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As a new wave COVID-19 cases hits, remote work becomes the norm

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Gina DeRosa was thrilled when her year-long internship at the Department of Education in Pennsylvania in the United States turned into her first full-time job out of college.

But two months into her role, DeRosa has never met her colleagues in person. Trained entirely online by her supervisor, who she had met prior to Philadelphia’s COVID-19 lockdown, DeRosa interacts with her coworkers exclusively over Zoom.

“When you work with your colleagues right there, you can just ask them a question and walk [over] to them,” DeRosa, 22, told Al Jazeera. “It was definitely an adjustment.”

Months into the global coronavirus pandemic, the remote working arrangements that felt temporary in the spring are beginning to feel much more permanent.

Earlier this month, three major tech companies – Dropbox, Twitter and Square – all announced they would be letting employees work remotely forever. And even companies that want to bring people back to the office – like media giant The New York Times – say workers won’t be returning until the summer of 2021.

Remote work is, in many ways, a privilege. Thirty-three percent of the American labour force is currently working from home full-time, according to Gallup data, and an additional 25 percent of those surveyed say they work remotely sometimes. But young people and workers of colour are less likely to be employed at jobs that offer remote work arrangements.

Gina DeRosa, 22, started her first job out of college at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and has worked exclusively from her apartment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [Courtesy: Gina DeRosa]

While some governments loosened restrictions and lifted lockdowns in June, July and August, a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has already caused the United Kingdom and France to reintroduce a new round of lockdowns. And 94 percent of the world’s workers live in countries with at least some workplace closures, according to the International Labour Organization.

Remote work has also been a challenge for many, especially workers juggling caring for babies or managing remote learning for school-aged children. Young people eager to go out into the world and build a name for themselves are also finding it tough.

“For young people that wanted to go out there – you want to meet people, you’re graduating from college, you want to extend your social circle. This is a time when you were going to do that,” Lynn Berger, a New York City-based career coach, told Al Jazeera. “If you’re young and you’re living by yourself, you might really [be] missing that.”

Working from anywhere

When workers were first sent home from the office in the early days of the pandemic, some found silver linings.

Andrew James, 47, a senior account executive for an enterprise software firm, flew from New York City to Miami, Florida in March to be with his long-distance girlfriend of three years.

“This pandemic, weirdly, has made me a father,” James told Al Jazeera of his new living arrangement with his partner and her three children.

James said not having to take the subway every morning, wear a button-down shirt every day and pick up the dry cleaning every week has freed up time for other things – leading to a new work-life balance that he is enjoying.

Even before the pandemic hit, more corporations were embracing the concept of working remotely as a strategic choice, said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who led a study on the productivity effects of geographic flexibility. The study observed a 4.4. percent causal increase in productivity in a sample of 831 employees who could “work from anywhere”, living and working wherever they chose.

“Work from anywhere has tremendous benefits,” Choudhury told Al Jazeera, adding that remote working arrangements can also be good for the environment, as they reduce carbon emissions when people don’t have to drive to work. Employees in work-from-anywhere arrangements also take fewer breaks and sick days, Choudhury found.

Social support reduces stress on both sides. It’s an opportunity to develop those relationships that you kind of put off for a while because you’ve always been so busy running around.

Lynn Berger, career coach

Childcare crisis

Choudhury’s research doesn’t look at workers’ productivity if they are both caring for children and working, however, which is where many parents are struggling to make remote working viable.

James’s girlfriend’s kids are aged 11, 16 and 17, and he said working remotely has been mostly rewarding, if challenging at times.

“We’re all just getting back into school, and I’ve had various tutoring things [I’ve done],” he explained. “It’s actually more of a challenge trying to find space, making sure we’re not on top of each other.”

Andrew James, 47, an account executive at Salesforce, relocated from New York City to Miami, Florida after his employer shuttered the company’s offices in March [Courtesy: Andrew James]

Meanwhile, working parents of small children who can’t take care of themselves face even greater challenges. And while parents of all genders are struggling, the pandemic is having a major effect on mothers in particular.

Women, especially women of colour, have been more likely to be laid off, see their careers stall or have their financial security jeopardised during the pandemic, according to LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Company’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report.

More than one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or dropping out of the workforce entirely, the report found, and 865,000 US women dropped out of the US workforce in September alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, not all workers even have the option to work remotely, including domestic workers, childcare workers, service workers and essential workers. That’s also having a disproportionate impact on women, who make up more than 90 percent of domestic and childcare workers in the US, and they are largely women of colour and immigrants, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

I miss overhearing conversations in the office and saying, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting approach.’ I miss that sort of in-office learning.

