Job losses from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States climbed to 26.4 million, as Congress on Thursday was poised to approve a new stimulus measure and governors in some states move to slowly reopen businesses.
Sobering data released by the Labor Department showed 4.4 million US workers filed new claims for jobless benefits in the week that ended April 18, underscoring the damage done to the world’s largest economy by the crisis.
The figure represents a drop from recent weeks, but the weekly totals are many times higher than any recorded during the global financial crisis starting in 2008, as virus lockdown measures force businesses to close nationwide.
The House of Representatives was set to give its seal of approval to the latest stimulus bill, which would add nearly $500 billion in fresh relief funds for devastated small businesses and overwhelmed hospitals.
That builds upon the massive $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus measure passed in late March.
The new bill under consideration would provide another $320 in funding for a depleted program to aid small businesses, along with $75 billion for hospitals, $25 billion to expand virus testing and $60 billion in disaster recovery loans and grants.
More than 200 lawmakers were to attend the session to ensure a quorum, and only small groups were allowed to enter the chamber at a time. Many wore face masks.
After that, President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.
In states where the outbreak has been less severe, governors are moving to begin the slow process of returning to normal, some in response to a spate of anti-lockdown protests.
But their measures are being called into question — and Trump specifically criticized a decision to open hair salons, tattoo parlors and gyms in Georgia from Friday.
“I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday.
“At the same time, he must do what he thinks is right.”
In Florida, another Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is considering similar measures.
A CBS News poll released Thursday said 63 percent of Americans were more concerned about lifting the restrictions too soon and intensifying the outbreak than about the consequences to the economy of maintaining them for two long.
Meanwhile, only 13 percent said they would return to public places if the restrictions were lifted right now.
Business owners and economists have said that without confident consumers willing to go out and spend, reopening shops and restaurants will have little effect.
The United States has recorded more coronavirus-related deaths than any other nation, with the toll at nearly 47,000 as of early Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Calling the jobless figure “extraordinarily elevated,” Nancy Vanden Houten of Oxford Economics predicted the US was on track for a spike in the unemployment rate to 24 percent.
That is a reversal of fortune that was unthinkable at the beginning of the year, when the rate was in the low single digits.
“While there is great uncertainty surrounding the magnitude of the job losses in April, we expect a total decline of around 24 million that will touch a wide range of jobs, but be concentrated in the accommodation and food services, recreation, retail and transportation sectors,” she wrote in an analysis.
Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics predicted a further decline in unemployment claims next week, but said “less terrible … is not the same as good.”
He noted that “the rate of fall of Google searches for ‘file for unemployment’ has slowed, suggesting it will take several more weeks before claims drop below one million.”
In another sign of the pandemic’s damage, government data released Thursday showed home sales collapsing in March, declining 15.4 percent compared to February — exceeding analyst expectations.
The decrease was seen in all areas of the country, with the sharpest contractions in the Northeast and West — both regions that have experienced significant virus outbreaks.
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