House Officials pressed the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, the federally administered retirement plan for railroad workers, to avoid investments in Chinese companies, which may be hit with sanctions.

And the White House successfully lobbied an independent board charged with overseeing billions in federal retirement dollars with suspending plans to allow a fund to track an index that invests in Chinese companies.

CalPERS has not escaped scrutiny. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the fund of investing in firms that supply the Chinese military, putting American lives at risk. U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien also said U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was “looking at” CalPERS’ investments in Chinese military companies.

U.S. Representative Jim Banks, a Republican, on Thursday welcomed Meng’s resignation.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund our adversary’s military,” he said in a statement. “With Yu Ben Meng’s departure, CalPERS now has the opportunity to correct its course and divest from companies within China’s military-industrial complex.”

In February, Banks took aim at Meng himself, calling for an investigation into the executive over his “cozy” relationship with Beijing and assailing the fund’s investments in Chinese companies in a letter earlier this year.

CalPERS did not immediately comment on Banks’ remarks on Thursday, but at the time of his February letter, CEO Marcie Frost defended Meng in a statement.

“This is a reprehensible attack on a U.S. citizen. We fully stand behind our Chief Investment Officer who came to CalPERS with a stellar international reputation,” she said.

The fund manages pension and health benefits for more than 1.6 million California public employees, retirees and their families.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Editing by Bernard Orr and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. steps up campaign to purge ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it was stepping up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks and called the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok and messenger app WeChat “significant threats.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said expanded U.S. efforts on a program it calls “Clean Network” would focus on five areas and include steps to prevent various Chinese apps, as well as Chinese telecoms companies, from accessing sensitive information on American citizens and businesses.

Pompeo’s announcement comes after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok. The hugely popular video-sharing app has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and the administration over national security concerns, amid intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) content censorship,” Pompeo said.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the United States “has no right” to set up the “Clean Network” and calls the actions by Washington as “a textbook case of bullying”.

“Anyone can see through clearly that the intention of the U.S. is to protect it’s monopoly position in technology and to rob other countries of their proper right to development,” said Wang.

TikTok currently faces a deadline of Sept. 15 to either sell its U.S. operations to Microsoft Corp. or face an outright ban.

In the run-up to Trump’s November re-election bid, U.S.-China ties are at the lowest ebb in decades. Relations are strained over the global coronavirus pandemic, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, its increasing control over Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims, as well as Beijing’s massive trade surpluses and technological rivalry.

Pompeo said the United States was working to prevent Chinese telecoms firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from pre-installing or making available for download the most popular U.S. apps on its phones.

“We don’t want companies to be complicit in Huawei’s human rights abuses, or the CCP’s surveillance apparatus,” Pompeo said, without mentioning any specific U.S. companies.

Pompeo said the State Department would work with other government agencies to protect the data of U.S. citizens and American intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, by preventing access from cloud-based systems run by companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent.

Pompeo said he was joining Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in urging the U.S. telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, to terminate authorizations for China Telecom and three other companies to provide services to and from the United States.

He said the State Department was also working to ensure China could not compromise information carried by undersea cables that connect the United States to the global internet.

The United States has long been lobbying European and other allies to persuade them to cut out Huawei from their telecommunications networks. Huawei denies it spies for China and says the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no U.S. company offers the same technology at a competitive price.

Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday reflected a wider and more accelerated push by Washington to limit the access of Chinese technology companies to U.S. market and consumers and, as one U.S. official put it, to push back against a “massive campaign to steal and weaponize our data against us.”

A State Department statement said momentum for the Clean Network program was growing and more than 30 countries and territories were now “Clean Countries” and many of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies “Clean Telcos.”

It called on U.S. allies “to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state and other malign entities.”

Huawei Technologies and Tencent declined to comment. Alibaba, Apple, China Telecom, China Mobile and Baidu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Yingzhi Yang in Beijing, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Pei Li in Hong Kong and David Kirton in Shenzhen; Editing by Mary Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry)

It’s not for me: speed of COVID-19 vaccine race raises safety concerns

By Francesco Guarascio and Josephine Mason

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – The frenetic race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has intensified safety concerns about an inoculation, prompting governments and drugmakers to raise awareness to ensure their efforts to beat the coronavirus aren’t derailed by public distrust.

