Empty Hotels. Idled Tour Buses. The Pandemic Is Devastating Tourism.

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MEXICO CITY — There were major hurricanes, and the global financial crisis of 2008. There was 9/11, and an array of regional health scares, from SARS to Zika.

But during the decades that he’s been involved in the tourism business in the Caribbean island nation of Sint Maarten, Emil Lee has never seen anything remotely like the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A switch got flipped,” said Mr. Lee, whose family manages a hotel on Sint Maarten, which shares a 34-square-mile island with the French territory Saint-Martin. “And now there’s no tourism.”

The global travel and tourism industry is in peril.

Layoffs in the sector are mounting at the stunning rate of one million jobs a day, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry group based in London, with as many as 75 million jobs at “immediate risk.” The industry could lose as much as $2.1 trillion in business by the end of the year, the council said.

Borders have been shut, planes idled, cruise ships docked, tour buses parked and hotels, restaurants, bars, theaters and museums shuttered. Tourist sites that only several weeks ago were teeming with visitors are now eerily still.

In the Caribbean, the impact is already being felt particularly deeply. No other region of the world depends so heavily on tourism.

And among the region’s countries and territories, Sint Maarten, a mostly autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, stands out. Tourism accounts for more than 80 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the latest statistics from the World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

At the start of the year, the leaders of the nation’s tourism industry had plenty of reason to be hopeful about the months ahead.

The country, which has a population of about 41,000, had almost regained its balance after being pummeled by Hurricane Irma in 2017. The storm damaged most of the nation’s buildings and crippled the airport, before plowing across the Caribbean and wrecking other islands in its path.

But after two years of energetic rebuilding, Sint Maarten’s tourism sector registered a strong December and January, and officials expected 2020 to be a good year.

Then the pandemic took root and the flow of tourists to the Caribbean and elsewhere dried up.

In mid-March, the government in Sint Maarten started barring visitors from the United States and Europe. A week later, all incoming flights carrying passengers were banned, effectively cutting off the life blood of the local economy.

Hotels on the island now stand empty, save for the odd tourist who decided that remaining in Sint Maarten was preferable to returning home. The once-bustling waterfront is quiet, and the beaches are still.

Restaurants have closed for all but takeout and delivery, nonessential businesses have been ordered shut and there is an overnight curfew.

“We’ve been crunching numbers here, and we’re terrified,” said Lorraine Talmi, board president of the Sint Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association.

Based on a survey of nearly 600 businesses, she said, the group estimates that some 45 percent of the private sector labor force in Sint Maarten will be laid off within three to six months. And that is a best-case scenario.

Many business owners in the tourism industry have few, if any, cash reserves left after burning through savings to pay for rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Irma, Ms. Talmi said.

“It’s a real kick in the teeth,” she said. “We were on the trajectory to get back together, and now that’s not going to be possible.”

Mr. Lee said his family’s 51-unit property, Princess Heights Hotel, which it partly owns, was still open, though mostly dormant. Several state workers from the Netherlands have continued to occupy a handful of units, but the remainder of the hotel’s rooms are dark.

While most hotels in Sint Maarten have been forced to lay off staff, Princess Heights has not. But its workers’ hours have been reduced.

“This is the first time I’ve seen hotels shut down because of lack of business,” said Mr. Lee, a former minister of health, labor and social affairs for Sint Maarten. “Even after Irma we managed to maintain some level of economic activity.”

He thinks the Princess Heights can weather the downturn through the end of the year. “If it goes past Christmas, then you need to look at how you restructure,” he said.

Most businesses in Sint Maarten, however, may not be so fortunate.

“Past four months,” Mr. Lee said, “I don’t know how they’ll survive.”

Similar hardship is sweeping the rest of the Caribbean, and it is made still worse by the unpredictable nature of the crisis.

“With a hurricane, it might damage or destroy a lot of your infrastructure, but it’s an event, and it ends, and you begin the recovery almost immediately,” said Johnson JohnRose, a communications specialist for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, a trade group based in Barbados. “This one — you don’t know when it’s ending.”

Across the region, hotel occupancy has plunged in the past several weeks and is expected to drop nearly to zero by the end of this week, said Frank J. Comito, chief executive and director general of the Miami-based Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.

Some governments are scrambling to help cushion the impact on the tourism sector.

In Jamaica, Edmund Bartlett, the minister of tourism, said the government was planning to support businesses and employees through cash transfers, special grants, loan payment deferrals and new lines of credit.

“We are aware of the challenges and ripple effects of this pandemic as activities grind to a halt and questions surrounding job security arise,” he said.

On Mexico’s Caribbean coast, where scores of hotels have closed and thousands of workers have been laid off, the state government of Quintana Roo has started delivering basic supplies and food baskets to those who recently lost their jobs, said Rafael Ortega Ramírez, president of the chamber of commerce in the resort city of Cancún.

The government and the chamber of commerce are also trying to help workers secure severance packages from their former employers. And Mexico’s federal government is working on its own relief plan, which may provide loans to small businesses in both the formal economy and the informal economy.

“It’s like we had an open faucet from which a massive water stream used to come — and now it has been shut down, and we only have a few drops coming out,” Mr. Ortega said.

In Sint Maarten, some leaders in the tourism sector are floating ideas for securing relief for the community.

Mr. Lee said he hoped the World Bank, which is managing a trust fund for the post-hurricane reconstruction on his island, can speed up disbursements. Others are looking to the government of the Netherlands for a fresh bailout.

But for now, residents are preparing for months of duress and uncertainty.

