Singapore Brings In New Covid Restrictions After Airport Outbreak

SINGAPORE — Singapore said on Friday that it would ban dining in restaurants and gatherings of more than two people to try to stem a rise in coronavirus cases, becoming the latest Asian nation to reintroduce restrictions after keeping the illness mostly in check for months.

The new measures came after the city-state recorded 34 new cases on Thursday, a small number by global standards, but part of a rise in infections traced to vaccinated workers at Singapore Changi Airport.

The airport outbreak began with an 88-year-old member of the airport cleaning crew who was fully vaccinated but who tested positive for the virus on May 5. Co-workers who then became infected later visited an airport food court, where they transmitted the virus to other customers, officials said.

None of the cases linked to the airport outbreak are believed to have resulted in critical illness or death, according to officials.

might be more contagious than most versions of the coronavirus.

Singapore health officials said that of 28 airport workers who became infected, 19 were fully vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, the only two approved for use in Singapore.

“Unfortunately, this mutant virus, very virulent, broke through the layers of defense,” Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung told a virtual news conference on Friday.

migrant workers living in dormitories, but a two-month lockdown and extensive testing and contact tracing contained the outbreak. Although Singapore has kept much of its economy open, its vaccination effort has not moved as quickly as many expected: less than one-quarter of the population has been fully inoculated.

Changi Airport, which served more than 68 million passengers in 2019, is operating at 3 percent of capacity as Singapore has paused nearly all incoming commercial traffic. Employees there work under strict controls, wearing protective gear and submitting to regular coronavirus tests.

Singapore joins Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries that have struggled to contain new outbreaks fueled in part by variants. But Paul Ananth Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that the rise in cases was not overly worrying.

“The reason for my optimism is that we now have effective vaccines, better diagnostics, proven treatments and even potential prophylactic agents,” he said. “If these are employed in a targeted approach, it is unlikely that we will end up with the same problems we had last year.”

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McDonald’s to Increase Wages as Job Market Tightens: Live Updates

Chipotle, McDonald’s said it hoped the higher pay would attract as many as 10,000 new employees in the next three months, as the busy summer season approaches and dine-in restrictions are removed at many of its restaurants.

At its company-owned restaurants, McDonald’s said the average employee wage would increase to $13 an hour, with some restaurants achieving an average wage of $15 an hour later this year. All company-owned restaurants expected to be at an average salary of $15 by 2024, the company noted.

Still, that falls short of the minimum wage of $15 an hour being demanded by the Fight for $15 organization, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union. The Fight for $15 organization is spearheading a strike by McDonald’s employees in several cities across the country on Wednesday ahead of the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

A leader for Fight for $15 dismissed McDonald’s move to bolster wages, saying it wasn’t enough.

“We’ve showed up to work day after day in the middle of a global pandemic, risking our lives without proper P.P.E. or paid time off to keep your stores open and corporate profits flowing,” Doneshia Babbitt, a McDonald’s employee in St. Louis and union leader, said in a statement. “You’ve called us essential for over a year, but your announcement today proves that you’ve seen us as disposable all along.”

The strikes in 15 cities on Wednesday, she said, would go on as planned.

In 2019, McDonald’s announced it would no longer use its powerful lobbying arm to fight attempts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour at the federal, state and local level. In a call with Wall Street analysts in January, the McDonald’s chief executive, Chris Kempczinski, said the company was doing “just fine” in the more than two dozen states that had increased minimum wages in a phased-in way.

In fact, despite having many of its dining rooms closed or with limited capacity in parts of the country for much of the pandemic, the strength of McDonald’s drive-throughs helped push its profit to more than $4.7 billion in 2020. It paid its shareholders more than $3.7 billion in dividends and spent another $874 million repurchasing shares before suspending the program in early March of last year.

Mr. Kempczinski agreed to cut his base salary in half last year, but his total compensation was still more than $10.8 million.

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, has been a big Bitcoin advocate.
Credit…Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Elon Musk has been a big cryptocurrency booster of late, even directing Tesla to buy $1.5 billion in Bitcoin for its corporate treasury earlier this year. On Thursday, he abruptly reversed course, tweeting that Tesla would stop accepting Bitcoin as payment for cars, citing environmental reasons.

“We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel,” he said.

Bitcoin’s price promptly plunged by more than 10 percent, and Tesla’s shares dropped more than 4 percent, but recovered when trading began on Thursday.

Bitcoin price

Tesla said it would begin accepting the cryptocurrency a few months ago, when it also revealed a billion-dollar Bitcoin buy, pushing the price up by more than 10 percent. Bitcoin seems remarkably sensitive to the billionaire’s tweets. “If one person can dramatically alter spending power, the ‘stable store of value’ criteria of a currency is not met,” Paul Donovan of UBS wrote in a note to clients on Thursday.

Mining Bitcoin is energy-intensive, and the more it is worth, the more power it takes a network of computers to create the tokens, by design. Bitcoin’s climate problem is hardly a secret. The DealBook newsletter asks: What gives?

  • Tesla only started accepting Bitcoin for car purchases in the United States in March. Just over two weeks ago, Zach Kirkhorn, Tesla’s chief financial officer, told investors that “it is our intent to hold what we have long term and continue to accumulate Bitcoin from transactions from our customers as they purchase vehicles.” He described the rationale for buying and accepting Bitcoin as “Elon and I were looking for a place to store cash that wasn’t being immediately used, trying to get some level of return.”

