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Cases spike in Sunbelt, other states back off on reopening

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona recorded more coronavirus deaths, infections, hospitalizations and emergency-room visits in a single day than ever before in a crisis Wednesday across the Sunbelt that sent a shudder through other parts of the country and led distant states to put their own reopening plans on hold.

In Florida, hospitals braced for an influx of patients, with the biggest medical center in Florida’s hardest-hit county, Miami’s Jackson Health System, scaling back elective surgeries and other procedures to make room for victims of the resurgence underway across the South and West.

On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence planned to visit Arizona, where cases have spiked since stay-at-home orders expired in mid-May. Arizona reported record single-day highs of almost 4,900 new COVID-19 cases, 88 new deaths, close to 1,300 ER visits and a running total of nearly 2,900 people in the hospital.

Florida recorded more than 6,500 new cases — down from around 9,000 on some days last week, but still alarming — and a running total of over 3,500 deaths. Ahead of the Fourth of July, counties in South Florida are closing beaches to fend off large crowds that could spread the virus.

The run-up in cases has been blamed in part on what New Jersey’s governor called “knucklehead behavior” by Americans not wearing masks or obeying other social-distancing rules.

“Too many people were crowding into restaurants late at night, turning these establishments into breeding grounds for this deadly virus,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in forbidding restaurants with seating for more than eight people from serving customers inside from midnight to 6 a.m.

Health experts say the virus in Florida and other Southern states risks becoming uncontrollable, with case numbers too large to trace.

Marilyn Rauth, a senior citizen in Punta Gorda, said Florida’s reopening was “too much too soon.”

“The sad thing is the COVID spread will probably go on for some time though we could have flattened the curve with responsible leadership,” she said. “Experience now has shown most people won’t social distance at beaches, bars, etc. The governor evidently has no concern for the health of the state’s citizens.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said on Tuesday that the state was “not going back” on reopening.

WATCH: In Arizona, a tale of 2 pandemic realities

The soaring numbers have raised fears that many other states could see the same phenomenon if they reopen too, or that people from the South and West could spread the virus to other regions.

Some distant states and cities that seemed to have tamed their outbreaks, including Colorado, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey, hit pause or backtracked on some of their reopening plans for bars and restaurants. And New York and New Jersey are asking visitors from 16 states from the Carolinas to California to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is delaying its resumption of indoor dining at restaurants, and not because of any rise in cases there.

“Even a week ago, honestly, I was hopeful we could. But the news we have gotten from around the country gets worse and worse all the time,” he said.

The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. per day has roughly doubled over the past month, hitting 44,800 on Tuesday, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. That is higher even than what the nation witnessed during the deadliest stretch of the crisis in mid-April through early May.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that the rise across the South and West “puts the entire country at risk” and that new infections could reach 100,000 a day if people don’t start listening to public health authorities.

“When you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they’re doing well, they are vulnerable,” Fauci said.

The outbreaks in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California have already forced those states to reverse course and take such measures as shutting down bars and beaches and curbing restaurant capacity.

The virus in the U.S. is blamed for more than 2.6 million confirmed cases and over 127,000 deaths, the highest toll in the world, by Johns Hopkins’ count. Worldwide, the number of infections is put at more than 10.6 million, with over a half-million deaths.

The real numbers in the U.S. and globally are believed to be significantly higher, in part because of limited testing and mild cases that have gone unrecorded.

The number of deaths per day in the U.S. has continued to drop over the past week and is down to an average of about 550, compared with a peak of around 2,200 a day in mid-April, according to an Associated Press analysis. But experts note that deaths are a lagging indicator — it takes time for people to get sick and die — and they warn that the trend could reverse itself.

In New Jersey, where cases had been declining since late April, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a pause on Monday, in part because of people not wearing masks and social distancing.

“Unfortunately, the national scene, compounded by instances of knucklehead behavior here at home, are requiring us to hit pause on the restart of indoor dining for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida; Adriana Gomez in Miami; Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report. Coyle reported from New York.

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