DOJ to probe restrictions placed on religious gatherings to curb coronavirus

iStock(NEW YORK) — While many countries around the world and cities in the U.S. are pointing toward positive signs that social distancing might be finally flattening the curve, the novel coronavirus death toll continues to be staggering with at least 113,000 dead worldwide.

The U.S. is the global leader in the number of cases and deaths. More than 21,733 people in the U.S. have died as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new respiratory virus, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. At least 550,000 people in the U.S. have tested positive and over 2.6 million Americans have been tested for the disease.

Worldwide, more than 1.8 million people have been diagnosed since the virus emerged in China in December. The actual numbers are believed to be much higher due to testing shortages, many unreported cases and suspicions that some governments are hiding the scope of their nations’ outbreaks.

Here’s how the situation developed Sunday. All times Eastern:

11:52 p.m.: Trump associate, referenced at briefings, dies of virus

A friend of President Donald Trump whom the president said entered the hospital “for a mild stay” but then slipped into a coma due to the coronavirus, has died, ABC News confirmed.

New York real estate mogul Stanley Chera, a longtime friend of Trump, died at a New York hospital where he was battling the virus, a source said.

Although the president never mentioned Chera by name during his briefings on the virus, he described Chera’s battle with COVID-19 as a sobering moment for him personally.

“I have some friends that are unbelievably sick,” Trump said at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing on March 30. “We thought they were going in for a mild stay and, in one case, he’s unconscious, in a coma. And you say, ‘How did that happen?'”

At the next day’s briefing, a somber Trump called on Americans to be “prepared for the hard days that lie ahead” as health advisers announced new projections indicating between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans could die from the virus.

You “think of it as the flu, but it’s not the flu. It’s vicious,” Trump said. “When you send a friend to the hospital and you call up to find out how is he doing — it’s happened to me. Where he goes to the hospital, he says goodbye, he’s sort of a tough guy — a little older, a little heavier than he’d like to be, frankly — and you call up the next day, ‘How’s he doing?’ and, ‘Sir, he’s in a coma.’ This is not the flu.”

Asked at the next briefing whether his friend’s struggle represented a turning point in this thinking about the virus, Trump said, “Yeah, well, not a turning point, no. Before that, I knew how — because I’m seeing numbers and I’m seeing statistics that are, you know, not exactly very good.”

“But — but it hit him very hard,” Trump continued. “He’s strong — a very strong kind of a guy. But he’s older. He’s heavier. And he’s sort of central casting for what we’re talking about, and it hit him very hard. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

8:49 p.m.: DOJ to investigate restrictions placed on religious gatherings

The Justice Department could take legal action this week against certain restrictions put on religious institutions that state and local officials have implemented in order to force compliance with social distancing policies.

A Justice Department official told ABC News that Attorney General William Barr is looking at “multiple” instances in which those seeking to attend worship services may have had harsher punishments directed toward them than others in the community who may have violated social distancing standards.

The official said the department has specifically been “looking at” a case in Kentucky where a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order Saturday for a Louisville church that wanted to conduct drive-in services on Easter Sunday, as well as a Baptist church in Mississippi where police allegedly issued tickets against worshipers who attended drive-in services last Wednesday. It’s not clear yet, however, whether the department will actually seek to intervene in those cases.

 Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a tweet Saturday evening that Barr was “monitoring” the situation and to “expect action from DOJ next week!”

“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs,” the tweet said.

6:12 p.m.: Trump pushes governors to get testing programs “perfected”

President Trump tweeted out to the nation’s governors to “get your states [sic] testing programs & apparatus perfected.”

“Be ready, big things are happening. No excuses! The Federal Government is there to help,” he continued, adding that they should “gear up with Face Masks!”

Several governors have been critical of the federal government’s response to the pandemic and its assistance to states and municipalities.

5:50 p.m.: France’s death total tops 9,000

French health officials said 310 COVID-19 fatalities took place over the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of virus related deaths in that country to 14,393.

France is now the nation with the fourth highest coronavirus deaths, behind the U.S., Italy and Spain, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

5:40 p.m.: Turkey president rejects interior minister’s resignation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned down the registration of an interior minister who apologized for creating a commotion over a coronavirus curfew, according to reports.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu “submitted his resignation to the President and our President told him that he did not find the request suitable,” Turkey’s communications ddirectorate said in a written statement to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

The communications directorate noted that Soylu “has earned the gratitude of the Turkish nation,” since he took his position four years ago, according to the report.

4:11 p.m.: Turkey’s interior minister resigns after lockdown notice

Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, announced he would resign from his post after a short notice of a COVID-19 lockdown sent residents into crowded streets and stores.

Soylu issued a 48-hour curfew on Friday for 31 provinces that went into effect hours later at midnight. Crowds “flocked to many shops and bakeries to buy last-minute goods,” Turkey’s state-run media, Anadolu, reported.