“You got to hunker down, you got to be fiscally and financially responsible, you got to cut down your expenses to a bare minimum,” said Ricardo Pérez, general manager of the Oyster Bay Beach Resort and the Coral Beach Club.

“Who knows what the industry is going to look like coming out of this?” he said. “Is this a fatal blow? Or is this a blow that will take a long time to come out of?”

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.

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Coronavirus Is Making the Public Pension Crisis Even Worse

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For years, the country’s public pension plans have faced a yawning gap between what they owe and what they can pay.

From the State of California’s public employees’ retirement plan, with more than 1.6 million participants, to tiny funds for employees of local mosquito-control programs in Illinois, public pensions are the time bomb of government finance.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has it ticking faster.

Already chronically underfunded, pension programs have taken huge hits to their investment portfolios over the past month as the markets collapsed. The outbreak has also triggered widespread job losses and business closures that threaten to wipe out state and local tax revenues.

That one-two punch has staggered these funds, most of which are required by law to keep sending checks every month to about 11 million Americans.

Last week, Moody’s investors service estimated that state and local pension funds had lost $1 trillion in the market sell-off that began in February. The exact damage is hard to determine, though, because pension funds do not issue quarterly reports.

“You’re not going to see real data on the market crash until Christmas,” said Girard Miller, a former chief investment officer of the Orange County, Calif., pension fund and a former member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

And that data will not count the knock-on effects of the economic downturn, which would short-circuit pension funds’ ability to hit up taxpayers for bigger contributions. About 3.3 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the most recent week reported — a record by a huge margin — and further layoffs are inevitable. Thousands of taxpaying businesses are also losing revenue because of stalled operations, and some might be forced to close permanently.

“The people have no money,” said Maria Pappas, the treasurer of Cook County, Ill.

Even before the pandemic gut-punched the economy, Ms. Pappas counted a record 57,000 delinquent property-tax payers in her county, which includes Chicago. Property taxes feed more than 400 municipal pension funds in Cook County, including some that are cash-starved and close to hitting bottom.

“It’s like a rubber band that’s been stretched too thin,” she said. “What I’m telling you is, the rubber band is about to break.”

The coronavirus outbreak could test the sacred nature of these programs in ways that even the crisis of 2008 did not, and ultimately force state and local governments to engage in complicated and perhaps unwinnable fights to reduce or slow the growth of benefits.

Failure to raise more money or reduce payouts could have dire consequences. Pension funds that run out of money — something that happened in Prichard, Ala., Central Falls, R.I., and Puerto Rico — could tip cities and other local governments into bankruptcy. States would be in uncharted waters because there is no bankruptcy mechanism for them; the nearest analogy is a one-off law passed by Congress for Puerto Rico, which has resulted in years of federal oversight, austerity measures and reduced debt payments to bondholders.

Public pension programs have long been endangered by a fundamental tension: With growing ranks of retirees and mature workers, they should invest conservatively, like someone on the cusp of retirement, shifting into high-quality bonds, for example, with durations timed to reflect scheduled future payments to retirees.

Instead, they often take on the kind of risk appropriate for someone with decades to go.

The accounting rules governing public pension plans have made all that risk attractive to those in charge of running and funding them: It’s simpler to put money in riskier assets and bet on rosy investment returns than to commit more taxpayer money upfront.

Economists have been saying for years that public pensions should be shifting to safer investments as their members age. But Andrew Biggs, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in retirement financial issues, said public pension systems hadn’t listened.

In fact, they’ve taken on even more risk.

As of 2018, state pension funds had on average invested 74 percent of their money in what Mr. Biggs called risky assets, including stocks, private equities, hedge funds and commodities. That was up from 69 percent in 2010, after the 2008 shock, and from 61 percent in 2001, when economists first began challenging the way public pensions operate.

“This was completely predictable,” Mr. Biggs said. “They are holding tons of equities when they’ve also got tons of retirees.”

California’s huge state pension system, known as Calpers, is offering a clue about the investment losses these programs face. It posts an investment snapshot, which suggests the total value of its investments has fallen by some $69 billion since mid-February, when it peaked at about $404 billion. Even then, it was short of what it needed to pay all the benefits it will ultimately owe.

So were Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, Connecticut, Colorado and many other states. Many counties and cities, too, had large pension shortfalls even before the current market crash.

And in most cases, state laws and constitutional provisions make those pensions sacrosanct — they have to be paid, come what may. Attempts to reduce benefits in meaningful ways often meet with fierce opposition, and failure: In 2015, for instance, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a sweeping, unanimous decision that every penny had to be paid, even the pensions that current public workers had not yet earned.

To reduce costs, some states have tried closing their pension plans to new hires. In Kentucky, state lawmakers met last month in a locked-down capitol to consider such a maneuver for its teachers’ pension plan. The state has also pushed covered workers to pay more; it already takes 13 percent from current teachers’ paychecks, more than twice the payroll tax rate for Social Security.

The other strategy is to turn to taxpayers — the very people and businesses that are now facing shutdowns, layoffs and shriveled balances in their 401(k) accounts.

Illinois chose the path of widespread taxation to pay its retirees’ pensions, including a 3 percent compounded annual increase, a figure well above the recent rate of inflation.

The state doubled its gas tax last year. It tripled a real estate transfer tax, and raised taxes on cigarettes, vaping, electricity and even dry-cleaning fluid. It made marijuana legal and taxable. It approved gambling, so casinos can be taxed, too. Tags for virtually all cars and trucks went up in January.

