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Covid updates: U.S. mall owner files for bankruptcy; Connecticut lifts capacity limits on businesses

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Health officials are raising a flag about what appears to be an uptick in coronavirus cases around the world, as virus mutations threaten to disrupt progress in containing the virus. The World Health Organization said Wednesday scientists are trying to find the root of the resurgence after weeks of improvement. U.S. leaders continue to warn that variants, as well as premature easing of Covid restrictions, could result in troubling new outbreaks.

The U.S. is averaging roughly 64,400 new Covid-19 cases per day, according to a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data. That's 6% lower than daily new case volumes this time last week. The country had been reducing daily case loads by as much as 20% to 30% for a period of several weeks.

Kroger CEO expects normal food inflation this year

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Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen on earnings, consumer spending and store closures

Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told CNBC he expects grocery prices to be volatile at times this year, but stressed he does not see problematic food inflation on the horizon.

"For the whole year, we expect inflation to be at 1% to 2%, which is a pretty normal number," McMullen said on "Closing Bell."

McMullen noted that prices in some goods did spike during the coronavirus pandemic, such as meat after meatpacking plants were shuttered. That could make year-over-year comparisons a bit tricky.

"If you look at the second quarter a year ago, we had huge inflation in meat," McMullen said. "This year we would expect to have pretty large deflation, so when you look at it overall, we're still at the 1% to 2% estimate, but it will be very bumpy along the way."

Kevin Stankiewicz

Connecticut to allow restaurants, gyms and other businesses to reopen at full capacity

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced a number of the state's businesses will be allowed to reopen at full capacity beginning March 19, though patrons will still be required to wear face coverings and maintain social distance.

The state will lift all capacity restrictions for restaurants; non-theater indoor recreation businesses; gyms and fitness centers; retailers and offices; personal care services, like spas and nail salons; and houses of worship, Lamont said at a press briefing. Most of the businesses have already been allowed to reopen at 50% to 75% capacity, he said.

Lamont is the first Democratic state leaders to reopen businesses at full capacity. It's the most drastic easing from any of the northeastern states that were the epicenter of the virus early in the pandemic. 

Texas and Mississippi, both run by Republican governors, announced similar measures on Tuesday. President Joe Biden slammed the governors Wednesday in response.

"I know what's happening in Texas and Mississippi. I heard the President," Lamont said Thursday, adding that continuing to wear masks is "probably the most important thing you can do."

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

Mall owner Washington Prime potentially filing for bankruptcy protection

The Shops at Arbor Walk in Austin Texas, owned by Washington Prime Group.
Source: Google

U.S. shopping mall owner Washington Prime Group is reportedly readying to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the company missed a $23 million interest payment last month, reports CNBC's Lauren Thomas. The company's roughly 100 shopping malls have been shuttered or seen significantly reduced traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.

After missing the payment, the mall owner said it would be starting a 30-day grace period to further negotiate with lenders. Bloomberg reports that those negotiations have been crumbling, citing people familiar with the talks. If talks are successful, or if the grace period is extended, Washington Prime Group could avoid bankruptcy.

The mall owner operates over 100 malls across the country. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on the report.

Rich Mendez

Senate Democrats start debate on $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill

Senate Democrats have moved closer to passing their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The chamber voted by a 51-50 margin to start debate on the pandemic aid bill, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie in the evenly split Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., aims to approve the legislation by this weekend.

The House then aims to pass the bill by the middle of next week, and President Joe Biden wants to sign it into law before unemployment assistance expires on March 14.

Senate Democrats have to overcome several hurdles, including efforts to delay the process by Senate Republicans who oppose putting more federal money into combatting the health and economic crisis.

The bill includes direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans, a $400 per week unemployment supplement, an expansion of the child tax credit and $20 billion for Covid-19 vaccine distribution, among a bevy of other provisions.

—Jacob Pramuk

NCAA Final Four to feature cardboard cutout fans

Source: NCAA

March Madness may be a little quieter this year, but that isn't stopping the NCAA from coming up with new ways for fans to cheer on their favorite teams.

