Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday with the pandemic at perhaps its most precarious point yet.
Coronavirus cases in the United States have reached record highs, with an average of more than 176,000 a day over the past week. Deaths are soaring, with more than 2,200 announced on both Tuesday and Wednesday, the highest daily totals since early May. Even as reports of new infections begin to level off in parts of the Midwest, that progress is being offset by fresh outbreaks on both coasts and in the Southwest, where officials are scrambling to impose new restrictions to slow the spread.
The national uptick includes weekly case records in places as diffuse as Delaware, Ohio, Maine and Arizona, where more than 27,000 cases were announced over seven days, exceeding the state’s summer peak.
In New Mexico, grocery stores are being ordered to close if four employees test positive. In Los Angeles County, Calif., restaurants can no longer offer in-person dining. And in Pima County, Ariz., which includes Tucson, cases have reached record levels and officials have imposed a voluntary curfew.
“What we’re trying to do is decrease social mobility,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the Pima County health director.
Deaths are also surging, especially in the Midwest, the region that drove much of the case growth this fall. More than 900 deaths have been announced over the past week in Illinois, along with more than 400 each in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Health officials have worried aloud for weeks that large Thanksgiving gatherings could seed another wave of infections at a time when the country can scarcely afford it. In many places, hospitals are already full, contact tracers have been overwhelmed and health care workers are exhausted.
“Wisconsin is in a bad place right now with no sign of things getting better without action,” said an open letter signed by hundreds of employees of UW Health, the state university’s medical center and health system. “We are, quite simply, out of time. Without immediate change, our hospitals will be too full to treat all of those with the virus and those with other illnesses or injuries.”
More than 260,000 people have died of coronavirus in the United States. In a speech on the eve of Thanksgiving, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke of his family’s losses, and urged Americans to “hang on” and called for unity.
“I remember that first Thanksgiving, the empty chair, the silence,” said Mr. Biden, whose son Beau died in 2015. “It takes your breath away. It’s really hard to care. It’s hard to give thanks. It’s hard to even think of looking forward. It’s so hard to hope. I understand.”
The Supreme Court late Wednesday barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.
The court’s ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada. In those cases, decided in May and July, the court allowed the states’ governors to restrict attendance at religious services.
The Supreme Court’s membership has changed since then, with Justice Barrett succeeding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. The vote in the earlier cases was also 5 to 4, but in the opposite direction, with Chief Justice Roberts joining Justice Ginsburg and the other three members of what was then the court’s four-member liberal wing.
In an unsigned opinion, the majority said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said Mr. Cuomo had treated secular activities more favorably than religious ones.
“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.
The court’s order addressed two applications: one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals. The applications both said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, and the one from the synagogues added that Mr. Cuomo had “singled out a particular religion for blame and retribution for an uptick in a societywide pandemic.”
Other parades of New York City — including the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Pride March and the Puerto Rican Day Parade — have fallen one by one to the pandemic, as city and state officials determined they would be unsafe because they draw such huge crowds. The Veterans Day Parade became a motorcade.
But the Thanksgiving Day Parade is sailing forth, largely because the millions who typically attend have been told to stay home and the event has been scaled down to a television show, albeit one that many view as itself a ritual marker of the holiday.
Planning this year’s event has been a singular feat of logistical legerdemain. Starting in March, the parade planners at Macy’s and NBC, which airs the event, had to rip up the carefully calibrated script and come up with an entirely new blueprint.
“What I knew about Thanksgiving Day a month ago is different from what I know now,” said Susan Tercero, who is the executive producer of the event for Macy’s. “How do you plan something in June that’s going to happen in November when you have no idea where the country is going to be at then?”
History has set a high bar for canceling the parade, which has gone off every year since 1924, except for three years during World War II.
Instead, the planners kept in communication with city and state officials and responded as evidence of a second wave in New York mounted, reducing the number of participants a second time, to 12 percent of their typical work force from 25 percent. Instead of about 8,000 people working a packed parade route in a normal year, the efforts of 960 people are being spread over three days of filming.