Chicago raised parking meter rates and put meters on streets that didn’t have them. It raised taxes on restaurant meals, increased a “congestion tax” on single-occupant cars and tacked a $3 fee on ride-hailing services.

And Peoria recently added a yearly “property fee” to raise money for police and firefighters’ pensions. (By making it a “fee” instead of a “tax,” the city could bill entities that are normally tax exempt, like churches and schools.)

The tax situation has driven some residents out of the state.

“Illinois is literally now taxing you for everything,” said Adan Villafranca, a school custodian in the Chicago suburbs who moved his family to low-tax Indiana. “You go to the store and they tax you for a bag. What are they going to tax you for next, the air that you breathe?”

The only other option is to reduce benefits — an approach that would be certain to meet fierce resistance and could be futile. In Illinois, for example, it would require amending the State Constitution.

Benefit cuts may be inevitable, Ms. Pappas said, and they may not be up to voters or the courts.

She volunteered for George Papandreou, a former prime minister of Greece, when his country became a financial pariah in 2010 and had to get rescue loans from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries.

Greece had also promised costly pensions to millions of people, but was forced to reduce benefits to receive those loans, she said.

“They didn’t want to,” she said. “They didn’t have any choice.”

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Investors Brace for Alarming Jobs Report: Live Updates

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Credit…Issei Kato/Reuters

Asia’s mixed markets signal a pause after Wall Street’s swoon.

Major Asian markets were mixed at midday on Thursday, suggesting that investors were taking a deep breath after pounding Wall Street stocks sharply lower on Wednesday.

Indexes in Japan and Hong Kong were down less than 1 percent, while South Korean shares were up more than 1 percent. Futures markets were pointing to a positive opening for European stocks later in the day, and then for Wall Street.

Investors appeared to be pausing after the S&P 500 index fell 4.4 percent on Wednesday, driven lower by worsening economic data and President Trump’s prediction that the United States was set for a “very, very painful two weeks.” The drop added to the pounding American stocks have taken over the past month, which has left the S&P 500 index more than 20 percent lower.

More bad news could be in the works, as investors braced for weekly jobless claims data expected later Thursday in the United States. But for now, investors were looking for signs of a bottom to the market.

Prices for longer-term U.S. Treasury bonds rose, suggesting investors were continuing to see them as a safe place to park money. Gold prices rose in futures markets, too. But oil futures also rose, an indicator that some investors feel safer than they had in putting their money in a market that depends on continuing economic growth.

Wall Street drops as investors brace for more damage to come.

Faced with grim new projections of the potential scale and economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, investors dumped stocks on Wednesday. The S&P 500’s fall of more than 4 percent brought its decline over two days to 6 percent.

The drop, which followed a sell-off in Europe and Asia, came after President Trump said at a news conference on Tuesday that the United States would face a “very, very painful two weeks.” U.S. government scientists projected that the outbreak could kill up to 240,000 people in the country. On Wednesday, the United Nations warned of “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest and enhanced conflict.”

The economic readings continue to worsen as well. On Wednesday, surveys of manufacturing and factory activity in the United States, Europe and Japan showed activity slowing to levels not seen in a decade or more. In the United States, factory orders and employment measures fell to their lowest since 2009, the Institute for Supply Management said.

“The market is sort of steeling itself for the onslaught of bad news over the next couple weeks,” said Julian Emanuel, chief equity and derivatives strategist at the brokerage firm BTIG.

On Thursday, the U.S. government will report how many people filed for unemployment last week, and the data could show that as many as 5 million workers lost their jobs as people stay home and factories shut down.

A Labor Department report on Thursday is expected to show millions more jobless.

Another jaw-dropping number is expected Thursday when the government reports the number of new unemployment claims filed across the country last week.

Several estimates put the figure at roughly five million. That would come on top of the previous week’s claims, which came in at 3.3 million — a total that could be revised upward when the Labor Department issues its report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

The speed and scale of the job losses is without precedent. Until the coronavirus outbreak caused widespread workplace shutdowns and layoffs, the worst week for initial unemployment filings was 695,000 in 1982.

The economic damage from the pandemic was initially concentrated in tourism, hospitality and related industries. But now the pain is spreadin much more widely. The Institute for Supply Management said Wednesday that the manufacturing sector, which had recently begun to recover from last year’s trade war, was contracting again. Data from the employment site ZipRecruiter shows a steep drop in job postings even in industries such as education and health care that are usually insulated from recessions.

The spring buying season in real estate could be “catastrophic.”

In spite of market headwinds, overpriced apartments and legislative obstacles, New York’s residential real estate market was on an improbable upward swing for most of the first quarter.

Then the coronavirus struck, stopping the rebound in its tracks. Now, the pandemic threatens to do the same in real estate markets nationwide during the peak of buying season.

What happened in the first two months of the year no longer matters, said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants. “All that matters to the housing market is what happens next.”

New York State’s stay-at-home order, and similar restrictions elsewhere, have effectively banned open houses and in-person property showings, and “most people are not going to make a big purchase without seeing it,” said Frederick Warburg Peters, the chief executive of Warburg Realty. Depending on the duration of the outbreak, he said, the number of new contracts in New York could drop by more than 70 percent in the second quarter, compared with the same period last year.

“We find ourselves with little to no empirical evidence of what’s happening,” said Mr. Miller, because the virus outbreak became a factor so late in March. “I don’t have a sense, other than it’s going to be catastrophic.”

Reporting was contributed by Ben Casselman, Patricia Cohen, Stefanos Chen, Carlos Tejada and Daniel Victor.

