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Oil Industry Turns to Mergers and Acquisitions to Survive

HOUSTON — The once mighty oil and gas industry is flailing, desperately trying to survive a pandemic that has sharply reduced demand for its products.

Most companies have cut back drilling, laid off workers and written off assets. Now some are seeking out merger and acquisition targets to reduce costs. ConocoPhillips announced on Monday that it was acquiring Concho Resources for $9.7 billion, the biggest deal in the industry since oil prices collapsed in March.

The acquisition, days after the completion of Chevron’s takeover of Noble Energy, would create one of the country’s biggest shale drillers and signals an accelerating industry consolidation as oil prices languish around $40 a barrel, just above the levels many businesses need to break even. Just last month Devon Energy said it would buy WPX Energy for $2.6 billion.

But many investors are not sure such deal making will be enough to protect the industry from a sharp decline. The share prices of ConocoPhillips and Concho closed down by about 3 percent on Monday. The big problem is that the fortunes of oil companies are fundamentally tied to oil and natural gas prices, which remain stubbornly low. Few experts expect a full recovery of oil demand before 2022, and some analysts have gone so far as to declare that oil demand might have peaked in 2019 and could slide in the years to come as the popularity of electric cars grows.

“There’s a lot more red ink than there is black gold,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, who periodically advises the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Companies are trying to hunker down and weather the storm. Most people don’t think the oil price will recover for a couple of years.”

More than 50 North American oil and gas companies with debts totaling more than $50 billion have sought bankruptcy protection this year. Among the casualties was Chesapeake Energy, a shale pioneer based in Oklahoma City. More failures could come in the next two years as companies are required to repay tens of billions of dollars in debt.

Oil companies are facing daunting uncertainties, particularly as concerns over climate change mount and governments impose tougher regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Small companies fear a crackdown on methane leaks and tightening regulations, especially if former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. becomes president and Democrats take control of the Senate.

European oil companies have already begun pivoting away from oil and gas, plotting investments in renewable energy like wind and solar to attract new investors. While those companies have had limited success so far, American companies have for the most part stuck with their traditional businesses. They have adapted to low oil and gas prices by slashing investments by 30 percent or more. The oil and gas rig count has dropped by 569 since last fall, to only 282 operating across the country.

Oil companies are hoarding cash and renegotiating contracts with service companies that drill and complete wells. Rig rental rates are down roughly 10 percent, pressuring the companies that do the field work. More than 100,000 American oil workers have lost their jobs in recent months.

ConocoPhillips, the largest American independent oil company, has been something of an outlier, recently raising its dividend and buying back shares. Nevertheless, ConocoPhillips’s stock price has dropped by roughly half so far this year.

The company is a major producer in the Bakken shale field of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford shale field in South Texas. By acquiring Concho, it will become a major player in the world’s most lucrative shale field, the Permian Basin, which straddles West Texas and New Mexico.

With Concho’s 550,000 acres in the Permian, ConocoPhillips will more than triple its 170,000-acre position in the basin, which became the world’s most productive oil field last year.

Concho is little known outside Texas but became a major oil producer after it bought RSP Permian for $9.5 billion in 2018. Concho produced more than 300,000 barrels in the second quarter.

“Together ConocoPhillips and Concho will have unmatched scale and quality,” said Ryan M. Lance, ConocoPhillips’s chairman and chief executive, referring to their joint balance sheet, resource reserves and personnel.

The deal would help make ConocoPhillips one of the largest players in the Permian, putting it in the same league as companies that are much bigger than it over all.

“The combination is remarkable,” said Robert Clarke, a vice president and oil analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. “Just in regards to scale, ConocoPhillips is adding enough Permian production to nip at the heels of ExxonMobil’s massive program.”

As the shale industry grew over the last decade or so, many smaller companies poured billions of dollars into the Permian and other parts of the country. Now, the process appears to be headed in the opposite direction as the industry retrenches and becomes smaller.

Investment in U.S. shale oil has dropped to an estimated $45 billion this year from roughly $100 billion annually in 2018 and 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. In its annual report released this month, the Paris-based organization said a shakeout was underway.

“The influence of large players is set to grow as acreage is consolidated by larger industry players, and the focus on growth is set to be supplanted over time by a focus on returns,” the report said. “The exuberance and breakneck growth of the early years may be replaced by something a little steadier.”

American oil production fell to 11.2 million barrels a day in September from 13 million at the beginning of the year. The Energy Department expects production to fall an additional 200,000 barrels a day by mid-2021 as companies drill fewer new wells to replace older ones.

The industry has no choice but to cut back. Americans drove 12.3 percent fewer miles in August than they did a year earlier, according to the Transportation Department.

Globally, daily oil consumption was down more than 6 percent in September from a year earlier, according to the Energy Department. Oil production continues to outpace demand, keeping inventory levels high and prices low.

And the pandemic is not yet under control in many parts of the world. If sustained, the recent increase in coronavirus infections in the United States, Europe and elsewhere could reduce demand for oil and gas even further in the coming months.

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Mask Mandate? In a Montana Town, It ‘Puts Us at Odds With Customers’

HAMILTON, Mont. — Outside River Rising Bakery sits an older gentleman, his face uncovered. He’s here every morning, greeting customers as he drinks his coffee and reads. Inside, people mill about, waiting to order. A group of moms chat at a corner table.

The employees wear masks, but patrons are not required to. Most don’t. It feels almost normal. As if the pandemic had never happened.

Half a block away in Hamilton, at Big Creek Coffee Roasters, most customers don’t go inside; instead they wait to order at a makeshift to-go window. There are a lot of strollers and Lululemon tights, and most people in the line are wearing a mask. If anyone did go inside, wearing one would be mandatory.