The giant balloons were cut to 12 from 16, the floats to 18 from 26. The high school marching bands from around the country are staying home. And the parade route, to discourage crowds, is a stub of its usual self, a single block of 34th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
The announcement this week that a cheap, easy-to-make coronavirus vaccine appeared to be up to 90 percent effective was greeted with jubilation. “Get yourself a vaccaccino,” a British tabloid celebrated, noting that a shot of the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, costs less than a cup of coffee.
But since unveiling the preliminary results, AstraZeneca has acknowledged a key mistake in the vaccine dosage received by some study participants, adding to questions about whether the vaccine’s apparently spectacular efficacy will hold up under additional testing.
Scientists and industry experts said the error and a series of other irregularities and omissions in the way AstraZeneca initially disclosed the data have eroded their confidence in the reliability of the results.
Officials in the United States have also said that the results were not clear. It was the head of the U.S. federal vaccine initiative — not the company — who first disclosed that the vaccine’s most promising results did not reflect data from older people.
The upshot, the experts said, is that the odds of regulators in the United States and elsewhere quickly authorizing the emergency use of the AstraZeneca vaccine are declining, a setback in the global campaign to corral the devastating pandemic.
Michele Meixell, a spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, said the trials “were conducted to the highest standards.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Menelas Pangalos, the AstraZeneca executive in charge of much of the company’s research and development, defended the company’s handling of the testing and its public disclosures. He said the error in the dosage was made by a contractor, and that, once it was discovered, regulators were immediately notified and signed off on the plan to continue testing the vaccine in different doses.
Asked why AstraZeneca shared some information with Wall Street analysts and some other officials and experts but not with the public, he responded, “I think the best way of reflecting the results is in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, not in a newspaper.”
Almost all of England must adhere to the two most severe sets of coronavirus restrictions when a national lockdown ends next week, the government said on Thursday, in an announcement likely to stoke tensions with some of its own lawmakers.
London and Liverpool have escaped the most stringent curbs and have been put into the second of three tiers, each based on an assessment of the threat from the virus.
But that will still keep some restrictions on restaurants and pubs, which will only be allowed to serve alcohol indoors to those eating a substantial meal.
In Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, Newcastle and Hull, cities that must follow the toughest restrictions, pubs and restaurants will stay closed except for takeout service.
Just a handful of areas in the south of England will be in the tier with the lightest rules.
The fact that much of Northern England faces the tightest curbs is likely to revive claims that the region is not being treated the same way as London and the southern parts of the country.
Across the country, some normality will return when the lockdown lifts on Wednesday in England and stores, gyms and hairdressers can reopen. Religious services, weddings and outdoor sporting events can also take place.
But in dividing the country into three tiers of restrictions, based on regional data, the government is hoping that the system works better than it did earlier this year, when it failed to stem a surge in cases.
This time the rules have been tightened and Thursday’s announcement, made by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, underscores the government’s desire to keep tight controls on the hospitality trade in the run up to Christmas.
“It is vital that we safeguard the gains we have made,” he told lawmakers on Thursday.
Some critics, however, want regions split into smaller units to reflect local circumstances, and 70 lawmakers from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party have expressed concerns about the economic damage of restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy has urged New Jersey school districts to open for some face-to-face instruction, repeatedly noting that the coronavirus spread among teachers and students was far lower than expected.
Last week, as New York City was reeling from the mayor’s decision to close the nation’s largest school district, Mr. Murphy joined with six other governors — including New York’s — to release a statement about the importance, and relative safety, of in-person instruction.
His own schools weren’t listening: While most districts in New Jersey had reopened for some in-person instruction, many announced plans this week to return to all-remote learning through all or part of the holidays.
The tensions point to the difficulty governors across the Northeast have had in persuading districts to reopen more fully — decisions that often require school boards to buck powerful teachers unions and to live with the inherent risk of outbreaks as the virus surges.
