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As the global coronavirus death toll climbs beyond 800,000, U.S. debates masks and WHO warns Europe

Passengers prepare to board a train in Madrid.
Passengers prepare to board a train in Madrid on Thursday.
(Andrea Comas / Associated Press)

As the coronavirus death toll mounts around the world, Iowa closed bars in several of its largest counties in response to swelling numbers of confirmed virus cases and debates flared around the U.S. over mask requirements.

Officials said a man hit and threatened a security guard at Epcot theme park in Florida when he was asked to follow Disney World’s mask rules. In Alabama, the governor announced an extension of a statewide mask order credited with reducing the state’s COVID-19 cases. And elected officials in a Mississippi city got into a dispute after some refused to wear masks, prompting the mayor to clear out the room and enforce social distancing between board members after the meeting restarted.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s top official in Europe said Thursday that rising infections among young people could spread to older people and cause an uptick in deaths. Dr. Hans Kluge said younger people are likely to come into closer contact with the elderly as the weather cools in Europe and families move activities inside.

More than 828,000 people worldwide have died from the virus and more than 24.2 million have contracted it, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University — figures experts say understate the true toll because of limited testing, missed mild cases and other factors.

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IOWA CLOSES BARS

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has ordered that all bars be closed in six of the state’s largest counties in response to surging numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases blamed in part on young people ignoring mask and social distancing recommendations in such establishments.

Reynolds ordered the action in Black Hawk, Dallas, Linn, Johnson, Polk and Story counties effective at 5 p.m. Thursday on a day when the state saw nearly 1,500 confirmed cases, a new high that topped levels recorded in the spring.

In a 24-hour period as of Thursday morning, Iowa recorded 1,475 confirmed cases, surpassing the April 25 total of 1,284. During that period, there were 18 more deaths for a total of 1,079.

Reynolds said the increased cases are largely due to young people gathering, especially those returning to state universities.

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ITALY CASE NUMBERS RISE

Italy’s day-to-day increase in new cases rose again Thursday, but so did the number of COVID-19 swab tests done in the previous 24 hours. The nation where Europe’s coronavirus outbreak began registered 1,411 new cases since the previous day, raising to 263,949 the total of known infections.

Many of the newly infected are travelers returning from countries with many clusters of COVID-19 or from Sardinia, a popular Italian vacation island, as well as from tracing contacts with these cases. Dozens of cases have now been linked to clusters in trendy discos on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast.

Several airports, including in Rome, Milan and Naples, as well as seaports now test travelers as soon as they disembark from aircraft or ferries. Most of those infected lately are in their 30s, 20s or teens, and often are asymptomatic. Still the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been creeping upward.

DISNEY GUEST ACCUSED OF HITTING GUARD OVER MASKS

Sheriff’s officials said that a man hit a security guard in the head and threatened to kill him at Epcot theme park when he was asked to follow Disney World’s mask rules.

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Enrico Toro, 35, was arrested Aug. 14 and charged with misdemeanor battery, according to an Orange County Sheriff’s Office arrest report.

“We expect guests to treat our cast members with courtesy and respect, and while the vast majority of guests have adapted to our new measures, this unfortunate case required law enforcement,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement.

WHO SCIENTIST SAYS MASKS NOT ENOUGH

A top scientist at the World Health Organization said wearing masks alone to protect against the spread of the coronavirus isn’t enough, expressing concerns that people are growing too lax on maintaining physical distancing.

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s emergencies program, says she’s becoming “a little bit concerned” that use of masks appear to be leading some people to think they don’t need to keep safe distances from others.

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“We’re seeing that people aren’t really adhering to the physical distancing anymore,” she told reporters at a regular WHO news conference. “Even if you’re wearing masks, you still need to try to do the physical distancing of at least 1 meter (3¼ feet) and even further if you can.”

The United Nations health agency has laid out a number of recommendations including physical distancing, regular and thorough hand washing, use of masks and other measures to fight COVID-19.

“So it’s not just masks alone. It’s not just physical distancing alone,” Van Kerkhove said. “It’s not just hand cleaning alone. Do it all.”

MASK DISPUTE DISRUPTS CITY MEETING

Elected officials in a Mississippi city got into a dispute after some refused to wear masks to guard against the new coronavirus, prompting the mayor to clear out the room and enforce social distancing between board members after the meeting restarted.

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The feud in McComb meant the only way the public could watch the Board of Selectmen conduct business Tuesday night was on a video feed with poor audio quality, the Enterprise-Journal reported.

Mississippi remains under Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ order for people to wear masks in public. McComb also has a local mask mandate.

ALABAMA EXTENDS STATEWIDE MASK ORDER

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that she is extending a statewide mask order that she and health officials have credited with reducing COVID-19 cases in the state.

The Republican governor said the mask order, which had been set to expire next week, will be extended another five weeks until Oct. 2. Ivey also said that she will keep in place other health orders, such as reducing occupancy in stores and limiting table seating in restaurants.

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“Folks, I understand you don’t want to wear the mask. I don’t either,” Ivey said in a news conference at the Alabama Capitol.

“I wish we didn’t have to wear masks, but we are seeing significant drops in our hospitalizations and daily positive COVID-19 numbers, and I have no doubt this is a result of our mask order,” Ivey said. “When you wear a mask you are protecting the people in your office, school, church and your vulnerable family and friends.”

The Republican governor has faced a mix of praise from health officials and criticism from some conservatives for the decision to issue the statewide mask order unlike some Southern governors.

The state order requires people to wear coverings over their noses and mouths when interacting within 6 feet of people outside their household. Masks are also required in schools and colleges, where possible, for students in second grade and above.

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