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Colorado Begins Slowly Easing Restriction On Businesses This Week; Conspiracy Theorists Falsely Claim U.S. Army Sgt. Is Patient Zero; Policies Vary Between States On Handling Virus In Nursing Homes. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired April 27, 2020 - 12:30   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Starting today, Colorado begins easing restrictions on some businesses. The state is reopening and stages, moving from a stay at home order to a new safer at home order. By Friday, retail and personal services like barbershops and salons can reopen, but they must still follow some social distancing rules.

CNN's Gary Tuchman is in a barber shop in Greeley, Colorado. Gary, what are you seeing on the ground right there, are they ready to take customers?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you mentioned that barber shops are not supposed to open until Friday. So why are we in this open barbershop on a Monday?

The answer is confusing, but we will explain it to you. Counties in this state, 64 counties are given autonomy. Do you want to keep the regulations tougher like Denver City and Denver County and you don't want to open anything today, and you don't open anything today, and that's what they're doing.

But here in Weld County, they want to open more including barbershops. Weld County was supposed to apply for a variance to get permission to do that to make it more liberal. And to have a variant you have to have a low number of COVID cases or you have to have cases that were going down for 14 straight days. Neither is the case here.

So it doesn't appear that Weld County is asked for a variant but Weld County is said the businesses, you can reopen. And that's why this barbershop which is called the barbershop in Greeley, Colorado is open. This man right here, Jose Oregel is the owner.

Jose, I know it was confusing. You got a call from the state yesterday not to open. You talked to the Regulatory Department of the state today. And they told you what?

JOSE OREGEL, BARBERSHOP OWNER: Well, they told me like called DORA.

TUCHMAN: DORA is the Regulatory Department of Colorado.

OREGEL: -- license and --

TUCHMAN: And they told you, what?

OREGEL: They told me that I can open up as long as my county said it's OK. I can open up.

TUCHMAN: And the county said to you, it's all right open up?

OREGEL: Yes, the County said it's OK.

TUCHMAN: So what are you doing for you to stay safe and for the customer to stay safe? And we'll show a picture right now of the barber work in action.

OREGEL: Yes. So what we're doing is, you'll be able to see that we're using gloves, face mask, after every haircut, we use a different cape. And then you can see we're sanitizing the whole chair after every customer. So that way we're not a -- we're making our customer feel, you know, secure.

TUCHMAN: So you're not worried you'll get in trouble with the State?

OREGEL: No. Because they've already approved it, they said that it's OK. So, you know, I know the governor said something else for them but Weld County told me it was OK. I verified and recorded it, when I got that -- when I made that phone call to DORA and they said that it was OK.

TUCHMAN: Jose, thank you for talking to us.

We're sitting next to a bar. This bar is not open as far as we know at this point. The State of Colorado has no plans to let people go inside restaurants and bars and no plans yet in this county either. John?

KING: Gary Tuchman on the ground as this great American experiment begins. Gary, appreciate the live reporting. Please thank your hosts for us there and wish them the best. I hope this goes well.

Some counties and cities in Colorado are choosing to extend their stay at home orders at least through May 8th that includes the City of Denver.

Joining me now is the Mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock. Mr. Mayor, thanks for being with us today. Just first, your thoughts on this, you're in a state. The governor says one thing. Counties can do what they want to do. You just saw what was happening on the ground in Greeley where there's a barbershop that's open.

If you're a resident of Denver or anywhere else in Colorado, are you worried people are just going to get confused about what's allowed and what's not?

MAYOR MICHAEL HANCOCK (D-DENVER, CO): Thanks for having me, John. And yes, confusion is a concern, obviously. And, you know, those of us who decided to open up later which in Dennis (ph), Denver and four surrounding jurisdictions, other counties.

One of the things we're focused on is doing as much education as we can for the community. But, you know what, this has been about an ongoing communication with the governor. The governor was aware that we were going to extend. I did not hold that back from him. We were in communications on a very regular basis, on a daily basis.

And I told him that we didn't feel like we were ready. And we felt like more need to be done before we began to ease ourselves out of this. And so communication has to be important and communication will be important going forward to help ease the confusions and concerns of our constituents.

KING: That's very encouraging. I spent some time in the last several days looking at the situation in Georgia where you have a lot of mayors, especially in the larger cities who are mad at their governor. And they say not only do they disagree, but there hasn't been a lot of back and forth. So it's good to hear you're having conversations there.

Yesterday, your governor was here on State of the Union with my colleague, Jake Tapper, and he says he understands your situation and listen here, he says he wants to help.


GOV. JARED POLIS (D-CO): We're happy to work with Denver to increase their capacity. They have a very achievable goal to do. They have, you know, we have a -- we have a very big diverse state. So Denver 2,500 cases, that's like 5 percent of their population. And that, you know, as you know, some of these are under diagnosis, it could be more than 5 percent.