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Real Estate Spring Buying Season Could Be “Catastrophic”

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In spite of market headwinds, overpriced apartments and legislative obstacles, New York’s residential real estate market was on an improbable upward swing for most of the first quarter.

Then the coronavirus struck, stopping the rebound in its tracks. Now, the pandemic threatens to do the same in real estate markets nationwide during the peak of buying season.

What happened in the first two months of the year no longer matters, said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants. “All that matters to the housing market is what happens next.”

New York State’s stay-at-home order, and similar restrictions elsewhere, have effectively banned open houses and in-person property showings, and “most people are not going to make a big purchase without seeing it,” said Frederick Warburg Peters, the chief executive of Warburg Realty. Depending on the duration of the outbreak, he said, the number of new contracts in New York could drop by more than 70 percent in the second quarter, compared with the same period last year.

The number of sales in Manhattan in the first quarter actually jumped 13.5 percent, compared with the same period last year, to 2,407 from 2,121, according to data from the brokerage firm Douglas Elliman.

This was only the second time in two-and-a-half years that sales have risen compared with the same period the previous year, said Mr. Miller, the author of the report.

The median sales price was $1,060,000, down just 1.4 percent from the same time last year, suggesting the market was close to turning the corner, as previous price declines had been higher. The average listing discount was 7.2 percent, the highest it had been since 2012, which suggested that sellers were finally getting serious about negotiating, Mr. Miller said.

There were 1,231 contracts signed in February, the most for that month in a decade, and a sign that buying would continue to be robust, said Garrett Derderian, the managing director of market analysis at CORE, another brokerage firm.

But in March, after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates close to zero, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York issued a stay-at-home order in response to the virus, early indicators suggest that momentum has ground to a halt.

“We find ourselves with little to no empirical evidence of what’s happening,” said Mr. Miller, because the virus outbreak became a factor so late in March. “I don’t have a sense, other than it’s going to be catastrophic.”

Contracts and closings can lag the reality of the market by several weeks or months as paperwork makes its way through the system, but there are already some signals of decline.

At the end of March, there were 5,801 active listings for sale in Manhattan, down 15.3 percent from the same period last year, said Noah Rosenblatt, the chief executive and founder of UrbanDigs, a real estate data company. And 1,159 listings were taken off the market, compared with just 417 the same time last year.

One of the biggest obstacles for the real estate market will be trying to sell apartments under virtual lockdown. Real estate agents in New York have been deemed nonessential workers, so in-person showings are effectively banned, although new guidance from the Cuomo administration could change that. And few apartment buildings are allowing visitors or move-ins. Even if buyers agree to purchase a home sight unseen, many of the steps toward closing remain stubbornly analog, in spite of efforts to incorporate video calls and other technology into the process.

Before the pandemic, “2020 would have been a very strong recovery year for us,” said Diane Ramirez, the chief executive of Halstead, a real estate brokerage firm. “I can’t even begin to think of what it will be like now.”

The luxury market, which is in a yearslong price correction, could be further affected. Last week, only two properties in Manhattan went into contract at $4 million or more, the lowest weekly sales rate since August 2009, during the last recession, said Donna Olshan, the president of Olshan Realty. In the last week of March 2019, 21 contracts at or above that price were signed.

“Anything left on the market now, the price is just a suggestion,” she said, noting that sellers already in contract, as well as new buyers, are pushing for more aggressive price cuts.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, sale prices fell 25 to 35 percent, said Mr. Miller. It’s unclear where prices will end up, but they have been sliding since the market peaked around 2015, he said.

The market’s resurgence, before the coronavirus outbreak, was hard won. In 2018, new caps on state, local and property tax deductions disproportionately affected high-price markets like New York, and a series of tax changes in 2019, including increased transfer taxes for luxury apartments, further stalled the market. New tenant-friendly rent laws passed last summer, the possibility of new taxes on pieds-à-terre and growing fears of a recession were cause for more belt-tightening, agents said.

Much of the impact will depend on how quickly the city recovers from the pandemic, with some agents hoping that pent-up demand from months of lockdown will carry into the fall and winter, which are typically slower sales seasons.

With much of the city cooped up indoors for at least the next several weeks, there is some hope of buyer demand surging when the mandate is lifted, Ms. Ramirez said.

“I thought I had a great apartment before,” she said, “But I’m telling you, now I’m looking for what I can change.”

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

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Home Depot Halts Sales of N95 Masks Amid Shortage, Company Says

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Home Depot has ordered all 2,300 of its stores in North America to stop sales of N95 masks to try to free them up for those on the front lines of the coronavirus emergency response, the company said on Wednesday.

The announcement came on the same day that President Trump said that the federal government’s stockpile of personal protective equipment had nearly been depleted by the states.

The demand for masks, gowns, face shields and gloves has skyrocketed during the spread of the virus, which has killed at least 4,726 people and sickened more than 209,000 in the United States.

The frantic competition for supplies has resulted in a number of high-profile episodes of hoarding and price-gouging. It has drawn scrutiny to retailers that sell personal protective equipment, commonly known as P.P.E.

The N95 respirator, a type of mask that protects against airborne droplets from sneezes or coughs, is among the most sought-after supplies.

“We stopped restocking stores a couple weeks ago to prioritize shipments for hospitals and first responders,” Sara Gorman, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, said in an email on Wednesday night. “As an extra precaution, we locked them down with a stop sale beginning last week.”

Ms. Gorman said that the company had donated millions of dollars in P.P.E. equipment and redirected shipments of N95 masks to hospitals, health care workers and emergency responders across the United States.

