The U.S. is gradually reopening as new Covid-19 cases continue to improve. More states are lifting capacity restrictions on nonessential businesses and easing mask mandates, resulting in a piecemeal approach to lockdown measures between states and localities. Health experts have warned prematurely easing restrictions could usher in new outbreaks, while others argue governments should adjust policies to anticipate the riskier behavior brought about by warmer weather and pandemic fatigue.
Here are the biggest developments Thursday:
- Biden signs Covid relief bill, triggering stimulus checks for Americans as soon as this weekend
- Denmark suspends use of AstraZeneca Covid vaccine over reports of blood clots
- Variant in the UK appears to be 64% more deadly than other strains, study finds
- Singapore has not given up on air travel bubble with Hong Kong after postponement
- How Covid tanked the U.S. economy — in charts
The U.S. is recording at least 56,200 new Covid-19 cases and at least 1,430 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data.
The following data was compiled by Johns Hopkins University:
- Global cases: More than 118.24 million
- Global deaths: At least 2.62 million
- U.S. cases: More than 29.16 million
- U.S. deaths: At least 529,469
Biden expanding vaccine eligibility, clearing the way for small gatherings by Fourth of July
In a primetime address to the country Thursday night, President Joe Biden will announce that he is asking states to open Covid-19 vaccines to every adult by May 1, CNBC's Amanda Macias reports.
The announcement is a major step in the country's recovery from a year-long pandemic.
A senior administration official said that the announcement does not clear the way for large gatherings, but "it does mean that we can once again have an independence day with small gatherings and celebrations."
Earlier Thursday, Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill.
Texas AG Paxton sues city of Austin for keeping mask mandate
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the city of Austin and the county its located in for maintaining their local mask mandates despite Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order ending the statewide requirement.
Abbott's latest order, which went into effect on Wednesday, forbid jurisdictions from implementing mask mandates on residents, though businesses are still allowed to require customers to wear them.
"I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law. They blew me off," Paxton said in a tweet. "So, once again, I'm dragging them to court."
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement that he and Travis County Judge Andy Brown will "fight to defend and enforce our local health officials' rules for as long as possible."
"Masks work! The Attorney General is simply wrong," Adler said.
Novavax vaccine produces positive results against multiple Covid strains
The drug was found to be 96% effective in protecting against the original strain of the virus, 86% effective against a more contagious variant first discovered in the U.K., and about 55% effective in a smaller trial conducted in South Africa where a separate mutated strain has taken hold.
In all trials, the vaccine was 100% effective protecting against serious illness and death, according the report.
Stimulus checks prompted some people to pay hefty check cashing fees
As new $1,400 stimulus payments are poised to go out imminently, research shows that some Americans paid more than $66 million in fees to have their first checks cashed.
About 22% of the first $1,200 stimulus checks authorized by Congress almost a year ago were sent to Americans by paper check.
Many of those recipients chose to turn to retailers or check cashers instead of banks to access that money, according to recent research from non-profit organization Financial Health Network that was published by Brookings Institution.
Those people paid a combined, estimated $66.6 million in check cashing fees, according to the report.
While more people will likely get the new $1,400 checks by direct deposit this time around, others who receive paper checks could still turn to those same check cashing services.
One reason: to avoid garnishment for certain unpaid debts. Also, bank overdraft fees can cost more than check cashing services.
Consumers who want to cut down on fees may want to consider loading their stimulus checks onto prepaid debit cards instead, according to Financial Health Network.
Biden signs Covid relief bill, triggering stimulus checks for Americans as soon as this weekend
President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, triggering stimulus checks for Americans and extending crucial aid.
Direct payments of up $1,400 could hit Americans' bank accounts as soon as this weekend, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said after the signing.
The bill also extend a $300 unemployment insurance boost into September, expands the child tax credit for another year and replenishes federal aid for states, localities and small businesses.
Duke men's basketball season is over after a program member tests positive for Covid
The Duke men's basketball team withdrew from the ACC tournament following a positive coronavirus test in the program, the team announced in a statement.
The Blue Devils' season is over, Duke's athletic director said in the press release. The season's conclusion marks the end Duke's 24-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances.
The positive Covid test comes as The Duke Chronicle reported 102 undergraduates tested positive for the coronavirus between March 5 and 9, with a majority of cases connected to in-person fraternity rush events.
Lawmakers make push to extend the Paycheck Protection Program
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Paycheck Protection Program Extension Act, which would move the deadline to May 31.
The program, run by the Small Business Administration, is set to expire on March 31 if it isn't extended by Congress. Beyond extending the deadline, the bill would give the SBA the authority to continue to process pending applications for an additional 30 days after the end of the program.