For $100, sports fans can upload their picture and be represented visually in Lucas Oil Stadium as a cardboard cutout for this year's Final Four and Championship Game. For an additional $35, they can have their cutout shipped to their home after the game.

March Madness will operate at 25% of fan capacity this year due to Covid restrictions. The cutouts will be spread out among the in-person, human fans to help with social distancing. It's a similar strategy to the one put in place for the Super Bowl in February.

The NCAA says that proceeds from the program will benefit both the United Way's Central Indiana COVID-19 Recovery and Rebound effort and Hilinski's Hope. Last year's March Madness tournament was among the first events to be canceled as coronavirus shutdowns hit the U.S.

—Jessica Golden

Marriott to pay employees for getting vaccinated

A person rides a bike past the Marriott hotel in Times Square, New York.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Marriott International announced that it will give employees four hours' worth of pay to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

The hospitality company said it is not requiring employees to get vaccinated but strongly encourages it. Along those lines, Marriott is providing education on the benefits of vaccination and will allow flexible scheduling for employees to make appointments.

"Our goal for the Vaccination Care Program is to remove potential obstacles to getting vaccinated so our associates can put their health first and have peace of mind," said Dr. David Rodriguez, global chief human resources officer for the company. 

Rich Mendez

Manhattan apartment sales bounce back big in February

Sign advertising apartments for rent in the Upper East Side in New York City.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Manhattan brokers are saying that apartment discounts could end soon after sales soared 73% in February, CNBC's Robert Frank reports.

February, which saw more than 1,110 sales contracts signed, marked the third straight month of year-over-year gains according to a report from Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel.

"This is a remarkable recovery from 2020, and a trend we began to see emerge from the time Biden was elected in November to the announcement of the first viable vaccines for Covid," said Garrett Derderian, director of market intelligence for Serhant, a real estate brokerage firm.

Sales contracts in 2021 so far have topped $5 billion, according to Derderian.

–Rich Mendez

Alabama to lift mask mandate beginning in April, Gov. Ivey says

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that she will lift a statewide order requiring people to wear masks beginning April 9, giving businesses enough time to create their own policies if necessary.

"While I'm convinced a mask mandate has been the right thing to do, I also respect those who object and believe this was a step too far in government overreach," Ivey said during a press briefing.

While the Republican governor acknowledged other states had already lifted their mandates, she said the extended order would give Alabama more time to give people their first dose of vaccine.

— Noah Higgins-Dunn

Delta to start calling 1,300 pilots back for training

Delta Air Lines will start recalling some 1,300 pilots on Friday who haven't been flying during the pandemic so they can begin training. Delta said in January it would recall a group of 400, which aren't included in the bidding that starts tomorrow.

"To provide context, the staffing plans over the past 15 months have swung rapidly from a growth trajectory, to significant contraction, followed by the largest pilot retirement event in airline history, a deal to avoid furloughs and now to recovery," said Bob Schmelzer, Delta's director of crew resources, planning, analytics and reporting in a memo to pilots on Thursday.

Because of those retirements, and the fact that many pilots that haven't recently had FAA-mandated training, aviators may need to be certified on other aircrafts.

After a brutal year, consumers are warming to the idea of traveling again as bookings pick up steam. Passenger volumes are still less than half 2019 levels but numbers have recently ticked up as more Covid-19 vaccines have rolled out. In response, some airlines have started hiring pilots and flight attendants again.

Delta doesn't expect the recovery to pre-pandemic levels to be immediate. John Laughter, Delta's senior vice president of flight operations said in a memo to pilots on Friday that the carrier is "preparing to build back to 2019 levels of flying by summer 2023."

Leslie Josephs

Italy reportedly blocks a vaccine shipment to Australia

Italy reportedly blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to Australia on Thursday.

Reuters reported, citing two sources, that AstraZeneca had requested permission from Rome to ship around 250,000 doses from its Anagni plant. But the Italian government refused.

