On Oklahoma plains, an island of near normality in a pandemic

GUYMON, Okla., March 28 (Reuters) – On red cobbled Main Street in Guymon, the biggest town in Oklahoma’s panhandle, Jesus Ruiz gives “high and tight” hair cuts as a red, white and blue barber’s pole turns lazily outside.

About half the customers in the barber shop work at the busy pork processing plant in Guymon, a majority Hispanic/Latino community which rises like an island in a sea of corn and grass. Ruiz hopes this remoteness protects it from the coronavirus encroaching on all sides.

“I love it that nobody knows we’re here,” says Ruiz, 33, a Mexican-American who said the crime rate in Riverside, California, prompted him to quit the city near Los Angeles two years ago and move to this close-knit town of 11,500, where people often leave their doors unlocked when they go out.

In contrast to shuttered businesses and tens of millions of people confined to their homes across America, life seems fairly normal in Guymon, the closest case of coronavirus still more than 100 miles (160 km) away. There is nevertheless fear that COVID-19 may already be here, or will find its way in as workers from Texas, Kansas and other areas of the state commute to jobs in meat processing, feedlots and farms.

Guymon has not been spared the panic buying seen elsewhere and its library and recreation center are closed. All Oklahoma schools are shut for the remainder of their year.

But locally-owned small businesses and restaurants remain open, albeit limiting customers, many owners more fearful of the economic impact of the virus than the virus itself.

Unlike in neighboring New Mexico and Colorado, most Oklahomans do not face a stay-at-home order, but adults over 65 and people with underlying conditions are asked not to go out.

City Manager Joe Dunham said, under an order by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, it will take just one COVID-19 case in Guymon’s Texas County for non-essential businesses to close.

“I was hoping to keep restaurants open as long as possible just to create a sense of normalcy and not have panic,” said Dunham, who is still getting used to not shaking hands with visitors to city hall. “It’s a little bit quieter, the highway still seems pretty busy though.”

CRITICAL FOOD BUSINESS

There is nothing quiet about the Seaboard Foods SEB.A pork processing plant three miles up U.S. Highway 64. It is operating at full capacity with nearly 2,600 workers, more than 80 percent of whom live in Guymon or the county.

People from at least four continents speaking about 19 languages and dialects process more than 20,000 hogs a day. This “critical” food operation, by far Guymon’s biggest employer, has been ordered to stay open.

As hundreds of workers change shifts, four Spanish speaking employees pile out of a Chevy Caprice after car-pooling the 40-miles from Liberal, Kansas. One has worked at the plant for a week, another several months, two of them for years.

“Of course we’re scared of coronavirus,” said a 61-year-old woman from Mexico, who asked that her name not be used. “It’s really cold in there and there are a lot of people with flu.”

Plant employees are asked to stay home if they feel sick and Seaboard is offering two weeks paid leave to any worker told to self-quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19, said spokesman David Eaheart. The company is giving extra pay to employees who meet attendance requirements in the busy weeks ahead.

Thirteen coronavirus tests have come back negative in the county, with zero positive and 10 results pending, Texas County Memorial Hospital reported.

‘DETACHED FROM REALITY’

Back on Main Street, Kalye Griffin, 42, arranges shirts at her Top Hand western store and trusts in God to safeguard families in this county where eight in ten voters backed President Donald Trump in 2016.

Services have not stopped at Griffin’s Victory Center Church and other houses of worship.

“We are very grounded in our faith and know we are protected,” said Griffin, who has seen sales dwindle as rodeos and dances are canceled. “The fear is doing more damage than the virus.”

A few blocks north, hairdresser Rick French, 66, is skeptical about shutting businesses to fight a virus he believes may only be as deadly as the flu.

At the same time, he says there is some denial in Guymon that anything as nasty as coronavirus could ever come to town.

“It’s almost like we’re detached from reality. Nobody can believe it is going to happen here,” said French, who plans to vote for Trump again this year. He said his business has dropped off as older female customers stay home. “We watch it on TV and just hope it doesn’t come here.”

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'This is bliss': Chinese barber has clients queuing up as Wuhan eases lockdown

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – For barber Xiong Juan, a recent easing of restrictions in the city of Wuhan, epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak, means she is now busier than ever.

Xiong, 39, now spends her days riding around on her electric bicycle and offering her services to local residents who like her were stuck at home after authorities ordered a lockdown in the city of 11 million people in early January.

“It was so difficult to bear,” said one client who only gave his surname as Ren, describing how his hair had grown too long since he last had it cut in December.