  • An entry-level Tesla is worth about one Bitcoin, so the company’s $1.5 billion Bitcoin purchase in February far surpasses the amount of crypto it would collect from car sales for a very long time. That raises questions about the vetting and approval process for that investment, which may worry E.S.G. investors, who otherwise look favorably at an electric vehicle company. Did Mr. Musk not know about Bitcoin’s environmental impact until now? Who advised him on it? Did climate factor into the board’s approval process?

  • SpaceX’s rockets are massive carbon emitters. The Boring Company, his tunnel drilling endeavor, has also faced criticism about its environmental impact.

  • Mr. Musk’s statement said that “Tesla will not be selling any Bitcoin and we intend to use it for transactions as soon as mining transitions to more sustainable energy.” We’ll see whether it made any recent trades when it reports second-quarter results in July. Given the impact that Mr. Musk’s tweet had on Bitcoin’s price, any action just before or after will be scrutinized.

  • The return policy for cars bought with Bitcoin worked in Tesla’s favor, stipulating that buyers get back Bitcoin if it’s worth less than the equivalent dollar value at purchase but get back dollars if Bitcoin is worth more. That raises many issues, including accounting risks and worries about warranties and other consumer protection laws.

Mr. Musk can be an unreliable narrator. On Tuesday, he asked his followers on Twitter if Tesla should accept Dogecoin, the jokey cryptocurrency. (Most said yes.) On Sunday, he announced that SpaceX had taken Dogecoin as payment for shuttling a satellite to the moon. And as host of “Saturday Night Live,” he said that cryptocurrency was both “the future of currency” and “a hustle.”

Servers at a restaurant in Columbia, Mo., last week. The labor market is struggling to return to normal after more than a year of being whipsawed by the pandemic.
Credit…Jacob Moscovitch for The New York Times

New claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, the government reported on Thursday, as the labor market slowly recovers from the staggering losses wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic.

About 487,000 workers filed first-time claims for state benefits during the week that ended May 8, the Labor Department said, a decrease from 514,000 the week before. In addition, about 104,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 473,000.

After more than a year of being whipsawed by the pandemic, the economy has been showing new life. Restrictions are lifting, businesses are reopening and job listings are on the upswing. But hiring in April was weaker than expected.

“Over all, jobless claims are about three times as high as they were pre-Covid, but they’re coming down” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Some employers, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality sectors, have complained of having trouble finding workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several Republican governors have asserted that a temporary $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement has made workers reluctant to return to the job.

The U.S. Labor Department said that as of Wednesday, six states — Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and South Carolina — had notified the department that they were terminating a network of federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits ahead of the Sept. 6 expiration date.

Several other states with Republican governors, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho, have said they also plan to withdraw from the federal programs in the next month or so.

In most cases, that would mean an end not only to the weekly supplements, but also to gig workers’ Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and extended benefits for those who have exhausted other state and federal jobless insurance.

Oxford Economics estimates that roughly 279,000 people in 11 states will lose the $300-a-week stipend, while an additional 609,000 will lose all benefits.

The unemployment rates in those states in March, the latest month for which data is available, ranged from 3.2 percent in Idaho to 6.3 percent in Mississippi.

Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama are among the states that offer the lowest maximum benefit to qualified individuals — $275 or less each week. Nationwide, the average weekly benefit without federal supplements is $387, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Economists are skeptical that supplemental jobless benefits are playing anything more than a bit part in the pace of the job market’s recovery.

“There is tremendous churn in this labor market,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “There are still major supply constraints and unemployment benefits are not the most important one. The virus is.”

Many workers have children at home who are not attending school in person. Others are wary of returning to jobs that require face-to-face encounters. Covid-19 infections have decreased since September, but there are still 38,000 new cases being reported each day and 600 Covid-related deaths. Less than half the population is fully vaccinated.

There is halting progress from employers as well, as businesses continually update their assessment of costs and customer demand. “The hiring pattern isn’t going to be smooth,” Mr. Daco said. “Businesses hire and then reassess. They need to find the right balance, it’s a trial-and-error process more than anything.”

Prematurely halting federal jobless benefits is “detrimental to the economy,” Mr. Daco said. “You’re voluntarily hurting certain vulnerable tranches of the population.”

Nationwide, the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, and there are 8.2 million fewer jobs than in February 2020.

An empty gas pump, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Colonial Pipeline said Wednesday it had restarted operations along its Texas-to-New Jersey pipeline, but full restoration of service was expected to take days.
Credit…Jonathan Drake/Reuters

U.S. stocks rebound on Thursday following a sell-off in European and Asian equities after faster-than-expected inflation data in the United States rattled markets the previous day.

The S&P 500 open nearly 1 percent higher, after a 2.1 percent drop on Wednesday. The Nasdaq climbed more than 1 percent.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index fell 0.4 percent, recovering from a 1.7 percent decline earlier. The Nikkei 225 slumped 2.5 percent in Japan, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong dropped 1.8 percent.

The U.S. Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, climbed 4.2 percent in April from a year earlier, the fastest pace of increase since 2008. From March to April, prices increased 0.8 percent; economists surveyed by Bloomberg only forecast a 0.2 percent increase.