KING: Is that your biggest issue? You're still before you're comfortable opening the doors, telling people come out of your home, go to work, you want more testing, and then you're getting the help you need?

HANCOCK: Yes, John, you know, the reality is this, what really hampered cities and counties and states from responding appropriately and of course across this country with the Federal Government was a lack of infrastructure around testing, you know, you know the virus is present in your community, but we didn't have the infrastructure for testing. And we didn't have the infrastructure for contact tracing.


And so one of the things that I instructed my team to do is to go back to our why, why did we shut down in the first place? We wanted to build the infrastructure and we want to make sure we keep everyone health and safety -- safe within that infrastructure.

So we want to test. We want to double the testing capacity on a daily basis in the City of Denver going from 500 to 1000, which is a very achievable goal. We want to build our team, our contract tracing team. We want to deploy 100 people to participate in our work for us as a contact tracer. We are now training them as of today.

And we want to isolate those individuals, an infrastructure, isolate individuals who are symptomatic and who test positive. And then we want to make sure that we create the, you know, the culture within our community that we can distance within the new infrastructure that we have.

We are working as much for tomorrow in the fall, winter, where we will have the flu season as much as we are today. Because if we follow the foundational belief as a doctor share with me, that is that this virus is not going away. It's going to remain with us for a while, that we need to make sure we're building an infrastructure for the long haul. And that's exactly what we're going to spend the next two weeks in completing and trying to position the City of Denver and the metro region to do for the long haul over the next two weeks.

KING: We'll keep in touch and check your work and see if you're ready in those two weeks. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for your time today.

HANCOCK: Thank you, John.

KING: Thank you Sir. Good luck.

Coming up for us, conspiracy theorists falsely peg the start of the coronavirus to one American woman and her life of course, has been turned upside down since.



KING: A U.S. Army reservists has had her life turned upside down by conspiracy theorists who falsely claim she is coronavirus patient zero. Chinese media has spread this conspiracy leading to her home address being posted online and now leading to a flood of threats.

Donie O'Sullivan joins us now, the CNN exclusive. Donie, how did this American woman become the focal point of this international conspiracy theory?

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN REPORTER: Hey, John, you know, you and I have talked about coronavirus conspiracy theories and the danger of people believing them. But imagine being at the center of one that is what is happening to Maatje Benassi right now. She's a U.S. Army reservist who was among hundreds of American athletes who competed in the military World Games which are essentially the Military Olympics that took place in Wuhan, China last October.

Now, that was of course sometime before the first reported cases of their coronavirus there. And Maatje has no symptoms of the virus and has not been diagnosed with the virus. But online conspiracy theorists have made her the starring character in a false theory that the United States is in some way responsible for the virus that has totally upended their lives. Have a listen to Maatje and her husband explain how their lives have changed.


MAATJE BENASSI, VICTIM OF CONSPIRACY THEORY: It's like, waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare like day after day.

MATT BENASSI, WIFE IS VICTIM OF CONSPIRACY THEORY: A couple years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Dealing with that situation is way easier than trying to deal with this George Webb situation.


O'SULLIVAN: So you can hear there, how difficult this is for them. Who's behind all of that? Well, it has gotten some play as you mentioned. In China, of course, the government there is keen to deflect blame for their handling of the virus.

But it's mostly being pushed by an American conspiracy theorist on YouTube, a 59-year-old man named George Webb. Here's the theory, of course, is totally nonsense, yet it doesn't break YouTube's rules. But we have a statement from YouTube. I think we can show you. They told us at the weekend that it was focused on promoting accurate information about the coronavirus and would remove content once it is flagged to them.

But John, clearly, YouTube is not doing enough here and it has real consequences for the Benassi's. They are very afraid. You might remember a few years ago the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that was tied to that claim there was a child sex ring being run out of a D.C. pizzeria. A few months after that a guy showed up would armed. The Benassi's are fearful that something like that -- them.

KING: It's yet another example. These platforms say they have rules. The rules are meaningless if they don't actually take down content that is clearly wrong and potentially destructive. Donie, again appreciate the reporting. It is fascinating and proof that the facts should matter. Facts should matter and we'll keep trying to tell them. Donie, thank you very much.


Up next for us, the high rate of coronavirus deaths in U.S. nursing homes, more than 10,000 deaths link to that.


KING: As communities across the country try to stop the spread coronavirus, nursing homes repeatedly particularly vulnerable. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds more than 10,000 people have died from coronavirus in nursing homes. And that's only in the 23 states that are publicly reporting death data.