“This is bliss,” he said as Xiong carefully trimmed his hair with a pair of clippers.

Xiong worked at a hairdressing salon but, like hundreds of thousands of businesses across China, it had to shut due to government measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which as of Sunday had infected 81,470 people and killed 3,304 in mainland China, mostly in Wuhan.

Xiong stayed indoors to look after her two children, but started venturing out three weeks ago. The additional income is welcome after being off work for such a long time.

“In a day, if it’s a peak period, I might work from 8 a.m. in the morning till 6 p.m. in the evening to cut the hair of 70 people,” she said from an open-air square of a residential compound where she had set up a plastic chair for clients to sit in. She lets them see their final look via her iPhone camera.

“STILL A LITTLE SCARED”

Each client is charged 30 yuan ($4.23), much lower than her usual salon-based cuts, which cost up to 156 yuan. She only cuts men’s hair as they usually take less than 15 minutes.

Xiong wears a hazmat suit and gloves and disinfects the clippers between each customer. She usually finds customers by word of mouth or just riding around, and sometimes cuts their hair at the roadside due to the restrictions some compounds still have on visitors.

The salon where she works is expected to reopen in due course when restrictions are eased further.

Asked about the risk of infection, she said: “Of course I’m still a little scared. But society needs us so I should help in the little way I can.”

The relaxing of curbs in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December, comes as the number of new local cases in China drops sharply, though the disease has since spread to 203 other countries, prompting lockdowns there too.

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Singapore court upholds colonial-era law that criminalizes sex between men

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s high court upheld on Monday a rarely-used law that criminalizes sex between men, dismissing three appeals that argued it was unconstitutional.

The ruling follows challenges to the colonial-era law by activists emboldened after India’s decision to scrap similar legislation in 2018. Previous repeal efforts in the socially-conservative city-state in 2014 also failed.

“The High Court dismisses all three applications,” Judge See Kee Oon said in a summary of the case published by the court.

“Legislation remains important in reflecting public sentiment and beliefs,” it said, adding that non-enforcement of the law against consensual male homosexual activity in private did not make it redundant.

Bryan Choong, one of the three men who challenged the law, said he was disappointed by the ruling. “But my eyes are firmly on the road ahead,” he said.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers did not immediately comment. Previously, it has said prosecution under the law would not be in the public interest.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has previously said that society in Singapore “is not that liberal on these matters”.

However, after the Indian decision, a prominent Singapore diplomat urged challenges to the city-state’s law, while Law Minister K. Shanmugam said a “growing minority” wanted it repealed and that laws should keep pace with societal change.

Polls have also suggested changing attitudes towards homosexuals, and a perceived softening in tone from some establishment figures.

The applicants in Monday’s cases had argued that Section 377A, which provides for jail terms of up to two years for a man found to have committed an act of “gross indecency” with another man, was unconstitutional. The law does not apply to lesbians.

Rights groups had said Singapore’s decision had wider implications for Asia, where social attitudes are conservative.

“In declining to strike out this archaic and discriminatory law, the court has reaffirmed that all gay men in Singapore are effectively unapprehended criminals,” Téa Braun, director of the London-based rights group, Human Dignity Trust, said in a statement.

There have been concerns around growing intolerance toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Muslim-majority neighbours like Malaysia and Indonesia.

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Tegna says coronavirus outbreak weighs on sale talks

(Reuters) – Tegna Inc (TGNA.N) said on Sunday that two potential acquirers had ended deal discussions with the U.S. regional TV station operator following the “market dislocation” fueled by the global coronavirus outbreak.

The two parties that informed Tegna they would no longer engage in negotiations were peer Gray Television Inc (RTN.N) and private equity firm Apollo Global Management Inc (APO.N), according to people familiar with the matter.

Tegna said in a statement that the two parties “made their proposals shortly before the recent market dislocation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and both subsequently informed TEGNA that they were ceasing discussions.”

Reuters reported earlier this month that Gray had withdrawn a cash-and-stock offer that valued Tegna at $8.5 billion, including debt, amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic’s financial impact and a steep decline in Gray’s shares.

Apollo, whose assets include 13 TV stations and 54 radio stations that it acquired from Cox Enterprises Inc last year, also informed Tegna last week it would not go forward with its all-cash bid. That offer also valued Tegna at $8.5 billion, including debt, the equivalent of $20 per share.

Media investor Byron Allen and a consortium led by private investment firm Najafi Companies and Trinity Broadcasting Network, which had also bid $20 per share for Tegna, remain interested in a deal, according to the sources.