The yield on 10-year Treasury notes held steady at about 1.69 percent after jumping seven basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, on Wednesday.

Federal Reserve policymakers have said that they expect the current increase in inflation to be transitory and would not set off a pullback in monetary stimulus. But the increase in April’s inflation reading, beyond what other analysts forecast, has some traders testing this view.

Oil prices fell on Thursday after Colonial Pipeline said it had begun to restart operations along its massive pipeline, which transports gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Texas to New Jersey. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, dropped more than 2 percent to $64.65 a barrel.

Other commodity prices have also fallen from recent highs. Iron ore futures were down 3.6 percent after climbing to a record this week. Aluminum prices fell 1.6 percent and silver prices were down 1.4 percent.

Bitcoin prices fell more than 10 percent to below $50,000, according to CoinDesk, after Elon Musk said Tesla would stop accepting the cryptocurrency as payment for its electric cars. Mr. Musk citing concerns about the energy consumption used in mining for Bitcoin, a longstanding issue. Tesla’s share price fell 1.5 percent in premarket trading, but recovered when markets opened.

Most other cryptocurrencies fell on Thursday with CoinMarketCap valuing the global market at $2.2 trillion, down 11 percent from the day before.

Shares in Coinbase, an exchange for people and companies to buy and sell various digital currencies, dropped nearly 2 percent.

Alibaba recorded an operating loss of $1.2 billion for the first three months of the year.
Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

China’s landmark $2.8 billion antitrust penalty against Alibaba caused the e-commerce giant to report a loss in the latest quarter, its first since going public seven years ago. But sales continued to grow despite the regulatory scrutiny, helped by China’s strong economic expansion.

Alibaba recorded an operating loss of $1.2 billion for the first three months of the year, the company said on Thursday. Without the antitrust fine, operating profits would have been $1.6 billion, a 48 percent increase from a year earlier, the company said.

Revenue for the quarter grew by nearly two-thirds from a year before, to $28.6 billion. That figure got a boost because Alibaba began including the sales of Sun Art, a supermarket operator in which the company took a controlling stake last October.

China is on a regulatory blitz to curtail what officials describe as unfair and monopolistic business practices by the country’s internet heavyweights. The fine last month against Alibaba was followed swiftly by the opening of an antitrust investigation into Meituan, a food-delivery platform that is among China’s most valuable internet companies.

Two days after China’s market regulator announced the fine against Alibaba, which the agency said was for illegally restricting the vendors on its shopping sites, the company said it would lower the fees it charges those merchants and invest in new services for them.

Speaking to analysts on Thursday, Alibaba’s chief executive, Daniel Zhang, pledged to put “all of our incremental profits this year” toward helping merchants lower their operating costs, expanding in new business areas such as brick-and-mortar grocery and improving technology. But Mr. Zhang also stressed that these investments would be “highly targeted and disciplined.”

For the 12 months that ended in March, Alibaba recorded $109.5 billion in revenue, an increase of 41 percent over the year before. The company’s Chinese retail platforms attracted 811 million active consumers during that period.

The operator of Colonial Pipeline said on Wednesday that it had started to resume pipeline operations but noted that “it will take several days for the product delivery supply chain to return to normal.”

The pipeline, which stretches from Texas to New Jersey, had been shut down since Friday after a ransomware attack.

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  • “There will be lag time between Colonial Pipeline reopening and increases in fuel availability for general public,” warned an internal assessment of potential impact drawn up by the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security. It noted that the fuel “travels through the pipeline at 5 miles per hour” and would take “approximately two weeks to travel from the Gulf Coast to New York.”

  • The company has refused to say whether it had paid a ransom or was considering doing so. On Wednesday, administration officials said they believed the company was avoiding paying the ransom, at least for now. Instead, they said, the company was trying to reconstruct its systems with a patchwork of backed-up data.

  • Gasoline prices in Georgia and a few other states rose 8 to 10 cents a gallon on Wednesday alone, a jump not usually seen without a major hurricane shutting down refineries. At some stations, people were filling up gasoline cans, forcing others to wait longer and causing shouting matches. Lines of 20 to 25 cars waited at the few stations operating in Chapel Hill, N.C., where almost all the gas stations lacked fuel.

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After the Pandemic, Will More People Wear Masks for Colds and Flu?

Once Americans return to crowded offices, schools, buses and trains, so too will their sneezes and sniffles.

Having been introduced to the idea of wearing masks to protect themselves and others, some Americans are now considering a behavior scarcely seen in the United States but long a fixture in other cultures: routinely wearing a mask when displaying symptoms of a common cold or the flu, even in a future in which Covid-19 isn’t a primary concern.

“I will still feel a responsibility to protect others from my illness when I have a cold or bronchitis or something along those lines,” said Gwydion Suilebhan, a writer and arts administrator in Washington who said he also plans to continue wearing masks in situations like flying on airplanes. “It’s a responsible part of being a human in a civil society to care for the people around you.”

Such routine use of masks has been common for decades in other countries, primarily in East Asia, as protection against allergies or pollution, or as a common courtesy to protect nearby people.

Meet the Press.”

Other leading American health officials, however, have not encouraged the behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which at the beginning of the pandemic advised against wearing masks, and only changed its guidance a couple of months later — does not advise people with flu symptoms to wear masks, and says they “may not effectively limit transmission in the community.”