Soylu apologized for causing the commotion and announced his resignation on Twitter.

“In a process carried out diligently and meticulously, the responsibility for all implementation of the weekend curfew to stem the pandemic falls on me in every respect,” he tweeted.

2:55 p.m.: Two New Jersey cops die from coronavirus

Police officials from two New Jersey towns said they each lost a member of their units to COVID-19 on Sunday morning.

The Patterson Police Department said Police Officer Francesco Scorpo, 34, died from complications of the disease. The nearly five-year veteran worked in the Patrol and Traffic Divisions, according to the department.

Scorpo leaves behind his parents, wife Kristina, and two sons, Francisco Jr., 4, and Santino, 6 months.

The Bedminster Township Police Department announced that Patrol Sgt. AlTerek Patterson passed away after losing his battle against the virus. Patterson began his service in 2006 and was promoted to sergeant three years ago.

“Sergeant Patterson always had a smile on his face and touched the lives of so many residents at their time of need,” the department posted on its Facebook page.

1:04 p.m.: Spain to distribute 10 million masks to mass transit commuters

The Spanish government will be handling out 10 million masks at subways and other transportation hubs starting this week.

The government is highly recommending that essential workers who can’t telecommute use a mask while traveling. The mask distribution at mass transit locations will begin either Monday or Tuesday, depending on the town’s Easter celebrations.

As of Sunday, Spain has 166,019 COVID-19 cases and 16,972 deaths.

12:30 p.m.: Italy cases rise to nearly 156,000

The number of coronavirus cases in Italy increased by 4,092 over the last 24 hours, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 156,363, Italian health ministers said.

The increase marked a 2.7% jump in the number of cases between Saturday and Sunday, compared to the 3% rise between April 10 and April 11, according to the health data.

There were 431 new deaths on Sunday, bringing the total number of COVID-19 fatalities in the country to 19,899, health officials said. The increase in deaths was a 2.2% increase from Saturday, according to the data.

11:45 a.m.: NY announces another 758 deaths; Cuomo wants to reopen state ‘as soon as possible’

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced another 758 deaths in the state over the last 24 hours. The state now has a total death count of 9,385.

Cuomo noted that the death rate, while “at a terribly high level,” has appeared to have flattened.

“You see also a flattening in the number of lives lost at a terribly high rate. But if you look back over the past several days, you see there’s a certain continuity to that number. Again, that’s the one number that I looked forward to seeing drop as soon as I open my eyes in the morning, and it has been flattening, but flattening at a terribly high level,” he said.

Cuomo said the state wants to reopen “as soon as possible,” likening the constant routine of staying at home to the film “Groundhog Day.”

“We want to reopen as soon as possible. Everyone does, on a societal level. Everyone does on a personal level. Let’s just end this nightmare, right?” the governor said. “Groundhog day. You get up every day, it’s the same routine. You almost lose track of what day of the week it is because they don’t even have meaning anymore. And there’s also some anxiety and stress that we’re all dealing with. So, we want to reopen as soon as possible.”

Cuomo said there needs to be a well-coordinated strategy to avoid an uptick in the infection rate.

“The last thing we want to see is an uptick in that infection rate and an uptick in those numbers that we worked so hard to bring down. So, we need a strategy that coordinates business and schools and transportation and workforce. What New York Pause did is it stopped everything at the same time. It was a blunt device, but it shut down everything at the same time,” he said.

Cuomo also issued two executive orders: one directs employers to provide essential workers with a face covering when they are interacting with the public; the other is to expand the number of people who are eligible for the antibody test, which will show whether someone previously had the coronavirus and has since recovered.

11:28 a.m.: NYC mayor sees encouraging signs of recovery

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took a more hopeful tone during his daily press conference on Sunday, reiterating that although the city is not yet in the clear, he continues to see encouraging signs that it may be on the road to recovery.

“I’m thrilled to be able to tell you just when we thought it was really going to get worse, we started to see some improvement,” de Blasio said. “I’m the first one to say, let’s not over rate that improvement. Let’s not draw too many conclusions too quickly. Let’s be clear and be willing to of course not only see the good, but see hope in the good.”

The Mayor announced that the city currently has enough ventilators and PPE equipment to get through the next week, a positive shift from just a few weeks ago, when officials feared that the city was on the brink of running out of essential equipment.

However, de Blasio added that the city barely has enough face shields and gowns to make it through the week and officials are working to distribute certain materials where they are most urgently needed. The mayor added that although the city will likely have enough supplies to get through the week ahead, he still worries about the following weeks.

“So, this week we will get through. Next week we have real challenges we must address over the next few days,” he warned.