Andrew James, enterprise software sr account executive

Zoomed out

The pandemic’s abrupt upheaval of people’s routines and the economic hardships that have followed have triggered a mental health crisis. Fifty-three percent of Americans in July said their worry and stress levels have spiked in recent months, a significant jump from 32 percent in March, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even workers who are not dealing with depression or more serious mental health issues are reporting feeling burnt-out and pressured to be “on” all the time, said career coach Berger.

“We are all kind of Zoomed-out at this point,” she explained. “It’s very frustrating for many people. It can be very lonely, and it’s not healthy.”

Gina DeRosa, 22, said working remotely from her parents’ house in New Jersey at the height of the pandemic back in the spring gave her a chance to spend quality time with her brother, Joseph [Courtesy: Gina DeRosa]

That’s the case for DeRosa, who said she likes skipping the commute but struggles “just to create the separation between work, because everything’s being done in the same place.”

A new normal

Remote work arrangements have persisted, even as government restrictions have lifted on workers returning to offices.

Cost-savings could be one factor at play.

“CEOs and CFOs looked at those empty office buildings, and many of them have told me they’re questioning why they need that real estate,” Choudhury said. “If they can sell off a building or not rent it, that’s going to be real savings to their bottom line.”

In New York City’s Manhattan borough, for example, leasing volume in the office real estate market dropped by half quarter-over-quarter in the third quarter of 2020. Meanwhile, asking rent decreased by the sharpest percentage since 2009, Colliers International reported.

A more permanent remote work culture could also give workers flexibility, Choudhury said, such as spouses working for companies based in different regions, or people working from their home countries rather than competing for a small number of US visas.

“You can move to a country that’s cheaper for you, and if the company is not reducing wages, that means you can have more money in your pocket to buy a bigger house,” Choudhury explained. “You can be closer to your aging parents if that is a priority.”

Companies can help remote workers by offering virtual water cooler sessions, Choudhury said, and supporting childcare.

But until company and government support systems for remote workers catch up to this new reality, there is a fair amount of stress that can come with the arrangement.

For now, Berger encourages her clients to do what they can to take care of themselves, including taking time to get outside during the day “if you feel you’re getting a little fried,” she said.

“I think you have to create time in your schedule to reach out to other people,” she added. “Social support reduces stress on both sides. It’s an opportunity to develop those relationships that you kind of put off for a while because you’ve always been so busy running around.”

James’ firm told its employees that they do not need to return to the office until June of next year. James expects that even when employees are asked back, “it may be for only three or four times a week.” And while he misses the bustle of New York City, he could get used to working from anywhere, especially Miami.

“I miss overhearing conversations in the office and saying, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting approach.’ I miss that sort of in-office learning,” he said. “But I’m doing perfectly fine in this kind of remote environment.”

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US COVID-19 deaths could hit 500,000 by February, researchers say

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The death toll from COVID-19 in the United States could exceed 500,000 by February unless nearly all Americans wear face masks, researchers said on Friday, as 14 states set new records for one-day increases in cases.

The latest estimate by the widely cited University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reflects concern that cold winter weather will drive Americans indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more easily, particularly in confined, poorly-ventilated spaces.

Nationwide, 76,195 new cases were reported on Thursday, according to a Reuters analysis, just shy of the single-day record high of 77,299 reported on July 16. Only India has reported more cases in a single day: 97,894, on September 17.

“We are heading into a very substantial fall/winter surge,” said IHME director Chris Murray, who co-led the research.

The number of possible deaths could drop by 130,000 if 95 percent of Americans covered their faces, the IHME said, echoing a recommendation by Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The country’s Health Secretary Alex Azar has attributed the increase in cases nationwide to individual behaviour, saying household gatherings have become a “major vector of disease spread.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s claim that the US was “rounding the turn” on the pandemic during Thursday night’s presidential debate, Azar told CNN that Trump was trying to provide hope to Americans waiting for a vaccine.

Pennsylvania, a swing state that is expected to play a crucial role in the November 3 presidential election, reported its largest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic began. “Daily increases are now comparable with what we saw in April 2020,” the Pennsylvania Department of Health said in a statement issued on Friday.

Also reporting record one-day increases were the states of Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

More in hospital

On Thursday, there were 916 reported fatalities in the US, a day after the country recorded over 1,200 new deaths for the first time since August.