That’s partly because there’s no tidy scientific consensus on the effect of masks on influenza virus transmission, according to experts who have studied it.

Nancy Leung, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said that the science exploring possible links between masking and the emission or transmission of influenza viruses was nuanced — and that the nuances were often lost on the general public.

randomized controlled trials — the gold standard in scientific research — that masking reduced transmission of influenza viruses in a community.

There was some evidence from observational studies that masks reduced community transmission of influenza viruses, she added, but that research had a caveat: Observational studies cannot isolate masking from other possible factors, such as hand hygiene or social distancing.

“You can’t really decipher whether that observed reduction in transmission is due to face masks alone or not,” Dr. Leung said.

For similar reasons, the fact that the flu all but vanished in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic — and that many Americans anecdotally reported that they caught fewer colds than usual in 2020 — is not evidence alone that masks were responsible.

In East Asia, the historical use of masks is based on more than just medical research, and the steps that led each country to adopt them vary widely.

Please sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.)

Others pointed to institutional differences, including a history of anti-masking laws in the United States that were implemented during periods of social unrest in order to discourage violence.

New York State, for example, passed an anti-masking law in 1845 to prevent tenants from demanding land reform, according to research by Sharrona Pearl, a professor of medical ethics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. And from the 1920s to 1950s, several states passed similar laws in response to violence by the Ku Klux Klan.

Several East Asian scholars said in interviews that the region’s mask-wearing customs varied widely because people in each country had responded over the years to different epidemiological or environmental threats.

Jaehwan Hyun, a professor of history of Pusan National University in South Korea, said that ignoring the nuances could be dangerous.

seasonal dust storms that sweep into the country from Mongolia and northern China.

“Generally speaking, Koreans until recently believed that mask wearing was a sort of ‘Japanese practice,’ not ours,” he said.

In Hong Kong, where 299 people died during the SARS epidemic of 2002-3, the experience of universal masking against that coronavirus helped create a “cultural familiarity” with a practice that was also common during episodes of severe air pollution, Mr. De Kai said.

“It was a big reminder to people that masks are important not only to protect yourself from the pollution but also to avoid infecting those around you,” he said.

In Taiwan, SARS and recent air pollution were the two main factors that prompted people there to develop the habit of mask wearing, said Yeh Ming-Jui, a professor of public health at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Professor Yeh said he believed mask wearing was not more widespread in the West because people there had no immediate memories of a severe pandemic — at least until now.

“The experience and health practices of past generations have been gradually forgotten,” he said.

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.

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India’s Neighbors Struggle Amid Regional Covid-19 Outbreak

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Most of Nepal is under lockdown, its hospitals overwhelmed. Bangladesh suspended vaccination sign-ups after promised supplies were cut off. Sri Lanka’s hopes of a tourism-led economic revival have collapsed.

As India battles a horrific surge of the coronavirus, the effects have spilled over to its neighbors. Most nearby countries have sealed their borders. Several that had been counting on Indian-made vaccines are pleading with China and Russia instead.

The question is whether that will be enough, in a region that shares many of the risk factors that made India so vulnerable: densely populated cities, heavy air pollution, fragile health care systems and large populations of poor workers who must weigh the threat of the virus against the possibility of starvation.

Though the countries’ outbreaks can’t all be linked to India, officials across the region have expressed growing dread over how easily their fates could follow that of their neighbor.

huge, maskless rallies in India hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi even as infections rose. Likewise, both the ruling and opposition parties in Nepal held large political gatherings after the prime minister dissolved Parliament in December.

told CNN on Saturday that Nepal’s situation was “under control” but acknowledged that “political instability” had led to “some mistakes.” On Monday night, Mr. Oli lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament, throwing Nepal into further turmoil.

Aid workers have warned that the parallels between Nepal and India may continue, as hospitals turn all but the most critically ill patients away. With medical oxygen supplies running short, as they did in India, Nepal’s government has imposed quotas for each hospital, which doctors say are far from adequate. Reports of patients dying from insufficient oxygen have spread.

said in a statement last week.

Vaccines are unlikely to help immediately. Nepal paid for two million doses from India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest producer of vaccines. But as India’s crisis has escalated, its government has essentially halted exports, leaving Nepal a million doses short.

India’s pause has also scrambled vaccination plans in Bangladesh. Late last month, the authorities there announced that they would temporarily stop accepting new registrations for shots after supplies from the Serum Institute were cut off.

95 percent of its eligible population. Bhutan last month suspended entry for foreign workers, after experts cited concerns about laborers coming from India.

The border between Pakistan and India was closed even before the pandemic because of political tensions. But in Pakistan, too, cases are rising. Asad Umar, the official leading its coronavirus response, cited the fact that “the entire region is exploding with cases and deaths” to explain new lockdowns.

coronavirus response plan last May, it estimated that local facilities would be insufficient if there were more than 5,000 active cases at once. Now there are more than 100,000.

For many Nepalis, anger and sorrow have mixed with utter helplessness.

Pramod Pathak, a businessman in the border district of Kailali, has watched in anxiety and sorrow as migrant workers returned from India. They have crowded every day into overwhelmed testing centers, or — for the many for whom there are no tests — simply crammed into shared cars and returned to their villages.