In January, the European Union placed temporary controls on the export of vaccines made inside the bloc. The controls will last until the end of March and give powers to EU member states to reject authorizing exports if the vaccine makers do not honor contracts.

Study finds 0.6% of professional athletes suffer from inflammatory heart disease post-Covid

Signs show information for a vaccination site run by the Santa Clara County health department at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers NFL football team, in Santa Clara, California, February 9, 2021.
Brittany Hosea-Small | Reuters

A study conducted by JAMA Cardiology found that 0.6% of professional athletes in the U.S. suffer from inflammatory heart disease after recovering from their Covid-19 diagnosis.

Athletes from the MLB, MLS, NBA, NHL, NFL and WNBA were screened to test the prevalence of inflammatory heart disease during their quest to return-to-play after testing positive for Covid.

Of the 789 athletes screened, five had cardiac magnetic resonance imaging findings that suggested inflammatory heart disease. Three athletes had myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, and two had pericarditis, or swelling and irritation of the thin tissue surrounding the heart.

The study found the safe return to professional sports activity has thus far been achieved.

Christian Nunley

Gov. Abbott criticizes Biden's ‘Neanderthal’ comment after Texas lifts Covid restrictions

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on his decision to lift Covid safety restrictions

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defended his decision to rescind most of the state's Covid-19 restrictions and mask mandate, despite President Joe Biden's sharp criticism earlier this week when he called the move "Neanderthal thinking."

Abbott told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that the comment was "not the type of word that a president should be using." The Republican governor also claimed the administration "has been releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to Covid."

The newly lifted restrictions "are not really that transformative" because the state's mask mandate wasn't enforced and businesses were already at 75% capacity, Abbott said.

"Maybe to people in New York it seems like this is a big difference," Abbott told CNBC.

—Noah Higgins-Dunn

Global study finds 'dramatic' link between obesity and Covid deaths

A global study has found a "dramatic" link between obesity and Covid-19 deaths, Reuters reports. Coronavirus fatality rates were found to be 10 times higher in nations where 50% or more of the adult population is overweight.

Countries like Japan and South Korea, which have very low rates of adult obesity, have reported comparatively low virus death rates. The United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, report some of the highest adult obesity rates and Covid-19 death rates, according to the Reuters report.

The findings could help identify important comorbidity risk factors. The study analyzed Covid data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and obesity statistics from the World Health Organization's Global Health Observatory.

—Sara Salinas

Pandemic has fueled a run on suburban homes — and jacked up prices

Because of the coronavirus crisis, millions of Americans are moving from the city to the suburbs.

But the pandemic-induced run on housing has fueled an affordability problem for many would-be buyers, despite record-low mortgage rates.

Now, homes in many states require a salary larger than buyers' current median income.

Here's a map that shows just how much money it takes to afford the average home in each state, according to career planning site Zippia.com. Nationwide, the median home price is $346,800.

—Jessica Dickler

Another 745,000 Americans filed for unemployment last week

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U.S. weekly jobless claims total 745,000, vs 750,000 estimate

Another 745,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. Economists polled by Dow Jones expected that figure to come in at 750,000.

Initial weekly jobless claims have plateaued to a degree in recent months, after waging a partial comeback from staggering, record unemployment last year when coronavirus shutdowns spurred widespread layoffs.

—Sara Salinas

UPS ropes in technology to distribute 20 million vaccine doses globally

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UPS ropes in technology to distribute 20 million vaccine doses globally

UPS International CEO Scott Price explains how the company is transporting Covid-19 vaccines to four continents as part of its partnership with COVAX and Gavi, in an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia."

—Terri Cullen

What a new report reveals about the future of work after the pandemic

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What a new report reveals about the future of work after the pandemic

A new report by Infosys and the Milken Institute found that while the pandemic has widened the digital divide and the skill gap among workers, there are still a few silver linings about the future of work. Infosys President Ravi Kumar joined CNBC's "Squawk Box" to discuss the results.

—Terri Cullen

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