To make matters worse, policies vary state by state on how to handle coronavirus in nursing homes and whether those who test positive are allowed to return. With me now it's the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, Mark Parkinson. Mr. Parkinson, thank you for being here.

The first cases were in a senior long term facility in Washington State. As you go through these daily briefings by the governors, we watch too many of them, this keeps coming up. Help a layperson who maybe doesn't understand the industry very well. Should there have been more of a fire alarm -- fire, if you will, at the beginning to rush into these homes nationally and to do more to protect workers and residents?

MARK PARKINSON, PRESIDENT & CEO, AMERICAN HEALTH CARE ASSOCIATION: We absolutely, I mean, it's a horrible tragedy. And what makes it even worse is that we've known for two months that the emphasis needed to be placed on nursing homes in assisted living buildings, and it just hasn't been.


Our staffs are working 24 hours, double shifts. They've been doing this for two months, but they can't do it alone. They need the resources to win the battle. So specifically, we need testing. We're not at the top level of priority for testing that needs to change today.

Secondly, we need equipment. We still don't have enough face masks to keep the virus from spreading. And finally, Health and Human Services now has a ton of money to attack this because of the Stimulus Act. We need for long term care residents and staff to have a separate fund to help them just as a fund has been set up for hospitals. If we can do these things, we can turn this around. But if we don't, these horrible tragedies are going to continue.

KING: We can show you a map in six states that's a nursing home accounted for 50 percent or more of their COVID-19 cases. Are these states just unlucky, is it a regulatory thing, is it a staffing issue?

PARKINSON: Well, clearly the northeast part of the United States has been hit the worst. If you look at the corridor between roughly Maryland and Maine, I think because of the virus coming in from Europe in January and February, those have been hit the hardest, not just in the general population, but also in long term care facilities.

But unfortunately, this is a nationwide problem. There are facilities across the country that have this -- have had COVID positive folks in the buildings. The good news, I mean, there is a good news story to this, which is that if we have the resources that we need, we can beat this at times. There are thousands of residents that have been cured, that have recovered.

And so it's not too late. It's a shame that we didn't put an emphasis on this two months ago. But it's not too late to fix that mistake today.

KING: And you say testing is the biggest need, most urgent need?

PARKINSON: Yes. Right now, nursing home residents, even if they are symptomatic, they have signs of COVID are a priority level two, that is ridiculous. They should clearly be a priority level one.

If you're a priority level two, you can get a test but you can't get results for eight or 10 days. And a lot of bad things can happen in those eight or 10 days. So we need to fix testing. We need to fix supplies. And we need a specific front from HHS to attack this problem.

KING: Mark Parkinson, appreciate your insights today. We'll keep in touch as we go through this. It's a tragedy within a tragedy.

Up next for us here, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is back at work and asking the British people to be patient.



KING: Our international correspondents now with some of the day's big international coronavirus developments.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Here in London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is finally back at work more than two weeks after being released from the intensive care unit, where he was receiving treatment for coronavirus.

Speaking to journalists here earlier today, the Prime Minister said that there were many encouraging signs that the U.K. is starting to win the battle against COVID-19. But he also stress that this is a moment of maximum risk and that the U.K. cannot lift restrictions yet. And therefore, raise the chances of having a second wave of infection.

One of the real tests of course, will be increased testing. The government has said that by the end of the month, so that's this Thursday, they will be able to test 100,000 people a day for the coronavirus. As of Saturday though, they were testing less than 30,000 a day.

Clarissa Ward, CNN, London.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Here in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has come out with the details of phase two, the phase where the coronavirus lockdown will be eased, which will begin a week from today. Under phase two construction, manufacturing, building maintenance, and fashion production will be able to resume.

And this is important because it will allow those who have jobs they can't do at home to work and earn again. If there isn't a major resurge of the virus after that, in two weeks, libraries, museums, and stores selling nonessential goods will be able to resume activity but under strict guidelines.

And finally by the first of June, if there aren't a lot of new coronavirus cases, there will be another further easing, allowing bars, restaurants, hair salons, and others to resume activity, again with strict new guidelines.

But the Prime Minister made it clear in a televised press conference, that social distancing will remain. He said, if you love Italy, keep your distance.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Rome.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Here in Germany, most people are now required to wear face masks when going into a lot of public places. Now in most of the country, that means when using public transport, but also when going into stores.

However, in some parts of Germany, there are some exceptions because this country has a lot of federalism exactly like the United States. All this comes after Angela Merkel has warned that Germany risks squandering, some of the gains that have been made in combating the coronavirus crisis.

However, the Germans are also saying that the number of new infections continue to decline. But Angela Merkel says that the do risk a new spike in cases if the Germans don't continue to adhere to social distancing measures.


Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Potsdam, Germany.