“The virus is transmitting as they travel in jam-packed vehicles,” Mr. Pathak said. “There’s no safety for them no matter where they go — be it India or Nepal.”

Bhadra Sharma reported from Kathmandu, Nepal; Aanya Wipulasena from Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Vivian Wang from Hong Kong. Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Chencho Dema from Thimphu, Bhutan.

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Mystery Boxes With Mail-Order Pets Set Off a Backlash in China

HONG KONG — The mystery pet boxes are listed on e-commerce platforms in China as a bargain, priced at little more than a few dollars, and they often contain cuddly animals ready to be mailed straight to your doorstep.

The recipients of the pet “blind boxes.” typically don’t know exactly what’s inside — other than the fact that it’s a dog, a cat, a hamster or an unhatched turtle egg. Though the unauthorized transport of live animals across the country is illegal, that hasn’t stopped vendors from openly holding cheap sales and promising fast deliveries. The practice has become increasingly popular.

But many of the animals have ended up dead or suffering from infections or organ damage during the winding journey through China’s postal system after they have been dispatched by breeders.

dead animals among 13 packages at a depot in eastern China, headed to a village in Jiangsu Province, set off a furor. It was the second instance this month, after about 160 crates containing puppies and kittens were found by animal rescuers in a Chengdu shipping facility.

Video footage of the earlier episode posted by the rescuers of the malnourished animals piled into plastic-wrapped crates circulated widely online, casting harsh scrutiny on the industry and prompting internet users to denounce the maltreatment of the animals.

“We could hear them crying in discomfort,” the Chengdu Love Home Animal Rescue Center wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, last week after its volunteers worked to feed and revive the animals.

Last September, an animal rescue group said that 5,000 dogs, cats and rabbits were found abandoned in perforated cardboard boxes at a shipping warehouse in Henan Province. As volunteers rushed to rescue the surviving animals, they found that about 4,000 had already died.

Blind boxes promise the thrill of the unexpected and the chance to own a coveted collectible or particular breed of dog at a lower-than-market price. In the past few years, vendors on China’s e-commerce platforms have lured consumers with photos of figurines, comic books, clothes or makeup products. One of the largest manufacturers of blind-box figurines, Pop Mart, entered the Hong Kong stock market in 2020.

China banned the live transport of dogs and cats across provincial boundaries in 2011 without a health certificate signed by a government-approved vet at the animal’s place of origin.

Peter Li, a China policy specialist at the Humane Society International and an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, said that the mystery pet box phenomenon was not only a “gross inhumanity,” but also a public health risk.

“The fact that China’s surveillance system has failed to capture the illegal trade is because it looks like a normal business operation,” Dr. Li said in an email.

“Those involved in the mystery box ‘business’ are encouraging irresponsible pet ownership, irresponsible consumption habit and encouraging disrespectful behaviors toward nonhuman animals,” he said. “Shipping companies and delivery services have the duty not to handle shipment that is ethically questionable, legally liable and socially toxic.”

He added that while animal-protection groups in mainland China have been encouraging the adoption of rescue animals, the mystery-box model is a supply-driven trade, driven by breeders with too many animals who seek to lure younger customers with the promise of expensive breeds of pets at low prices.

Even among people who have bought mystery boxes of other items, but not pets, there was a recoiling at the idea of mailing animals.

Zhang Luyuan, a 33-year-old staff worker at a tourist attraction in the Chinese city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province, once indulged in blind-box purchases. “Those who buy blind boxes have a bit of wishful thinking and want to get what they want with less money,” he said by phone. But after spending $60 on a mystery box for what he thought were high-quality sport jerseys, he found subpar products inside.

“Since buying that blind box, I learned that meat pies won’t fall from the sky, and I have been buying the products the honest way,” he said, using an idiom similar to “there’s no free lunch.”

He said the delivery of living animals in mystery packages was tantamount to abuse, a lucrative way for breeders perhaps to get rid of those that are ill and unlikely to survive.

ZTO Express, the company behind both botched shipments of animals this month, could not be reached for comment. In a statement on May 4, it apologized for failing to enforce safety laws and said that it needed to “uphold correct life values.”

The company added that it would close the Chengdu delivery facility where the 160 crates were found, would cooperate with the police investigation and would enhance safety training. In another statement on Wednesday, ZTO said it had sought to regulate and reverse the delivery of live animals since May 5. The company added that the animals found in Suzhou were already being returned to their place of origin, but had been stranded at a shipment centers.

The police and postal authorities in Chengdu and Suzhou also could not immediately be reached for comment.

The backlash this month has prompted many breeders to remove their listings from popular e-commerce sites such as Pinduoduo and Taobao.

Li Ruoshui, a 19-year-old university student in Shanghai, said he had bought more than a dozen blind boxes of Harry Potter and anime figurines as gifts over the past two years.

“My sister really enjoys the surprise when opening the box, because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said in a phone interview. “I think that’s how blind boxes stand out from other products.”

But he said that the concept of blind boxes should never be extended to living animals, and questioned whether the customers who buy pet boxes actually want to take care of the animals inside or are doing it for the novelty.

“I will never buy pet boxes,” he said. “I like small animals, and transporting them in blind boxes is very unsafe and increases the chances of their abandonment.”

Liu Yi contributed research from Beijing.