The bill was introduced amid calls from lenders, businesses and advocates to extend the program, which has given billions of dollars of forgivable loans to Americans throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
But recent changes to eligibility and calculation rules, as well as continued technical issues in submitting applications, have made many worried that there won't be enough time to help small businesses access the money. The two-month extension proposed in the bill would help lenders and businesses have more time to submit, and give the SBA more time to process applications.
Congress has sent trillions in Covid relief, but missed opportunities to help
Congress has approved trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief in the year since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic.
Still, lawmakers missed opportunities to mitigate the economic pain and to renew programs that worked.
The CARES Act — with its direct payments, expanded and strengthened unemployment benefits and forgivable small business loans — was considered a swift and effective response in March 2020. Lawmakers then let programs including the jobless aid expire over the summer, and did not renew them until December.
Nearly 8 million people were estimated to drop into poverty in the fall after Washington failed to renew aid last year.
Democrats hope their $1.9 trillion relief plan, which President Joe Biden is set to sign into law Thursday, will help to mitigate some of the lingering damage.
Variant in the UK appears to be 64% more deadly than other strains, study finds
The highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K. is associated with a 64% higher risk of dying from Covid-19, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
Researchers analyzed data from more than 100,000 patients, comparing death rates among people infected with B.1.1.7, the variant from the U.K., and those infected with other previously circulating strains.
People infected with B.1.1.7 were between 32% and 104% more likely to die, researchers said. That translates to a central estimate of 64%, they added.
"In the community, death from COVID-19 is still a rare event, but the B.1.1.7 variant raises the risk. Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly this makes B.1.1.7 a threat that should be taken seriously," said Robert Challen, lead author of the study from the University of Exeter.
—Berkeley Lovelace Jr.
Wharton’s Jeremy Siegel says Covid stimulus to push the market higher
Wharton School's Jeremy Siegel believes stocks will move higher this year as the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package adds "more fuel on the fire, so to speak," reports CNBC's Kevin Stankiewicz.
"Eventually there will be a Fed tightening and eventually that tightening is going to pressure stocks, and that fear of that, I think, is beginning to come through now," the finance professor said in an interview on "Squawk Box."
"But when I see the amount of stimulus come, I can see another 10% rise in stock prices, 10%, 12% this year, then the Fed gets more worried and the leveling off 2022, 2023," Siegel said.
American Airlines sets record with $10 billion debt sale backed by frequent flyer program
American Airlines upsized its planned $7.5 billion debt sale — a mix of two bonds and loan backed by its frequent flyer program — to $10 billion, saying it will use the additional liquidity to pay down other debt, including a federal coronavirus loan.
Airlines make money from these programs by selling frequent flyer miles to banks, which customers earn when they use rewards credit cards. American shares were up 3% in late-morning trading, outpacing the broader market.
Biden to lay out his vision for a post-Covid world in first primetime address
President Joe Biden in his first primetime address on Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of the Covid shutdowns by commemorating Americans' sacrifices and looking ahead toward a post-pandemic world.
The speech is scheduled for just after 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast from the East Room of the White House. The address is expected to last less than 20 minutes, a White House official said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden in the speech will "lay out some more specifics" for how his administration will fight the virus moving forward.
Biden, on his 50th day as president, will also use the spotlight to kick off a victory lap following the final passage in Congress of his $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill.
He is poised to sign the bill into law Friday and embark on a nationwide tour next week to tout the first major legislative accomplishment of his administration.
J&J’s one-shot Covid vaccine cleared for authorization in the EU
Europe's drug regulator has recommended the approval of the one-dose coronavirus vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson, potentially adding another weapon in the armory being used to fight Covid-19.
The vaccine has the added benefit of only requiring a single dose and can be stored in most standard refrigerators at temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (or roughly 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit), making it easier and cheaper to transport and store.
If approved by the EU and once supplies start to be delivered, the shot could greatly bolster Europe's struggling immunization program. The EU has already approved the two-dose vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
The pandemic transformed the unemployment system. Is it enough?
The U.S. unemployment system has undergone a radical shift in the pandemic economy.
But fundamental flaws leave it exposed to the next crisis. And recent fixes, in some ways, fell short of what was needed.
The CARES Act offered a historic expansion of the safety net for the jobless. It raised pay by $600 a week and gave aid to the self-employed, gig workers and other previously ineligible groups.
State labor agencies, which buckled under enormous volume early on, were able to smooth bottlenecks by expanding staff, changing processes and updating technology.
But many still rely on outdated mainframe computers that limit how they can respond in future downturns. And shifts in the labor market, like a more mobile workforce, may require lawmakers to rethink how they've built the safety net.
Pfizer's vaccine blocks most asymptomatic and symptomatic cases in Israel
Pfizer said its Covid-19 vaccine blocked 94% of asymptomatic infections in an Israeli study.