Home Depot was not the only major retailer to redirect supplies because of the crisis.

“Lowe’s is currently delivering essential items, such as respirators and other protective gear, to hospitals nationwide by working with national health care supply distributors to allocate product where it’s needed most,” the company said on its website.

On the company’s site, product pages for N95 masks said on Wednesday night that they were not available for purchase online. It was not immediately clear if the masks could be purchased at the stores.

Lowe’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday night.

During an appearance on CNBC last week, Mike Roman, the chief executive of 3M, which makes N95 masks, expressed concern over some retailers continuing to sell protective gear.

“It’s disappointing when you see that, because we’re trying to redirect everything to health care workers,” he said.

Amazon has restricted the sales of some medical supplies, but not all of them.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Last month, Target apologized after a shopper in the Seattle area shared on Twitter a photograph of store shelves filled with boxes of N95 masks, which the company said was an error. Washington State was an early epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.

“We’re removing & donating them to the WA State Dept. of Health,” Target wrote on Twitter. “We’re also reviewing inventory for additional masks to be donated.”

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SoftBank Won’t Buy $3 Billion in WeWork Stock

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SoftBank has decided it will not buy $3 billion in WeWork stock from other shareholders, a board committee of the office space company said Wednesday night, dealing a blow to shareholders, including Adam Neumann, the company’s co-founder and former chief executive, who had hoped to sell their stock.

Two weeks ago, SoftBank, a dominant shareholder of WeWork that has already poured billions of dollars into the company, threatened to pull out of the purchase in part because of government investigations into the company. The move could lead some property owners to question SoftBank’s commitment to WeWork. If the tender offer does not take place, SoftBank could hold back $1.1 billion of financing from WeWork, reducing its access to cash as the recession caused by the coronavirus hits the company’s already stressed business.

The board committee said it was “surprised and disappointed at this development” and said it would “evaluate all of its legal options, including litigation.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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Retailers Under Growing Pressure to Let Workers Wear Masks

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At Office Depot, employees have been told that they cannot wear masks in the store. Some Walgreens workers say they were also discouraged from wearing them. Many other large retailers, including Target, have started to allow masks, but are leaving it up to employees to procure their own supplies.

Federal health officials appear ready to recommend that Americans of all ages start wearing masks for protection against the coronavirus, but millions of retail workers have been interacting with the public for weeks without them. Sometimes, they have been told that wearing masks could scare shoppers. Now many are scrambling to find available gear.

The retailers’ different positions on masks, which follow those of the government, are indicative of how the industry has been fumbling through the fast-moving pandemic, potentially endangering workers. The restrictions could also increase the risk that their stores, which are virtually the only places where the public can still congregate, could be contributing to the spread of the virus.

Protective gear has become a point of contention in the increasingly tense environment at grocery and big-box stores. This week, workers at Amazon and Instacart staged protests over working conditions during the pandemic, and walkouts are planned at other major retailers in the coming days. Many retailers are being pressured to take even more precautions than regulators have advised.

“Frankly, we had a fight with some employers because they didn’t want their employees wearing masks,” said John Grant, president of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which includes 20,000 grocery store workers in California. “Many workers are having to come up with them on their own.”

At some grocery stores, customers and even a fire department were donating extra masks to employees, Mr. Grant said.

In resisting calls from workers to provide them with masks, retailers have cited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which continues to recommend masks only for health care workers and people showing symptoms of the virus. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says high-volume retailers should “consider” supplying masks to ill employees and customers, but does not mention healthy workers.

Now experts are increasingly saying there is probably some benefit for people to cover their faces, even with homemade masks, while venturing out to visit the grocery store or pharmacy.

Companies’ policies toward protective gear can vary widely. Stop & Shop, the regional grocery chain, is supplying protective shields that cover employees’ faces. The store is not providing masks, though employees are allowed to wear their own.

Walmart said on Tuesday that it would begin supplying masks to its employees in the United States, but acknowledged that delivering them to all its stores and distribution centers could take as long as two weeks.

None of the retailers are supplying workers with the N-95 masks that health care workers need desperately.

When the waves of panic buying started in stores three weeks ago, many retailers resisted employees’ requests to wear masks, saying customers might find them unsettling.

A Target employee in Suffolk County, N.Y., who has a relative with respiratory issues said she had tried to wear a nonsurgical mask to work two weeks ago as panic buying surged. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, said her supervisors had told her that the mask would frighten people and make it look as though Target was allowing sick people to work. She was sent home.

Target said on Wednesday that it told store managers on March 19, after the employee’s experience, that its workers could wear their own masks, as well as company-supplied gloves. A representative said the chain was taking a range of safety measures, including installing plexiglass partitions for checkout lanes and in other departments, like the pharmacy.

Walgreens, which draws customers for its over-the-counter and pharmacy medicines, heightening employee concerns of contracting the virus, has also discouraged at least some staff members from wearing masks and gloves, said two employees in different states who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It has been criticized on Facebook and Twitter, and a Change.org petition asks Walgreens executives to give workers gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and hazard pay. A separate Change.org petition is asking for hazard pay and paid family leave.

A Walgreens representative said that the chain had instituted safety measures around cleaning, social distancing and hygiene, and that workers who wished to wear masks could do so.

“In a targeted fashion, we are also undertaking employee health screenings and additional personal protection measures for our work force, and we are actively considering additional steps for personal protection equipment for our employees,” the company said. “We are strictly adhering to C.D.C. pandemic guidelines for safety and precautions and will continue to do so.”