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Once-a-Decade Census Shows an Aging, Better-Educated China

Births are falling. The population is aging. The work force of the world’s second-largest economy is shrinking.

China’s latest once-a-decade census, which was conducted last year, showed the slowest population growth since the 1960s, confirming that the country is in the midst of an urgent demographic crisis.

The results may push the government to loosen its family planning restrictions, which have shaped the most intimate aspects of Chinese society — marriage, childbirth and child-rearing — for decades. But the stark need for change has also underscored how reluctant the authorities have been to fully let go of control.

according to World Bank data. Last year, just 12 million babies were born in China, the lowest official number since 1961, as the country was emerging from a devastating famine.

Experts cautioned that the pandemic may have been a major factor, but births have now declined for four consecutive years.

The numbers make clear that China’s aging crisis will not be resolved anytime soon. As older Chinese people occupy a greater share of the population, while the younger work force who would support them declines, China’s pension funds and underdeveloped facilities for older adults are sure to feel strain. Adults above 60 now make up 18.7 percent of the population, compared with 13.3 percent in 2010.

Liang Jianzhang, a demography expert at Peking University, said he expected that the government would lift its remaining limits on fertility soon. Five years ago it ended its one-child policy and allowed families to have two children, but families who have more can still be penalized or denied benefits.

forcing women to have fewer babies as part of an effort to control the Muslim ethnic minorities there.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies demography. But that ratio is still higher than normal, suggesting a lingering preference for boys, he added.

The advancement of women faces more official obstacles, too. In an effort to address the fertility crisis, officials in recent years have sought to push women back into traditional gender roles. Feminist activists have been detained or censored online.

39 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had some form of tertiary education.) But it is a tremendous accomplishment for a country that in 1997 had fewer than 3.5 million undergraduate and graduate students.

Still, experts have noted that the surging numbers of college graduates may bring a new problem: a dearth of well-paid jobs to employ them. China’s economy is still largely reliant on blue-collar labor. Ning Jizhe, the head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, acknowledged the gap at a news conference about the census on Tuesday.

“Employment pressure on college students is increasing,” he said. “The pace of industrial transformation and upgrading needs to speed up.”

Unless the new crop of educated young people can find stable jobs, Professor Gietel-Basten said, the fertility rate may drop even further. “If you’ve got a situation where you have graduate unemployment and it’s difficult to access these good jobs,” he said, “why would you have more babies?”

Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. As the northeast continues to empty out, those disparities may become even more pronounced, he added.

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Jobless Claims Continue to Fall: Live Updates

filed first-time applications for state jobless benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday, down more than 100,000 from a week earlier. In addition, 101,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

Applications for unemployment benefits remain high by historical standards, but they have fallen significantly in recent weeks after progress stalled in the fall and winter. Weekly filings for state benefits, which peaked at more than six million last spring, fell below 700,000 for the first time in late March and has now been below that level for four straight weeks.

“In the last few weeks we’ve seen a pretty dramatic improvement in the claims data, and I think that does signal that there’s been an acceleration in the labor market recovery in April,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Economists should get a clearer picture of the labor market’s progress on Friday when the Labor Department will release data on hiring and unemployment in April. The report is expected to show that employers added about one million jobs last month, up from 916,000 in March. The leisure and hospitality industry, which was hardest hit by the initial phase of the pandemic last spring, has led the way in the recovery in recent months, a trend that forecasters believe continued in April.

Many employers have said in recent weeks that they would like to hire even faster but have struggled to find enough workers. Some have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for discouraging people from returning to work. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana said his state would pull out of a federal program offering enhanced benefits to unemployed workers and would instead pay a $1,200 bonus to recipients when they find new jobs.

Economic research has found that unemployment benefits can reduce the intensity with which workers search for jobs. But most studies find that the impact on the overall labor market is small, especially when unemployment is high. And Mr. Zhao and other economists say there are other reasons that labor supply might be rebounding more slowly than labor demand. Many potential workers are juggling child care or other responsibilities at home; others remain cautious about the health risks of returning to in-person work.

“I think we will see labor supply improve pretty dramatically in the coming months as the pandemic abates,” Mr. Zhao said.

The Bank of England in London. Policymakers forecast unemployment in Britain to peak at 5.5 percent later this year, thanks to the extension of the government’s furlough program.
Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The Bank of England unveiled a much brighter outlook for the British economy on Thursday, saying it would return to its prepandemic levels at the end of this year as lockdowns ended, consumers spent billions of pounds in extra savings and the vaccine rollout reduced public health worries.

The central bank, in its quarterly monetary report, raised its growth forecasts and slashed its predictions for unemployment. The British economy is now projected to grow 7.25 percent this year, compared to a forecast of 5 percent growth three months ago. This would be the fastest pace of expansion for the economy since official records began in 1949, pulling Britain out of its worst recession in three centuries.

The higher forecast comes after the government has announced tens of billions of pounds in additional spending to see workers and businesses through the summer, and outlined its plan to end lockdown restrictions by late June.

Britain’s economic output “recovers strongly over the course of 2021, albeit only back to pre-Covid levels,” Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, said in a news conference on Thursday.

“Of course, there remains uncertainty around how the pandemic might evolve and so there are risks around this projection, including from renewed waves of infections in the U.K. and other countries,” he said.