Yet without referring to them by name, Tegna said on Sunday those two parties had not signed confidentiality agreements to enable due diligence, and had not delivered any information on financing sources.

The sources requested anonymity to discuss confidential details of the negotiations. Apollo, Gray, Allen, Najafi and Trinity Broadcasting Network did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The board has been, and remains, willing to consider transactions that create compelling value, and our focus now is on helping management navigate through an unprecedented environment,” Tegna Chairman Howard Elias said in a statement.

Tegna’s announcement is a blow to Standard General, a hedge fund that owns roughly 9.7% of Tegna and has been calling for it to sell itself. Standard General is asking Tegna shareholders to vote for its five nominees to Tegna’s 12-member board in the company’s annual shareholder meeting on April 30.

Standard General did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the regional TV sector is benefiting from increased political advertising this year ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, TV advertising budgets have been in decline as media consumption shifts to the internet and online streaming. The decline has accelerated as the coronavirus outbreak weighs on consumer spending.

Tegna, a spinoff of Gannett Co Inc’s (GCI.N) broadcasting and digital arm, runs 62 television stations in 51 U.S. markets, and reaches 39% of television households in the United States.

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Moscow tightens coronavirus rules

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow authorities will on Monday impose tighter restrictions on residents in an attempt to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

Muscovites will only be allowed to go out to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk the dog or take out the bins.

Those needing to go to work will also be allowed to leave their flats, and authorities will introduce a system of passes in the coming days.

“Gradually but steadily, we will keep tightening control as needed in this situation,” Sobyanin said on his website.

Russia has been relatively lightly hit so far, with nine deaths and 1,534 cases, but it recorded 270 new infections in the past day.

Earlier on Sunday, Sobyanin said the coronavirus outbreak had entered a new phase as the number of cases exceeded 1,000 in the capital and complained that many residents took recommendations to stay home very lightly.

The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church exhorted believers to pray at home and urged people to adhere strictly to authorities’ instructions “before someone dies in our families”.

“Refrain from visiting churches,” Russian news agency RIA cited Patriarch Kirill as saying, even though Orthodox services went ahead, including one led by him.

About 60% of Russia’s 144 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians, but fewer were worshipping in churches on Sunday and some were wearing masks, according to media reports.

Russia has halted international flights, closed borders, announced a non-working week from this weekend, and closed shops and entertainment venues in Moscow and some other regions.

Sobyanin said many Muscovites were still going out. At least 52,000 people took walks in city parks on Saturday, and many elderly people made long trips on public transport, Sobyanin said.

“The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase,” Sobyanin wrote. “An example of miserable Italian and Spanish cities, even New York, where tens and hundreds of people die every day, is in front of everyone’s eyes.”

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Italy coronavirus deaths rise by 756, lifting total death toll to 10,779

ROME (Reuters) – The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy climbed by 756 to 10,779, the Civil Protection Agency said on Sunday, the second successive fall in the daily rate.

The number of fatalities, by far the highest of any country in the world, account for more than a third of all deaths from the infectious virus worldwide.

Italy’s largest daily toll was registered on Friday, when 919 people died. There were 889 deaths on Saturday.

The total number of confirmed cases in Italy rose on Sunday to 97,689 from a previous 92,472, the lowest daily rise in new cases since Wednesday.

Of those infected nationwide, 13,030 had fully recovered on Sunday, compared to 12,384 the day before. There were 3,906 people in intensive care, up from the previous 3,856.

Lombardy, the hardest hit Italian region, reported a rise in deaths of around 416 on Sunday.

More than 662,700 people have been infected by the novel coronavirus across the world and 30,751 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

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UK says working at pace on ventilator production plan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain said it was working fast on plans to build more ventilators to help handle the coronavirus outbreak, hoping manufacturers can build larger amounts and do so more speedily.

“The prime minister spoke to a dozen of the companies involved to thank them for all their work so far and to discuss ways that the Government could support them to build ventilators more quickly and in greater quantities for the frontline in the coming weeks,” Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office said.

Some companies are also working on new designs.

“Any new orders are all dependent on machines passing regulatory tests, but the Government, manufacturers and regulators are working at pace to drive this work forward,” the government said.

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Fed sets fee structure for BlackRock's role in mortgage bond purchases

NEW YORK (Reuters) – BlackRock Inc will earn less than $8 million a year in fees for its role assisting the Federal Reserve with its purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities, one of the new programs the central bank is rolling out to backstop an economy under threat from the coronavirus outbreak, according to details of the arrangement released on Friday.