Office Depot, which has said it is an essential retailer, recently sent a memo to store managers saying customer-facing employees were not allowed to wear masks and discouraged managers from sending workers home if they had symptoms of the virus.

Symptoms “mirror those of the common cold,” making it hard to identify, the memo said. Referring to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, it added, “The likelihood of an associate having Cov-19 is very low.”

An employee at a store in the Midwest who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job said that the guidance had not changed as of Wednesday, but that some managers were allowing employees to wear their own masks.

Office Depot didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Walmart said it had decided to start providing “general medical” masks to employees only after concluding that the company’s massive order, which could total seven million masks a week, would not interfere with the supply for health workers. The company is not supplying the N-95 masks that are needed at hospitals.

“We’re in constant communication with state and federal government leaders, as well as the supply-chain manufacturing community, to make sure that the type of volume we would need in order to sustain masks at every store doesn’t put undue pressure on the rest of the chain,” Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, said on Tuesday.

There are also worries that masks could give workers a false sense of security, Mr. Bartlett said. He added that the company continued to stress to employees that handwashing and social distancing from customers and one another remained the primary protections against the virus.

Large retailers have demurred on identifying how many of their workers have received a coronavirus diagnosis, citing privacy reasons.

Essential industries employ between 49 million to 62 million workers, according to an estimate from the Brookings Institution that relied on Department of Homeland Security designations. About seven million of those workers are employed in grocery stores, pharmacies and big-box stores.

While health care practitioners and support workers face the greatest levels of exposure to the virus, “it’s harder to precisely measure the risks that workers face in grocery stores, trade and logistics, and other establishments,” Brookings researchers wrote in a report this week. “It’s clear that many could potentially be exposed to Covid-19 and will require closer monitoring.”

Contact Michael Corkery at michael.corkery@nytimes.com or Sapna Maheshwari at sapna@nytimes.com.

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T-Mobile Closes Merger With Sprint, and a Wireless Giant Is Born

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A new wireless giant has entered the scene.

T-Mobile and Sprint announced the closing of their $30 billion merger on Wednesday, the result of a long-in-the-works effort by both companies to speed the progress of wireless technology and put up a fight against AT&T and Verizon, the two companies that have long dominated the industry.

As part of finishing the deal, John Legere, the boisterous, magenta-clad chief executive who led T-Mobile for nearly a decade, handed over leadership reins to his longtime second-in-command, the more buttoned-up Mike Sievert.

The new business, called T-Mobile, will have about 100 million customers. To keep them and add to their ranks, the company plans to quickly develop the fifth-generation wireless technology that will bring broadband-style service through the air and is seen as a critical component of the nation’s infrastructure. T-Mobile has said that deploying 5G would have taken much longer and cost much more without the addition of Sprint.

Upgrading the networks also makes T-Mobile a formidable challenger to AT&T and Verizon, Mr. Sievert said in an interview. “It used to be that customers were forced to choose: Do you want a better network? Or a better value? Now you don’t have to choose,” he said.

For many consumers, the deal means faster connections in more of the country. Prices will be kept low, according to the new chief executive. “We’ve been saying the merger will bring about better prices and more competition and that’s already happening,” Mr. Sievert said.

The merger is the latest in a wave of corporate deals that, together, have topped $200 billion in the past two years. In June 2018, AT&T’s bid to buy Time Warner was approved, giving the phone giant control of CNN, HBO and the Warner Bros. film and TV studios. Shortly afterward, the Walt Disney Company beat out Comcast to buy the majority of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox empire. Late last year, Shari Redstone combined her family’s two businesses, CBS and Viacom.

T-Mobile also envisions taking on cable operators, once its 5G service is up and running. In theory, 5G would allow home viewers to stream shows and movies at speeds they had only been able to get through the cable companies. It’s the least competitive market I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Sievert said. Most regions of the country have only one cable company servicing the area.

The deal appeared nearly complete in February, after T-Mobile and Sprint beat back a court challenge from attorneys general in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The suit was brought in June after regulators at the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission approved the merger plan. The states argued that the combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would reduce competition, lead to higher cellphone bills and place a financial burden on lower-income customers.

Letitia James, the New York attorney general, a key plaintiff in the case, had argued that the merger would cost subscribers at least $4.5 billion annually. She called the February ruling in favor of the deal “a loss for every American who relies on their cellphone for work, to care for a family member and to communicate with friends.”

With the completion of the merger, the number of major carriers in the United States stands at three — for now. To obtain regulatory approval, T-Mobile and Sprint agreed to sell off certain assets, including Sprint’s prepaid wireless business, to the satellite TV service Dish. The pay-TV operator hopes to become a new fourth carrier, in place of Sprint.

The fight for customers among the major carriers has driven subscription prices downward. The average monthly wireless bill has fallen by over 25 percent in the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wireless carriers still enjoy fat profits, but they have flattened or declined in recent years.

The T-Mobile deal technically faces one more hurdle. The California Public Utilities Commission, which governs telecommunications services in the state, has yet to sign off on the merger.

The companies closed the deal Wednesday after Sprint made a clever technical maneuver. The company withdrew its application to the California agency after changing how it delivered voice calls. Last week, the carrier switched to an internet-based system for phone calls, meaning Sprint no longer makes use of landlines. That effectively nullified the commission’s authority over the deal, according to the company.

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Why State and Local Debt Is Fraught Territory for the Fed

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Rhode Island will miss out on $300 million in revenue in March and early April as coronavirus delays income tax filings, while shuttered casinos cost state coffers another $1 million per day. Expenses, meantime, are through the roof — the state spent $7 million on ventilators on Monday alone.