De Blasio announced that in an effort to address the immense racial disparity in the city’s coronavirus cases, the city will open five additional testing sites in order to prioritize the needs of vulnerable communities. He also called on the federal government to assist New York City in acquiring even more tests.

“I will be asking the federal government today for test kits to allow for 110,000 individualized tests. That will allow us to get started with this community effort and to continue everything else that we are doing, specifically 25,000 of those individualized test kits would be focused on health for their current needs and the new sites I have just described. And we need to get these test kits in this week,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio also declared that he would now require all city workers who come in contact with people while on duty to wear a face covering while on duty. The new measure will begin on Monday.

10:40 p.m.: UK reports 737 deaths in last 24 hours

The United Kingdom has recorded 737 additional coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths for the country to 10,612, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.

As of Sunday morning, the U.K. has 84,279 positive test results for COVID-19.

9:30 a.m.: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson discharged from hospital

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from a London hospital on Sunday after spending the last week undergoing treatment for the coronavirus.

Johnson, 55, was released from St. Thomas’ Hospital and was planning to travel to his country home, Chequers, in the London suburb of Buckinghamshire, to continue his recovery, a spokesperson said.

“On the advice of his medical team, the PM will not be immediately returning to work,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said. “He wishes to thank everybody at St. Thomas’ for the brilliant care he has received. All of his thoughts are with those affected by this illness.”

Following his release, Johnson posted video on Twitter thanking the National Health Service for “saving my life.”

Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, also thanked well-wishers on social media.

“There were times last week that were very dark indeed,” Symonds tweeted. “My heart goes out to all those in similar situations, worried sick about their loved ones.”

8:45 a.m.: Trump tweets Easter video calling coronavirus the ‘plague’

Calling the coronavirus “the plague,” President Donald Trump wished Christians across the America a happy Easter in a 48-second video posted on Twitter and told them to stay separated and out of churches to help in the battle against the virus.

“This Easter will be much different than others because in many cases we’ll be separated physically only from our churches,” Trump said. “We won’t be sitting there next to each other which we’d like to be and soon will be again, but right now we’re keeping separation, we’re getting rid of the plague.”

He ended the message by telling Americans we’re “winning the war” and we will soon be “back together in churches right next to each other.”

The message is a significant departure from Trump’s prediction back on March 24 that parishioners would “pack churches” by Easter Sunday. Trump later said it was an aspiration, longing to see churches filled by Easter.

The United States is close to its peak of the novel coronavirus disease, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said on ABC’s This Week.

“The models do show that we are very close to the peak. So I think that information is accurate,” Hahn said. “This has been a really fast-moving outbreak, so we really have to take this day by day.”

President Donald Trump has pushed to reopen the country as soon as possible — at one point even suggesting Easter as a target — but medical professionals have cautioned against reopening before even the start of May, cautioning that there could be a spike in infections if restrictions are lifted too soon.

While he said it’s still too early to name a date, Hahn told “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz, “We see light at the end of the tunnel.”

On Saturday, April 11, 6,743 uniformed members of the NYPD were on sick report which accounts for 18.6% of the department’s uniformed workforce. Currently, 2,318 uniformed members and 471 civilian members tested positive for the coronavirus.

This is a decrease of 1% from Friday evening when the NYPD said 7,096 uniformed members were out sick, which was 19.6% of the force.

The Kansas Supreme Court said late Saturday night that Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order that banned religious services of more than 10 people while the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing will remain in place.

The Democratic governor filed the lawsuit on Thursday after a Republican-dominated legislative panel overturned her order. Kelly sued and then immediately appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court to decide quickly with Easter Sunday services just hours away.

The court held unprecedented electronic oral arguments on Saturday morning, and after listening to arguments, it said the Legislative Coordinating Council lacked the authority to overturn the governor’s executive order.

“My top priority has always been the safety and well-being of all Kansans,” Kelly said in a statement. “I know this pandemic is extremely hard for everyone. Each unprecedented action I’ve been forced to make in recent weeks has been taken in close consultation with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, the Attorney General, legislators and key stakeholders. That process will continue. Most other states, at the urging of the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have taken similar steps to protect Americans to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Puerto Rico’s governor has extended an island-wide curfew until May in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 on the island.

While wearing a face mask and gloves, Gov. Wanda Vazquez announced the lockdown continuation that started on March 15 would be extended until at least May 3.

The curfew orders people to stay home from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. and remain there even outside those hours unless they have to buy food or medicine, go to the bank or have an emergency/health-related situation. Violators face a $5,000 fine or a six-month jail term, and police have cited and arrested hundreds. Nonessential business were closed in March.

According to Puerto Rico’s health secretary, the peak in cases for the island is not expected until early May. There have been about 7,700 people tested so far with more than 780 confirmed cases. Forty-two people have died on the island from COVID-19. There is a backlog of over 1,300 tests that are pending results.

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