Under BlackRock’s contract with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the bond purchases, it will earn a quarterly fee equal to an annualized 2 basis points on the first $20 billion of assets under management and then 1.25 basis points on the next $30 billion of assets. It will earn no fee for amounts above $50 billion under management.

That amounts to a maximum annual fee of $7.75 million paid to BlackRock for the bond purchases. The firm managed more than $7 trillion at the end of last year and generated more than $14.5 billion in revenue.

The New York Fed said earlier this week that it hired BlackRock to manage purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities and to oversee certain liquidity facilities.

“BlackRock was selected on a short-term basis to serve as an investment manager after considering their expertise in trading and analyzing agency CMBS in the secondary market, and robust operational and technological capabilities,” the Fed said.

BlackRock will also oversee the secondary market corporate credit facility, which will purchase corporate bonds and exchange-traded funds.

The New York Fed said the firm will not earn any other fees or income, including from securities lending, in connection with the facility’s purchase of ETFs.

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'Cooking for heroes': Michelin-starred restaurant helps Berlin medics fight coronavirus

BERLIN (Reuters) – A Michelin-starred restaurant in Berlin forced to close its doors by the coronavirus lockdown has turned its culinary skills to helping to feed doctors, nurses, policemen and firefighters who cannot work from home.

“We are doing ‘Cooking for heroes’, that means we are cooking for people in operational professions where it’s not an option to work from home,” said Max Strohe, head chef and co-owner of Tulus Lotrek.

Restaurants, cinemas, gyms and most stores have been shut since mid-March in Germany, which has reported nearly 43,000 cases of the coronavirus and 253 deaths, in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus and easing the pressure on hospitals.

The soups, goulash and curries lovingly prepared by Strohe and his staff are helping to sustain hundreds of doctors, nurses and other medical staff at the Jewish Hospital as they treat patients with the virus.

“I saw a post from Tulus Lotrek with the hashtag ‘cooking for heroes’ and I thought, we have a lot of heroes stationed here in the operational sector, and I sent them an email,” said hospital spokeswoman Jessica Maass.

“The very next day I received an email. It was a yes, the only question was: ‘How many meals should we send you?’ and then the very next day, 400 portions of great food came to us.”

Strohe said he and his staff have been overwhelmed by “heartwarming” messages of support from those who have enjoyed the meals and from their family members.

Brigitte Seelig, deputy head of the nursing department at the hospital, said the exquisite meals provided a welcome break from hospital canteen food.

“It’s really good food – Michelin-starred food! It’s something good for once,” she said with a smile.

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Israel's Gantz angers supporters with move toward unity government

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel appeared headed on Friday for a unity government after opposition leader Benny Gantz moved toward an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disappointing voters who had hoped to bring down the right-wing premier.

Gantz was elected parliamentary speaker on Thursday with support from Netanyahu’s Likud and allied parties, angering many of his own partners over the possibility he could form an alliance with a leader who is under criminal indictment.

Gantz cited the coronavirus epidemic as the reason for his decision. Israel, with 3,000 cases of the disease and 10 deaths, is under partial lockdown.

The shock move splintered Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party just 13 months after it came into existence as a coalition of Netanyahu opponents intent on bringing down Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

It also drew an angry response from some among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who turned out to support Gantz’s coalition in three elections in the past year. Some commentators accused the former general of caving in to Netanyahu.

“It makes me feel terrible. It’s exactly what I did not want to happen, to see Gantz actually partner with Netanyahu,” said Tami Golan, 46, who voted for Gantz in all three elections.

“I understand the coronavirus makes for a special situation, but I can’t help but feel disappointed – we might not be done with Netanyahu,” Golan said.

Many voters for Blue and White felt betrayed, commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

“The only reason that led them to vote for this half-baked party was the desire to see Netanyahu outside of Balfour Street,” he said, referring to the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence.

Gantz, 60, expressed regret on Friday his decision had split his centrist alliance but said dragging the country toward a fourth election would distract from fighting the coronavirus and aiding the economy.

“(We) will make every effort to establish a national emergency government. We will take care of the health crisis. We will lift the country out of economic trauma,” Gantz wrote on his Facebook page.

During the campaign for the March 2 election, Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.

But Gantz has lacked enough support on the center and left to form a coalition after being asked by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a government following the election.

Netanyahu, 70, had proposed a unity government to tackle the coronavirus, promising to step down as prime minister within an agreed period, with Gantz then taking over.

Gantz’s move Thursday opened up the possibility of such a “rotation” deal, but there has been no formal announcement that such an agreement had been reached.

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