Parents and children are often caught in the middle, forced to quickly shift routines and expectations in a year already marred by the extraordinary challenges of remote instruction.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, has the power to shut down schools, as he did in March when New York and New Jersey were an early epicenter of the pandemic. And he has said that decisions about all-remote instruction need state approval and that districts must be working toward bringing students back to class.
Still, for all the governor’s public exhortations, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education could not point to a single instance when the state rejected a district’s plan to shift to all-remote instruction.
The governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have faced similar pressure from districts and unions as they continue to stress the importance of in-person education. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo offered a plan to keep New York City’s schools open for at least a few more days, but the mayor rebuffed him.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Thursday detailed measures to extend and tighten the country’s partial lockdown.
“It’s in our hands, we are not without power” she told lawmakers in presenting details of restrictions that would likely last through December. “Without a doubt we have difficult months ahead of us.”
As daily infections remain high despite a three-week old lockdown, Ms. Merkel and state governors agreed on Wednesday to stricter rules and an extension of the lockdown through December.
The new restrictions limit gatherings to five people (not counting children under 14) from no more than two households; require mask usage in outdoor shopping areas, in front of stores and in store parking lots; and tighten rules regarding how many people can be in shops at the same time.
Schools will remain open but will break for Christmas a couple of days earlier than planned. New rules — like mandatory masks during lessons and part-time physical education classes — will go into effect in regions with high rates of infection.
The current lockdown was announced at the end of October for the month of November and was designed to allow some loosening of rules during the holiday season, the most important annual celebration in Germany. The extension announced on Wednesday included an exception allowing up to 10 people to meet between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1.
Ms. Merkel also spoke about vaccines, noting that doctors, nurses and other care personnel will get the very first doses, possibly next month.
Although the exponential increase of daily cases seen earlier this month has leveled off, Germany has recorded a daily average of at least 18,000 new cases over the past week, according to a New York Times database, and the number of very sick and dying patients continues to rise. On Tuesday, the German authorities registered 410 deaths, a record.
Tens of thousands of fans are expected to be at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, when the Dallas Cowboys, as they have nearly every year since 1966, play at home on Thanksgiving, this time against the Washington Football Team.
To control the spread of the coronavirus, state rules limit attendance at the stadium to half its capacity of more than 100,000, and no game has approached that limit. Still, attendance has grown every game, hitting a high of 31,700 on Nov. 8, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were in town. Jerry Jones, the team’s owner, plans to keep selling tickets even as the number of infections surges in Tarrant County, where the Cowboys play home games.
“I see a continued aggressive approach to having fans out there,” Mr. Jones said last week on Dallas sports talk radio. “And that’s not being insensitive to the fact that we got our Covid and outbreak. Some people will say maybe it is, but not when you’re doing it as safe as we are and not when we’re having the results we’re having.”
Local and state authorities have ultimate authority over whether fans can attend games, and the rules in Texas are more permissive than in states like California and New Jersey, where teams have played without spectators this season.
But Mr. Jones’s approach runs counter not just to what other N.F.L. teams have done in recent weeks, but to what medical experts say is prudent public health policy. The number of cases in the county has jumped more than fivefold since the start of the regular season in early September, when there was an average of 1,500 confirmed infections a day.
On Wednesday, the N.F.L. has moved the Thanksgiving night showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers to Sunday afternoon after nearly a dozen players and staff members on the Ravens tested positive for the virus.
Last week, David Leonhardt invited readers of his Morning newsletter to send six words describing what made them thankful in 2020. Here is a selection of their responses:
The crinkling eye above the mask.
A furtive hug with a friend.
The backyard haircuts are getting better.
My choir still meets on Zoom.
Friends who give me streaming passwords.
Family reunion in January, before Covid.
Miss family, but safer for them.
Saved a lot of lipstick money.
More homemade pasta, no more jeans.
No shame in elastic-waist pants.
Braless at home? No one cares.
Mom, 87, rocking pretty, pandemic ponytail.
Teenage son still likes to snuggle.
My parents live two blocks away.
No better excuse to avoid in-laws.
This stinking year is nearly over.