Seth Magaziner, the state’s general treasurer, takes comfort in the fact that the federal government should soon cover some coronavirus-related costs, like medical equipment, thanks to legislation President Trump signed last week. But Mr. Magaziner remains worried about the municipal bond market, which state and local governments tap to fund everything from road construction to schools. It could turn messier as government income streams dry up amid quarantines and furloughs, making debt harder to issue. Like many other state finance officials around the country, he’s looking to the Federal Reserve for help.

“Things are very volatile, and we don’t know what the future can bring,” Mr. Magaziner said. “This is a crisis unlike any other that the country has faced in generations.”

State officials, Democratic lawmakers in Washington and advocacy groups are pushing the Fed to step up its efforts to support state and local finances.

The central bank has a century-long practice of staying out of municipal debt markets, in part because doing can involve picking winners. But the coronavirus — and recently passed legislation — is prompting officials to consider what more it can do to help state and local financing. The Fed recently hired Kent Hiteshew, the first director of the Treasury Department’s Office of State and Local Finance, created during the Obama administration. And it’s tapping its 12 regional branches for insight into local conditions.

Officials have already tiptoed into the municipal debt market, accepting those bonds as collateral in a program that provides cheap loans to eligible banks.

But it has yet to make the leap into outright purchases, which its emergency lending powers could allow, even as lawmakers urge it to do more to help states and localities. Buying municipal debt directly could prove practically — and politically — fraught for the central bank.

“It’s not as easy as the Fed going in and saying that they’re going to buy Treasury debt,” said Christopher Brigati, the head of municipal trading at Advisors Asset Management, referring to Fed’s continuing federal government debt purchases.

Whether it’s through the Fed or congressional action, he said, “I want to encourage caution to anyone who is promoting bigger action.”

The problem is that municipal bonds are a relatively tiny market: They total about $3.9 trillion, peanuts compared with the $16.7 trillion Treasury market. And while Treasury bonds are fairly comparable to one another, municipal debt is not.

The bonds fund everything from city parks to airports to state operations, so while they are issued credit ratings, the securities rely on vastly different revenue streams and local conditions. New issuance is subject to unique local restrictions.

Buying big chunks of municipal bonds, as the Fed does in the Treasury market and plans to do in the investment-grade corporate debt market, would be no small task. The securities are not quoted on an exchange, Mr. Brigati said, and a buyer can’t just go to a few dealers to snap them up at scale.

“It’s challenging to source these bonds,” said Vikram Rai, the head of municipal strategy at Citigroup. Mr. Rai also said buying fresh bond issues could come with difficulties.

“It’s a very politically sensitive issue to buy a municipal bond,” he said. He laid out a scenario: If New York issues debt in April, when the Fed is buying, it will be able to price its bonds better. If New Jersey issues in September, when the Fed isn’t, it could find itself at a disadvantage.

Even if the Fed sticks to the market for existing bonds, it risks benefiting a few major bond holders in the space in its quest to snap up a large volume of bonds. Money market mutual funds and exchange-traded funds hold big shares of the market; the investment firm BlackRock calls itself the world’s largest municipal bond manager, while Nuveen and Pimco are also major players.

“Most people don’t know what the Fed is planning,” said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics. “There’s a lot of fear on the part of the broker-dealer community that the Fed could mess things up.”

Problems of picking winners and losers and benefiting existing debt holders also plague other Fed emergency lending programs, like corporate bond buying, said Skanda Amarnath, the research director at Employ America, a worker advocacy group.

They shouldn’t be a deciding barrier, he said. And while it will be practically difficult for the Fed to jump headlong into the idiosyncratic municipal market, he said, officials should still work it out.

“It’s a more challenging problem,” said Mr. Amarnath, who has been organizing state treasurers around the cause. “But it’s also a more worthwhile challenge, because there’s more at stake here.”

After the 2008 financial crisis, state and local belt-tightening helped to keep unemployment high for years, serving as a drag on the recovery. And that shock hit much more slowly than the one currently playing out, as coronavirus abruptly chokes off sales taxes from shuttered stores and makes it hard for airport vendors, the source of cash for many airport bonds, to keep up on rent.

“Without timely and strong federal government efforts to support the municipal bond market and compensate for delayed revenues, our state and local governments will be forced to take actions that will exacerbate economic contraction,” the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers wrote in a letter to the Fed and Treasury late Tuesday.

The group urged the Fed to set up a temporary “Municipal Securities Purchasing Facility” to calm the market for state and local debt, where new issuance has become difficult. They suggested it should buy existing debt from a variety of issuers with a range of credit ratings, and also recommended that the Fed create a bridge financing program for states and local governments.

William C. Dudley, who was formerly president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is sympathetic to the idea of a municipal bond program of some sort, especially given that “they basically have the blessing of Congress.” But he said officials should stick to investment-grade debt.

“Once you start to get below investment grade, it gets a lot trickier — you’re taking on a lot more risk, and where does it end?” Mr. Dudley said. The central bank might end up with riskier bonds that investors are offloading because the debt is unlikely to be paid back.

Lawmakers are leading the push for Fed action. The new legislation insists that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin push for an emergency lending program related to state and local finance, though it’s fuzzy on the details. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has said repeatedly that she’s urged Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, to do more to help municipal markets.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, urged Mr. Powell and Mr. Mnuchin in a Tuesday letter to “address the needs of state and municipal governments that face desperate budget shortfalls” and do so “rapidly.”