He added that there was also an “enormous amount of uncertainty” about how the pandemic might permanently change people’s working and living patterns, and the effect that will have on the shape of the economy.

Even though inflation is expected to rise above the central bank’s 2 percent target, policymakers voted unanimously to keep the benchmark interest rate at 0.1 percent. It cut rates to that level in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank also said it would slow the pace of its £875 billion government bond-buying program, which was projected to run through 2021, so that it does not finish the program before the end of the year. If the central bank had continued at its current pace, the buying program would have ended several months early. Instead of buying £4.4 billion government bonds a week, the central bank will buy £3.4 billion. The program helps keep government borrowing costs low and supports the economy by encouraging investors to buy other assets.

The minutes of the central bank’s policy meeting showed that officials don’t intent to tighten monetary policy until “there is clear evidence that significant progress” is made on the economic recovery and inflation is sustainably at the bank’s target.

The Bank of England now forecasts unemployment to peak at 5.5 percent later this year, because of the extension of the government’s furlough program. In February, the central bank predicted the unemployment rate would rise as high as 7.75 percent.

The easing of pandemic restrictions will also increase consumer spending. The central bank added that it now expected people to spend about 10 percent of the excess savings they built up in lockdown based on new survey evidence. The previous estimate was just 5 percent.

But these extra savings are “not evenly distributed,” Mr. Bailey said. And they are concentrated among people who are older and already wealthier.

Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Gary Gensler, the newly installed chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is testifying on Thursday, at noon Eastern time, before the House Financial Services Committee. He will address the meme-stock volatility in January that led to trading restrictions and prompted an outcry about Wall Street’s relationship with retail investors.

“I think these events are part of a larger story about the intersection of finance and technology,” Mr. Gensler will say in his prepared remarks, highlighting seven factors at play that also hint at his regulatory priorities in the months ahead:

Volkswagen’s display at the Shanghai auto show in China last month. China is the German carmaker’s largest market.
Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

A spike in sales to Chinese customers helped Volkswagen rebound strongly from the disruption caused by the pandemic, the carmaker said Thursday, underlining China’s importance to the German economy.

Sales in the first three months of 2021 rose 13 percent compared to a year earlier, to 62.4 billion euros, or $75 billion, while profit rose nearly sevenfold to 3.4 billion euros, the company said. Vehicle sales in China, which is Volkswagen’s largest market, rose more than 60 percent.

The recovery in sales bodes well for the German economy. Vehicles are the country’s biggest export product. But Volkswagen also illustrates Germany’s dependence on China when tensions between Beijing and the European Union are rising because of the Chinese government’s treatment of minority groups and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

As is typical for Volkswagen, the company’s Audi and Porsche divisions generated most of the profit. The luxury vehicles have a higher profit margin than the more affordable cars that account for most of Volkswagen’s volume.

Volkswagen said it was able to manage the shortage of semiconductors that has afflicted all carmakers in recent months, but warned that the chip famine could become more acute in months to come.

Volkswagen sold 60,000 battery-powered vehicles out of a total of 2.4 million during the quarter. That may be a disappointment to the company, which has staked its future on a new line of electric cars, the first of which went on sale late in 2020.

A coronavirus testing center in Soweto, South Africa. The World Trade Organization is considering a proposal to provide drugmakers around the world access to the patents behind coronavirus vaccines.
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
A Eurostar train in London’s St. Pancras International station in December. As an independent train operator, Eurostar isn’t eligible for direct state aid.
Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Consider it a small victory.

Eurostar, the sleek and speedy high-speed train service that ties London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and other cities, will increase as of May 27 its timetable to two trains per day on its once heavily-traveled Paris-London route, up from just one round-trip train per day imposed during the pandemic.

The slightly increased service comes as governments in Europe plan to slowly lift longstanding national restrictions on travel designed to combat the spread of the virus. From a peak of running more than 60 trains a day, Eurostar cut service during the pandemic to one daily round-trip between London and Paris, and one on its London-Brussels and Amsterdam routes.

The Brussels/Amsterdam route will remain the same with one train in each direction per day, a spokesman said, adding that Eurostar will adapt its timetable should demand increase, which still depends on travel restrictions across its routes.

Eurostar’s future has been thrown into turmoil as pandemic measures led last year to a 95 percent slump in ridership, creating a cash crunch and pushing the iconic company to the brink of bankruptcy.

While some airlines and other tourist-related businesses in Europe have been able to rely on government support during the crisis, Eurostar, an independent train operator, isn’t eligible for direct state aid.

Last month, the company, which is now owned by a consortium that includes the French and Belgium national railways, reportedly secured a deal with its lenders to refinance a debt pile worth £400 million ($553 million). The British government, which in 2015 sold its stake in the rail company, last month declined to back a broader financial rescue package.

A spokesman for Eurostar said it had no new details on a financial rescue, but said that “conversations are still progressing.” The spokesman added that it is “too early to predict a recovery to prepandemic levels, this would be very much dependent on the easing of international travel restrictions which are yet to be confirmed.”

Eurostar trains will continue to maintain some vacant seats onboard to allow for social distancing. The company said it is advising riders to check with their embassies before traveling, and to consult the company’s website for the latest information.

