US relief checks begin arriving as economic damage piles up

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(Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government relief checks began arriving in Americans’ bank accounts as the economic damage to the U.S. from the coronavirus piled up Wednesday and sluggish sales at reopened stores in Europe and China made it clear that business won’t necessarily bounce right back when the crisis eases.

With lockdowns and other restrictions bringing factories to a shuddering halt, American industrial output shriveled in March, registering its biggest decline since the U.S. demobilized in 1946 at the end of World War II. And retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7%, with April expected to be far worse.

The world’s biggest economy this week began issuing one-time payments to tens of millions of people as part of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, with adults receiving up to $1,200 each and $500 per child to help households make the rent or cover other bills. The checks will be directly deposited into bank accounts or mailed to households, depending on how they filed their tax returns in the past.

“Woke up to our Stimulus check in the bank!” Darla Shepherd of Bledsoe in Harlan County, Kentucky, posted on Facebook. “Thank you Mr. President Trump!”

Shepherd, 38, a health worker in the Appalachian coal-mining community, and her husband, Brandon, 44, are both working. But he was laid off from his quarry job the entire month of February, and his wife said in an interview that the payout would help them get caught up on bills.

“We’re your typical America family. We live payday to payday,“ said Shepherd, who has a 9-year-old son. “It’s a blessing. It means a lot.”

In an unprecedented move, President Donald Trump’s name will be printed on the checks. Two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said the checks would not be delayed because of the decision.

Meanwhile, the first steps in lifting the economically crippling restrictions in other parts of the world are running into resistance, with shoppers and other customers staying away from the reopened businesses and workers afraid the newly restored freedoms could put their health at risk.

In China, millions are still wary of spending much or even going out. Some cities have resorted to handing out shopping vouchers and trying to reassure consumers by showing officials in state media eating in restaurants.

“I put off plans to change cars and spend almost nothing on eating out or entertainment,” said Zhang Hu, a truck salesman in Zhengzhou who has gone back to work but has seen his income plummet because few people are looking to buy 20-ton rigs. “I have no idea when the situation will turn better.”

In Austria, Marie Froehlich, who owns a clothing store in downtown Vienna, said her staff was happy to get back to work after weeks of being cooped up at home. But with her business dependent largely on tourism, which has dried up amid the travel restrictions, she expects it will take months to return to normal.

“Until then, we are in crisis mode,” she said.

The scene was similar in hard-hit Italy, where the streets of Rome were largely deserted despite an easing of restrictions this week that allowed some stores to reopen.

Worldwide, deaths have topped 128,000 and confirmed infections have surpassed 2 million, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size of the crisis, in part because of limited testing, different ways of counting the dead, and concealment by some governments

The U.S. has reported more than 26,000 deaths — the highest in the world — and over 600,000 confirmed infections, by Johns Hopkins’ count. Still, the nightmare scenarios projecting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.


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