There are more than 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development globally, including more than 20 in human clinical trials. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to have a shot ready before year’s end, although they typically take 10 years or longer to develop and test for safety and effectiveness.

In the drive to find a potential COVID-19 vaccine “fast is good for politicians,” said Heidi Larson, who leads the Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), a global surveillance program on vaccine trust. “But from the public perspective, the general sentiment is: ‘too fast can’t be safe'”, she told Reuters.

Regulators around the world have repeatedly said speed will not compromise safety, as quicker results would stem from conducting in parallel trials that are usually done in sequence.

However, these reassurances have failed to convince many, including in Western countries where skepticism about vaccinations was already growing before the pandemic.

Preliminary results of a survey conducted over the last three months in 19 countries showed that only about 70% of British and U.S. respondents would take a COVID-19 vaccine if available, Scott Ratzan, co-leader of ‘Business Partners to CONVINCE’, told Reuters.

Business Partners to CONVINCE, a U.S./UK initiative that is partly government funded, conducted the survey jointly with VCP and the results were broadly in line with a Reuters/Ipsos poll of the U.S. public in May.

“We just see this distrust growing against science and government,” said Ratzan.

“We need to address legitimate concerns about the rapid pace of development, political over-promises and the risks of vaccination.”

The VCP/Business Partners’ survey, expected to be published in a few weeks, will also show that Chinese participants were the most trusting of vaccines, while Russians were the least so, Ratzan said.

Drugmakers and governments had hoped the scale of the COVID-19 crisis would allay concerns about vaccines, which they see as crucial to defeating the pandemic and enabling economies to fully recover from its impact.

Vaccine hesitancy – or the reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – is also known as “anti-vax,” a term that is sometimes associated with conspiracy theories when often it simply reflects many people’s concerns about side-effects or industry ethics.

In January 2019 the World Health Organisation named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats for that year.

TAILORED MESSAGES

In Europe, skepticism among the public was high before the pandemic due to a range of factors including negative coverage of pharmaceutical companies as well as false theories including suggested links between childhood immunizations and autism.

Only 70% of French people considered vaccines safe in a 2018 survey commissioned by the European Union executive. The EU average was 82%, but trust fell to 68% for the shot against seasonal flu.

The VCP project on vaccine trust, funded by the European Commission and pharmaceutical companies among others, aims to identify early signs and causes of public mistrust and tackle them with information campaigns before it is too late.

Larson said headlines referring to Warp Speed – the name of the U.S. operation aimed at delivering a COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. population by next year – could increase vaccine hesitancy even more than perceptions that the disease could become less lethal.

“One of the most frequent things that comes up in people’s conversations is concerns about how quick it is. If I have to pick one theme that is more recurrent than others it is this one,” Larson said.

Data collected by VCP from social media show that by the end of June about 40% of Britons’ posts concerning a COVID-19 vaccine, for example, were negative, with many distrusting any coronavirus vaccine and the medical establishment.

Announcements about fast progress in COVID vaccines in Russia and China in particular could also contribute to rising skepticism. “We don’t have transparency and don’t know how accurate or valid their data are,” Ratzan said, adding that errors there could boost skepticism elsewhere.

Key for any information campaign to be successful is to tailor it to different audiences as there is no uniform profile of anti-vaxxers, said Kate Elder of Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organisation.

“They go from the highly educated to those who don’t believe in science,” she said, urging politicians to be more careful in their messages on vaccines and to better explain the reasons behind potentially fast results against COVID-19.

“We are exploring the idea of a chatbot that will speak in different languages,” said Ratzan, adding it could be something similar to Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service’s campaign to educate about preventing wildfires.

“Different parts of the world will require different strategies. We know we need to tailor it and to be specific,” he said.

Risks are high if hesitancy is not addressed quickly.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, growing skepticism about the vaccine led to a failure of the vaccination campaign in France, where only 8% of the population got a shot against the virus which is estimated to have killed around 280,000 people across the world.

A study published in May in the Lancet by a group of French scientists warned of similar risks now in the country where vaccine hesitancy went up from 18% in mid-March when a lockdown was imposed on the French to 26% by the end of that month.