After legislation passed empowering the Fed with more financial backing for emergency lending, which it would use to snap up the municipal bonds, the market for outstanding local bonds temporarily calmed. But volatility returned on Wednesday.

“Liquidity is the most critical piece right now,” said Deborah Goldberg, who is Massachusetts’ treasurer and who has been pushing the Fed to get involved.

The message from the Fed and the Treasury has been, consistently, that it is a work in progress.

“We’ll be looking at programs for state and local governments,” Mr. Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview Wednesday. “I can assure you, Jay Powell and I are working around the clock at providing liquidity into the economy.”

Mary Williams Walsh and Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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Trump Rebuffs Demands to Lift Tariffs as Economy Falters

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WASHINGTON — President Trump continues to resist calls from hundreds of companies to drop tariffs he has placed on foreign goods, arguing that the levies do not impose costs on American companies, despite economic evidence to the contrary.

The Trump administration has been weighing an executive order that would defer tariff payments on some imports, though not cancel the levies outright. But Mr. Trump said Tuesday evening that he had yet to approve the measure, and it was not clear if the administration would ultimately proceed with it.

“That might be, but I’m going to have to approve the plan,” Mr. Trump said of lowering tariffs. He pushed back on news reports that he had made a decision, saying, “I approve everything and they haven’t presented it to me, so therefore it’s false reporting.”

People familiar with the deliberations say the administration has been weighing such a deferral, which would apply to the “most-favored nation” tariffs the United States has long imposed on goods from around the globe, rather than the levies Mr. Trump has imposed on Chinese products or foreign metals.

While the administration previously considered a 90-day deferral, recent discussions have included a 30-day deferral, and people with knowledge of the situation cautioned that the plans remain in flux.

Mr. Trump has been reluctant to reduce any tariffs because he does not believe they hurt American businesses and are instead being paid for by China and other countries — an idea he repeated Tuesday night.

“China’s paying us,” he said. “We made a deal with China. Under the deal, they’re paying us 25 percent on $250 billion and they pay it. And I spoke with President Xi the other day, and we didn’t mention that.”

American businesses and lawmakers have long pressed the administration to drop its tariffs. Those requests have only intensified in recent weeks, as the coronavirus causes steep economic pain for businesses and consumers.

Auto sales are plummeting and retailers have already furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers. On Wednesday, a gauge of manufacturing activity showed the factory sector had fallen back into recession. Specific forecasts have been difficult to make with events unfolding so quickly, but economists say this could be the deepest recession in a century.

As a result of the tariffs Mr. Trump imposed on global metals and Chinese products last year, many companies pay an additional 7.5 percent to 25 percent to import components and finished products from abroad. Economists have argued that these costs are largely borne by American businesses, rather than the Chinese companies that supply them.

Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, said that the coronavirus would have flattened the economy regardless, but that Mr. Trump’s tariffs had further damaged U.S. and global growth.

“Tariffs and trade wars made no sense before the virus hit, but now they are beyond reason,” Mr. Zandi said.

In a letter to the White House on Tuesday, executives of more than 400 American companies, including some that have begun laying off workers, begged the president to delay the duties, arguing that such a move would give businesses more cash to help them survive the next few months.

“We are urgently asking you to delay the collection of duties, including those that many companies were required to pay this past Friday, for a period of 90 to 180 days,” read the letter, which was signed by the leaders of Levi Strauss & Company, L.L. Bean, Lowe’s, Walgreens Boots, Macy’s and other companies.

“In doing so, you would provide immediate relief to both large and small businesses, including manufacturers, retailers and other service providers, farmers and ranchers,” the letter said.

In a statement Wednesday, Myron Brilliant, the head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said tariff relief “would provide some welcome breathing room for American businesses and consumers.”

“Liquidity has emerged as one of the top challenges for businesses of all sizes, and tariff relief” would alleviate some of that strain, he said.

Glenn Hubbard, an economist at Columbia University, said removing the tariffs could be critical to helping the U.S. economy recover more quickly once the virus subsides, by giving business leaders confidence to ramp up investment.

“It would be good if the president stood down on the trade wars,” Mr. Hubbard said. “If I was sitting in a C.E.O.’s chair and Covid-19 was receding, if you wanted my confidence and investment back, I think you would want to convey business certainty.”

Some lawmakers have echoed the arguments. In a bipartisan letter on March 26, eight leading lawmakers urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to defer all tariffs for at least 90 days to help ensure businesses have enough liquidity to weather the crisis.

But longstanding opposition to removing the tariffs has also grown. Groups that supported Mr. Trump’s levies from the beginning have insisted that any removal would be ruinous for industries like steel that depend on the protection.

“We appreciate President Trump’s statement yesterday that he is NOT planning on deferring the collection tariffs,” the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which has supported the tariffs, said in a statement Wednesday.

“This is not a recession caused by lack of cheap goods,” they said. “Incentivizing imports would kill many U.S. jobs that remain.”

In a letter last week to Customs and Border Protection, the American Iron and Steel Institute and other steel industry groups said that any efforts to delay or reduce the levies would “ultimately hurt U.S. workers and businesses during this unprecedented moment.”

The administration had already announced plans to review delaying tariffs on a case-by-case basis, before quickly reversing the decision.

In mid-March, Customs and Border Protection issued a notice saying it would consider delaying tariff payments for companies on an individual basis. Just one week later, however, it issued a bulletin saying it was no longer considering such requests.

On March 20, the United States Trade Representative announced that it would create a new process for companies to submit comments if they believed further modifications to the tariffs were necessary.

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