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Two men hold signs as they protest against the state's extended stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, in Olympia, Wash., on April 19, 2020.

LINDSEY WASSON/Reuters

The U.S. debate over when to lift restrictions to curb the coronavirus outbreak intensified on Monday, with protesters describing mandatory lockdowns as “tyranny” and health workers and officials portraying them as a matter of life and death.

Stay-at-home measures, which experts say are essential to slow the spread of the virus, have ground the economy to a virtual standstill and forced more than 22 million people to apply for unemployment benefits in the past month.

In Pennsylvania, where Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has pledged to veto a bill in the Republican-led General Assembly that would force him to reopen some businesses, a few hundred protesters, some in cars, demonstrated in the capital Harrisburg.

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Protesters who drove in front of the capitol honked on their horns for hours.

Many of the protesters expressed cynicism toward health experts and skepticism about the actual scale of the pandemic in the country, accusing officials of overreaching and taking actions that had caused more harm than the virus itself.

“All the projections were wrong, but we are still telling people to stay home and businesses to close. This is not quarantine, this is tyranny,” said Mark Cooper, a 61-year-old retired truck driver.

Others portrayed the stay-at-home measures in an altogether different light. Yetta Timothy, who was part of a counterprotest in Harrisburg, said the nursing home where she worked had lost an untold number of patients.

“They are dying everyday,” said the 43-year-old nurse, crying and holding a sign that read, “my life is on the line.”

“I just can’t believe all of this is happening, that they want to go back to work.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking re-election in November, has said state governors should have the final say, but has favoured an early end to the lockdowns, and many protesters in the past week have sported pro-Trump signs and campaign gear.

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Republican lawmakers in several states have also backed the protesters, some of whom have failed to wear face masks and practise the physical distancing that health officials say is key to getting the virus under control.

In Washington, lawmakers were squabbling over a possible US$450-billion-plus deal to provide more aid to small businesses and hospitals hurt by the crisis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a vote could take place on Tuesday.]

Congress last month passed a US$2.3-trillion aid package that included a small-business loan program. The Trump administration wants to add US$250-billion to that now-depleted program, while Democrats have pushed for including funding for state and municipal governments and food aid for the poor.

FEARS OF RESURGENCE

Health experts and lawmakers on the front lines of the battle to curb the pandemic, which started in China late last year, have said the United States could face a second and even deadlier wave of infections if the lockdowns end prematurely.

The U.S. has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 760,000 infections and more than 41,100 deaths, nearly half of them in the state of New York, according to a Reuters tally.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News there would be no real economic recovery until authorities got the virus under control and that jumping the gun could lead to a big spike in cases.

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“It’s going to backfire, that’s the problem,” he said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has become a national figure during the crisis, said reopening the economy in New York and other parts of the country would need to be calibrated carefully to prevent another surge in cases.

“We need to get testing up to scale,” Mr. Cuomo said, adding that he was aware that some people were unhappy that they had to wear masks or engage in physical distancing. “It’s not a question of happy – it’s a question of life and death.”

Earlier, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said it could take weeks if not months before the country’s most populous city reopens owing to a lack of widespread testing.

Mr. Trump, who has sparred with a number of Democratic governors critical of his response to the health crisis, has said there were enough tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Mr. Trump said governors had shifted from complaining about a scarcity of ventilators to griping about not having what they needed to ramp up testing, accusing them of “playing a very dangerous political game.”

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White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said ramping up testing was the top item on the administration’s agenda.

Mr. Trump’s guidelines to reopen the economy recommend a state record 14 days of declining case numbers before gradually lifting restrictions.

Residents in Florida were allowed to return to some beaches after Governor Ron DeSantis approved the relaxing of some restrictions.

Charlie Latham, mayor of Jacksonville Beach, said the beach there was reopened with limited hours, and it went well with no arrests for people violating physical-distancing rules, which barred chairs and blankets.

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