“Distrust is likely to become an issue when the vaccine will be made available,” the scientists concluded.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio in Brussels and Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Exclusive: Taiwan in talks to make first purchase of sophisticated U.S. drones – sources

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is negotiating the sale of at least four of its large sophisticated aerial drones to Taiwan for the first time, according to six U.S. sources familiar with the negotiations, in a deal that is likely to ratchet up tensions with China.

The SeaGuardian surveillance drones have a range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km), far greater than the 160-mile range of Taiwan’s current fleet of drones.

While the sale of the unmanned aerial vehicles has been tacitly authorized by the State Department, two of the people said, it is not known whether the U.S. officials have approved exporting the drones with weapons attached, one of them said.

The deal has to be approved by members of Congress who may receive formal notification as soon as next month, two of the people said. Congress could choose to block a final agreement.

It would be the first drone sale after President Donald Trump’s administration moved ahead with its plan to sell more drones to more countries by reinterpreting an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

While Taiwan’s military is well-trained and well-equipped with mostly U.S.-made hardware, China has a huge numerical superiority and is adding advanced equipment of its own.

Taiwan submitted its request to buy armed drones early this year, one of the people familiar with the talks said. The United States last week sent Taiwan the pricing and availability data for the deal, a key step that denotes official approval to advance the sale. It is, however, non-binding and could be reversed.

A deal for the four drones, ground stations, spares, training and support could be worth around $600 million using previous sales as a guide. There could also be options for additional units in the future, one of the people said.

The island is bolstering its defenses in the face of what it sees as increasingly threatening moves by Beijing, such as regular Chinese air force and naval exercises near Taiwan

Relations between Beijing and Washington – already at their lowest point in decades over accusations of spying, a trade war, the coronavirus and Hong Kong – could fray more if the deal gets the final go-ahead from U.S. officials. The Pentagon has said arms sales to Taiwan will continue, and the Trump administration has kept a steady pace of Navy warships passing through the Taiwan Strait.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory, and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. Beijing has denounced the Trump administration’s increased support for Taiwan.

China’s sophisticated air defenses could likely shoot down a handful of drones, according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank. But she still expects “China to scream about even the smallest arms sale that the U.S. makes to Taiwan because any sale challenges the ‘One China’ principle.”

“They get particularly agitated if they think it’s an offensive capability,” she said, adding that she expected the Trump administration to be less cautious than its predecessors.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States did not respond to a request for comment.

“As a matter of policy we do not comment on or confirm proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress,” a State Department spokesman said.

ONLY FOR FEW U.S. ALLIES

The U.S. has been eager to sell Taiwan tanks and fighter jets, but the deal to sell drones would be notable since only a few close allies – including Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea – have been allowed to purchase the largest U.S.-made drones.

Currently, the Taiwanese government has a fleet of 26 Albatross drones made by Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a quasi-defense ministry research agency, that can fly 160 nautical miles (300 km), or 80 before returning to base, according to records kept by the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc’s SeaGuardian has an airframe that can handle carrying weapons – but only if contractually allowed by the U.S. government.

The United States has sold France unarmed MQ-9 Reapers which are similar to SeaGuardian’s, and later gave permission to arm them.

Last year, the United States approved a potential sale to Taiwan of 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around $2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions. A separate sale of 66 Lockheed Martin-made fighter jets also made it through the State Department’s process.

In recent weeks, China said it will sanction Lockheed Martin Co for involvement in the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, D.C. ; Editing by Mary Milliken and Edward Tobin)

Risk coronavirus or default: ride-hail drivers face tough choices as U.S. aid expires

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Uber driver Johan Nijman faces a difficult decision as federal unemployment aid expires: risk failing to pay for groceries and even lose his home, or resume driving and potentially catch COVID-19.

Nijman is among thousands of Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc drivers across the United States choosing between physical and financial health risks as $600 in additional weekly unemployment assistance expire.

While drivers are not the only workers struggling, they are particularly vulnerable as their work puts them close to many strangers. Also, as independent contractors, they have none of the formal protection or benefits that employees enjoy.

“I never thought that after working so hard for so long that I would ever find myself in a situation where I had to ask for food one day,” Nijman said.

With type 2 diabetes putting him at higher risk for severe COVID-19, Nijman stopped driving in mid-March when the virus was raging through New York City. Before the pandemic, he earned some $1,500 a week driving for Uber’s high-end black car service in an SUV he bought when he signed up in 2017.