Also on Thursday, the number of COVID-19 patients in US hospitals climbed to a two-month high. There are now more than 41,000 people in hospital with coronavirus across the country, up 34 percent since the start of the month, according to a Reuters analysis.

North Dakota, with 887 new cases on both Thursday and Friday, remains the hardest-hit state, based on new cases per capita, followed by South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin.

Eight states reported record numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospital on Friday: Alaska, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation say nearly all Americans should wear masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 [Michael Loccisano/Getty Images via AFP]

In Tennessee, hospitals in Nashville said they had experienced a 40 percent increase in patients admitted for the coronavirus.

Dr Jeff Pothof, an emergency medicine physician at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, expressed worry about a lack of compliance with public health measures in the state, where some groups have challenged Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ COVID-19 restrictions in court.

“If we don’t get that and we have such tremendous prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, I don’t see a great way out of this,” Dr Pothof said. “The picture isn’t rosy.”

Chicago Mayor Lori E Lightfoot announced a curfew on non-essential businesses beginning at 10pm on Friday (03:00 GMT on Saturday). She warned residents to avoid social gatherings of more than six people and end all gatherings by 10pm.

Nearly 2,500 people are in hospital with COVID-19 in Illinois, the state’s top public health official, Dr Ngozi Ezike, told a news conference.

The Northeast remains the one region of the county without a significant surge in cases, but infections are trending higher. Boston public schools shifted to online-only learning this week.

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Texas court blocks limits on mail-in ballot drop boxes

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Texas governor previously ordered each county have one drop-off location, drawing concerns over voter suppression.

An appeals court in the US state of Texas ruled Friday that Governor Greg Abbott cannot limit drop-off sites for mail-in ballots to one per county, in what could be a setback for United States President Donald Trump.

Upholding a lower court decision, the Texas Third Court of Appeals ruled that limiting the number of drop boxes would increase the risk that voters could be infected with COVID-19 and would infringe on their right to vote.

Trump has repeatedly criticised mail-in ballots, claiming without evidence that they would lead to widespread voter fraud ahead of the November 3 contest that pits the Republican president against former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump won Texas by nine percentage points in 2016.

Though a Democratic presidential candidate has not won the state in more than four decades, opinion polls suggest that victory may be in reach for Biden, partly due to voters’ dissatisfaction over Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abbott on October 1 issued an order limiting mail-in ballot drop boxes to one per county, regardless of size or population.

The order raised concerns and criticism that it would put a strain on voters in larger counties like Harris, which encompasses the city of Houston and is home to a racially diverse population of over four million people.

Harris County often elects Democratic candidates, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

In its unanimous ruling on Friday, the three-member Texas Third Court of Appeals expressed concerns that limiting drop boxes would increase wait times and create long lines, endangering the health of voters.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office would “immediately appeal” to the Texas Supreme Court in a statement released after the ruling.

The court’s decision in Texas is the latest blow to efforts to limit drop-off locations for ballots across the US.

On October 10, a federal judge rejected the Trump re-election campaign’s attempts to limit how mail-in ballots are collected in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

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Fauci thinks the US should mandate mask use as the pandemic persists

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French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d'Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19.
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d’Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

France reported a new daily record for coronavirus infections with 42,032 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to numbers released by country’s health agency on Friday.

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in France to 1,041,075, according to French government statistics, and marks the first time the government’s coronavirus case tally has surpassed 1 million. 

France also recorded 298 additional coronavirus deaths, bringing the death toll to 34,508, according to the French Health Agency. 

According to government data, an additional 976 coronavirus patients have been admitted to the hospital, and a further 122 coronavirus patients entered intensive care in the last 24 hours. 

Speaking at a health center this afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects France will have to live with the virus until at least the summer of 2021.

“When I listen to the scientists, and the Scientific Council, we foresee [living with the virus] at best until next summer,” Macron said. “It is still too early to say whether we are moving towards wider local re-confinements, we will try each time to reduce the places, the moments when we have identified that the virus was circulating a lot. This is the strategy we will pursue.”

Macron added that the government aims to implement new restrictions in the most targeted way possible. 

From midnight on Friday, France’s nighttime coronavirus curfew will be extended more widely, with 46 million French people affected, announced French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday. 

To note: According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, France has recorded 1,048,924 coronavirus cases and 34,236 deaths. CNN’s Paris Bureau is working on clarifying the discrepancy between state statistics and the university’s numbers.

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