The study also found the vaccine was at least 97% effective against symptomatic Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to Pfizer, which developed the shot with BioNTech.
"This is extremely important ... for society," Bourla said in an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box." "The asymptomatic carriers and patients are the ones spreading the disease mainly. We were expecting something good in terms of symptomatic," he said, adding the company was not expecting such a "high number" against asymptomatic cases.
Researchers measured results two weeks after the second dose. The analysis used data collected between Jan. 17 and March 6, when Pfizer's vaccine was the only available shot in the country and when the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K. was the dominant strain.
–Berkeley Lovelace Jr.
Some states lift capacity restrictions, end mask mandates and reopen their economies
Despite warnings from top U.S. health officials, state leaders have moved in recent days to end capacity restrictions, drop mask mandates and largely reopen their economies as new cases decline and more vaccines become available.
Maryland became the latest state to restart its economy when Gov. Larry Hogan announced that restaurants, retailers and other businesses will be allowed to reopen without capacity restrictions beginning Friday.
Texas, Mississippi, Connecticut, Arizona, West Virginia and Wyoming have announced similar plans in recent days as the pace of inoculations accelerates and Covid-19 cases and deaths recede.
Those moves come despite warnings from the Biden administration, which asked states in late February to temporarily halt reopenings after the nation's decline in Covid-19 infections started to plateau.
Weekly jobless claims total 712,000
Weekly jobless claims totaled 712,000 last week, ticking up slightly but coming in below the 725,000 that economists surveyed by Dow Jones had expected, CNBC's Thomas Franck reports.
Continuing claims, representing those filers applying for unemployment benefits for at least two weeks, fell by 193,000 filers to 4.1 million.
The labor market looks ready to stage a rebound with several states lifting capacity restrictions on nonessential businesses and with President Joe Biden expected to sign a $1.9 trillion stimulus package later this week.
How Covid tanked the U.S. economy — in charts
It's been about a year since much of the U.S. economy suddenly shut down amid coronavirus fears.
The first shoe to drop was transportation. On March 12, nearly 1.8 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints in airports, according to U.S. Homeland Security data. A week later, that number had fallen to about 620,000, a drop of 66%.
A few days later, in-person service industries effectively collapsed. According to data from Open Table, March 8's seated diners from online, phone and walk-in reservations were off just 1% from a year earlier. By March 13, it was down 36%. By March 20, it was down 99.35%.
U.S. box office revenue the weekend of March 6 was on par with pre-virus forecasts. The next weekend, box-office revenue fell by nearly 50% to $54 million. One week later, total box office revenue was a stunningly low $195,952.
Here's why remote work is here to stay
In just one year, office culture has changed for good.
Already, employers, particularly tech companies like Microsoft, Twitter, Square, Spotify, Shopify and Amazon, have announced extended, if not permanent, work from home policies.
For the most part, workers applaud this new approach. Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the coronavirus crisis subsides, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
But telecommuting has also been especially challenging and for younger workers just starting out, there is another cost.
It's nearly impossible to cultivate relationships or connect with a mentor — something that has proven to be especially beneficial over the course a career, according to Kevin Davis, the founder and executive director of First Workings, a nonprofit that helps students secure paid internships and mentorships in the business community.
"That's the sort of social capital that money can't buy," he said. "If and when those companies do go back, I suggest they get into the office as fast as they can."
— Jessica Dickler
Denmark suspends use of AstraZeneca Covid vaccine over reports of blood clots
Denmark announced Thursday it will temporarily suspend the use of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
The Danish Health Authority said it would temporarily stop using the shot in its vaccination program as a precaution "after reports of severe cases of blood clots in people who have been vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca."
"Against this background, the European Medicines Agency has launched an investigation into the AstraZeneca vaccine. One report relates to a death in Denmark. At present, it cannot be concluded whether there is a link between the vaccine and the blood clots," the health authority said in a statement. It did not specify how many reports of blood clots there had been, or where they originated.
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca told CNBC in a statement that "patient safety is the highest priority for AstraZeneca."
"Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca. The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in Phase III clinical trials and Peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine is generally well tolerated."
Singapore has not given up on air travel bubble with Hong Kong after postponement
Singapore's Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said his country has not given up on establishing an "air travel bubble" with Hong Kong — a plan that was postponed from last November.
Such an arrangement would allow travelers to skip quarantine and restore some travel volume for the two major Asian business hubs, which don't have domestic air travel markets.
A resurgence in Covid-19 infections in Hong Kong late last year halted the "travel bubble" plan. Ong said both sides are still cautious following last month's Lunar New Year celebrations.
"We want to watch if there's any impact due to Chinese New Year on community transmission," the minister told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia," adding that there appears to be no jump in cases following the festivities.
—Yen Nee Lee