He applied for unemployment and received around $900 in weekly benefits – some $300 from the state and $600 from the federal government. That barely covered his expenses, including city-mandated liability insurance drivers must keep paying.

Without the additional $600, Nijman said he faces financial ruin, putting his car and house on the line.

Other drivers, like Sacramento-based Melinda Pualani, are still waiting for their unemployment claims to process, with agencies overwhelmed by the slew of applications.

“Driving again was simply a necessity because I used up most of my savings and still have to keep food on the table,” Pualani said.

She resumed driving last week, rolling down windows, thoroughly disinfecting her car after every trip and asking passengers to wear masks.

Federal pandemic pay offered a lifeline to many gig workers not eligible for ordinary unemployment insurance. Uber and Lyft lobbied U.S. lawmakers to include gig workers in the taxpayer-funded March coronavirus relief bill and workers remain eligible for state-based assistance.

No data is available on the share of gig workers among the 30 million Americans currently collecting unemployment. But the enhanced $600 pay stopped last week and U.S. lawmakers are at an impasse over how to extend it.

Uber and Lyft have provided drivers with masks and disinfectants. They also pay two-week financial assistance to drivers infected by the virus or ordered to quarantine.

Trip requests dropped 80% in April and remain significantly below prior-year levels. Uber and Lyft are expected to provide updates when they report results later on Thursday and Wednesday, respectively.

For parents, the timing is particularly difficult.

Single mom Denise Rozier, a Lyft driver in Austin, Texas, burned through her savings and in April contracted the virus. Alone and struggling to breathe, she worried she might not recover.

“I have a lot of anxiety, but really need to go back (to work) with school starting and expenses piling up,” she said. “I don’t want to risk my safety, but I also don’t want to depend on my family.”

Rozier is afraid of bringing the virus to her family or even contracting it again.

But she also fears altercations with passengers refusing to wear masks. Uber and Lyft have mandated masks for drivers and passengers, but several driver dashcam videos posted online have shown heated arguments with riders refusing to wear one.

“I wished that people in power find a way to look after people that never looked for a handout,” Queens-based Nijman said.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Ben Klayman and Peter Henderson)

Government health experts warn U.S. cities of ‘trouble ahead’

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House health experts are warning of an uptick in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, urging local leaders to maintain health safety measures to avoid a surge.

“This is a predictor of trouble ahead,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday.

Fauci was asked on CNN about comments made by his White House coronavirus task force colleague, Dr. Deborah Birx, identifying new areas of concern in major cities, even as authorities see encouraging signs across the South.

Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a “very high level,” as well as Kansas City, Portland, Omaha and California’s Central Valley, Birx told state and local officials in a telephone call Wednesday. A recording of the call was obtained by the journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

White House data shows small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-10 tests in Chicago, Boston and Detroit and those places need to “get on top of it”, Birx said.

Even in cities and states where most people are doing things right, Fauci said, a segment of people not wearing masks or following social distancing remains vulnerable to infection and can keep the virus smoldering in U.S. communities.

“Unless everybody pulls together, and gets the level way down over baseline, we’re going to continue to see these kind of increases that Dr. Birx was talking about in several of those cities,” Fauci said.

White House coronavirus experts have in recent days sent regular warnings to cities and states not to relax anti-coronavirus measures too much before the virus is under sufficient control.

On average, 1,000 people are dying each day nationwide from COVID-19. The U.S. death toll is now over 157,000, with 4.8 million known cases.

President Donald Trump, in contrast, has played down the staying power of the virus, saying on Wednesday “it will go away like things go away” as he urged U.S. schools to reopen on time for face-to-face lessons.

Trump also said children are “almost immune” from COVID-19, prompting Facebook Inc on Wednesday to take down a post by the Republican president containing a Fox News video clip in which he made the statement. Facebook said it violated its rules against sharing misinformation about the virus.

Chicago’s mayor said on Wednesday that school would be online-only in September, after the teachers’ union and many parents in the city objected to a plan to allow students the option of attending class twice a week in pods of 15.

Chicago is the third-largest school district in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles, with 350,000 students.

Los Angeles has already announced that students will be kept home, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he expects to have children attend classes part of the time.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)