Tim Lorentz with the LaBoata in Spokane, Wash.
Credit…Allie Lorentz

Tim Lorentz, a special-education teacher in Spokane, Wash., loves both cars and boats. He has raced cars and has owned a variety of muscle and exotic vehicles.

“Car guys always want to own or drive a unique car that no one else owns,” Mr. Lorentz said. “I created an eight-passenger convertible. Why not a boat mounted over a convertible? I have never seen another one like it.”

And so the LaBoata was born. Mr. Lorentz, now 65, built it in 2009 using a white 1993 LeBaron a used 17-foot boat he got for $100, Mercedes Lilienthal reports for The New York Times.

The LaBoata was “instant fun,” he said, until he received a letter from the Washington Department of Motor Vehicles canceling his registration and title. The authorities had noticed his converted convertible, and they weren’t amused. He removed the boat shell, drove the car to the D.M.V. and had it reinspected, reinstated and relicensed. He went home and popped the boat back on, and he has had no issues since.

Mr. Lorentz is part of a community that builds cars out of scrap. Kelvin Odartei Cruickshank, who is 19 and lives in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, built, from scratch, a two-person car that looks like a ramshackle DeLorean. It took three years to complete. Mr. Cruickshank used about $200 of scrap metal and parts not normally used in cars because of financial constraints.

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Hong Kong Pushes ‘Fake News’ Label as Media Face ‘Worst of Times’

HONG KONG — The glossy pamphlet from the police, delivered to newsrooms in Hong Kong, declared: “Know the Facts: Rumors and Lies Can Never Be Right.” With it was a letter addressed to editors, decrying the “wicked and slanderous attacks” against the police.

The 12-page magazine, distributed Wednesday to news outlets including The New York Times, described the police’s efforts to push back against misinformation. In one instance, the department countered rumors that officers had attended a banquet with gang members, saying the police had held their own private dinner. In another, it accused a local TV station of smearing the police in a parody show.

“Fake news is highly destructive,” read one graphic carrying the hashtag #youarewhatyousend.

Officials in Hong Kong are increasingly seizing on the label of “fake news,” a common authoritarian refrain. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said on Wednesday that the government was looking at laws to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies.” The city’s police chief has said a fake-news law would help fight threats to national security.

The rhetoric is raising fears among activists that the label could be used as a new tool to muzzle dissent.

traditionally unfettered news media, known for coverage that has been critical of the establishment, has been under attack for months. The national security law, which calls for increased regulation of the media, has given the police and local officials powerful tools to constrain the press, but they are seeking more.

Mrs. Lam, the city’s chief executive, has said that the government was exploring legislation to curb fake news, which she said spread online during the protests and the pandemic.

“We have seen the internet, especially social media, flooded with doxxing, hateful and discriminatory remarks and fake news,” she said in remarks to lawmakers in February. Mrs. Lam has said that the proposed legislation had yet to be drafted because the government was still examining how such laws were handled elsewhere.

a 14-month prison sentence for protesting in 2019, and is accused of fraud and colluding with a foreign country.

The police have also bristled at coverage by RTHK, a government-funded public broadcaster with a tradition of independent coverage. The police complained about a parody program that portrayed officers as trash, with an actor portraying an officer in a garbage can.

The government has moved to rein the broadcaster in, replacing its top editor with a civil servant with no journalism experience in February. Under the new leadership the broadcaster has cut two radio programs known for sharp political commentary and added a new show hosted by Mrs. Lam, the city’s leader, discussing an electoral overhaul imposed by Beijing that critics say would cripple the opposition.

The broadcaster was also at the center of a closely watched court case last month in which a former freelance producer for RTHK was convicted of making false statements to obtain public records for a report that was critical of the police. The journalist, Choy Yuk-ling, used the records for a documentary that examined how the police were slow to respond to an attack by a mob on protesters at a train station in 2019.

On Thursday, Ms. Choy’s documentary was honored in Hong Kong with a human rights award. “Chasing the smallest clues, interrogating the powerful without fear or favor,” wrote the judging panel, which called it an “investigative reporting classic.”

The broadcaster has said that it would not accept the award.

Tiffany May contributed reporting.

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Volkswagen Earnings Show Reliance on Sales in China

A spike in sales to Chinese customers helped Volkswagen rebound strongly from the disruption caused by the pandemic, the carmaker said Thursday, underlining China’s importance to the German economy.

Sales in the first three months of 2021 rose 13 percent compared to a year earlier, to 62.4 billion euros, or $75 billion, while profit rose nearly sevenfold to 3.4 billion euros, the company said. Vehicle sales in China, which is Volkswagen’s largest market, rose more than 60 percent.

The recovery in sales bodes well for the German economy. Vehicles are the country’s biggest export product. But Volkswagen also illustrates Germany’s dependence on China when tensions between Beijing and the European Union are rising because of the Chinese government’s treatment of minority groups and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

As is typical for Volkswagen, the company’s Audi and Porsche divisions generated most of the profit. The luxury vehicles have a higher profit margin than the more affordable cars that account for most of Volkswagen’s volume.

shortage of semiconductors that has afflicted all carmakers in recent months, but warned that the chip famine could become more acute in months to come.

Volkswagen sold 60,000 battery-powered vehicles out of a total of 2.4 million during the quarter. That may be a disappointment to the company, which has staked its future on a new line of electric cars, the first of which went on sale late in 2020.

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