One Montana block, two small businesses — and two different decisions about asking customers to wear masks.

This summer, the governor, Steve Bullock, mandated face coverings in public spaces to combat a spike in Covid-19 cases. But the sheriff in Hamilton, backed up by the Ravalli County commissioners, elected not to enforce the order, saying individual rights took priority. That decision left small businesses stuck in the middle of a months-long national conflict over mask wearing as they try to keep staff safe and their doors open without alienating customers.

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

For the owner of River Rising, Nicki Ransier, the commissioners’ decision made her life easier: “It kind of took some pressure off of us, because we’re not having that confrontation with our customers when they walk in.”

Before the governor’s order, Ms. Ransier asked her staff to wear masks, but a few customers berated her employees — some of whom are in high school — over the decision. One customer told the staff that they were “bending the knee to tyranny” by following Mr. Bullock’s order.

Other patrons wanted Ms. Ransier to flatly require masks for all and install costly plexiglass barriers. She felt she couldn’t please anyone, so she decided her policy would focus on what she could control: employees. She would let customers choose, but ask her 14 workers to wear masks even though it can be hot and miserable.

“We have a lot of older customers,” Ms. Ransier said. “And in my heart, I was just like, ‘What if I were to get Bob — the man who sits out front every day — or someone sick?’ I would just feel horrible.”

But the commissioners’ move frustrated Randy Lint, the owner of Big Creek Coffee Roasters. He thought the governor’s order would put an end to mask conflicts. Instead, he said, the commissioners’ decision “puts us at odds with customers.”

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

“Dealing with fallout from stressed customers has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” Mr. Lint said.

He’s thankful for the to-go window and the reprieve it offers — at least while the weather is nice. He added a propane heater to extend the outdoor season, but once winter hits and customers come indoors, he knows his policy will be an issue again. Still, he said, he can’t risk having any of his seven staff members contract Covid-19. If one did, he would have to shut down for two weeks so everyone could quarantine. Mr. Lint said he wasn’t sure he could survive that experience emotionally.

“The danger is that it will all crush my spirit,” he said.

It’s a fear based in reality: Down the block, Naps Grill, one of the town’s busiest restaurants, recently chose to close temporarily after several workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Complicating the choice for business owners and customers alike is that the pandemic has been slow to affect Ravalli County, which is part of the Bitterroot Valley, an approximately 100-mile strip of isolated southwestern Montana. The county is 2,400 square miles — nearly as large as Delaware — but it has had just over 300 cases of the coronavirus and four deaths from Covid-19 since March. More than one-quarter of those cases have cropped up in the past week and caused several local schools to shut down for multiple days. And with the area’s reliance on tourists for hunting season and an influx of pandemic refugees from more populous states, anything could happen this fall.

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

The town, with just under 5,000 residents, is home to Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. It is also the county seat, luring many to shop and do business, and is a gateway to serious trout streams and other outdoor recreation. That means everyone is mixing on Main Street: white collar, blue collar, wealthy ranchers, scientists, lifelong bartenders, multigeneration residents, tourists, hunters, kayakers, conservatives and liberals.

There is an uneasy truce between newcomers with high-paying jobs who are looking for the Montana lifestyle and longtime Bitterrooters, whose wages have been slow to rise even as the median home price in the county has risen 60 percent since January 2017. The longtimers feel pushed out.

“We are scrupulously apolitical,” Mr. Lint said, who has lived in Hamilton for 25 years. “It’s a survival mechanism. We have a lot of old Bitterrooters who wouldn’t come in here otherwise. We just try to give a good drink and kindness.”

That’s the refrain up and down the block. Most owners, whatever their politics, keep their business’ social media and public statements staunchly neutral. But masks have become a very public symbol onto which people imprint their own assumptions.

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

“It’s quite exhausting,” said Shawn Wathen, a co-owner of Chapter One Book Store, which is cater-corner from Big Creek. “If we could go one day and not have to talk about masks — that would be just quite astonishing.”

“The governor’s order was supposed to handle that for us so that we could focus on staying open as a business, right?” added the other owner, Mara Lynn Luther. “And that’s so frustrating.”

Chapter One has been a staple in Hamilton since 1974, and both Ms. Luther and Mr. Wathen were employees before becoming the owners. They jokingly call themselves bartenders — because customers bring them their biggest problems. It’s a real exercise in trust, for example, when someone asks them to order a title on mental health or how to save their marriage. They love the hours they spend talking about books and big ideas with shoppers.

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times
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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

Recently, an elderly woman came in and lashed out when she was told that the store required masks. Instead of kicking out her longtime customer or using harsh words, Ms. Luther asked if the woman was OK. The two chatted, and Ms. Luther learned that the woman, unable to see facial expressions, was genuinely frightened to see people in masks. Now when the woman comes in, Ms. Luther said, she masks without complaint.

“Do we always share the same views and values as our whole community? No,” Ms. Luther said. “But for years we’ve just kept these lines of communication open and really made an effort to never make someone feel like we shut the door on them.”

Across the street at Big Sky Candy, the owners, Michele DeGroot and her daughter, Marlena Fehr, made a different decision: They are not asking patrons to mask while browsing the chocolates, truffles, toffees, fudge and caramels. The pair have been making the goodies from scratch for 19 years, and they love having people who came in as kids bring their own children now.

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times
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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

That community connection is partly why they decided not to enforce the governor’s mask mandate: They didn’t want anyone to feel bad in a place that is supposed to bring joy. So instead of the “masks required” sign, a note on their front door says they won’t be enforcing the order and adds, in part: “BASICALLY, it’s up to you. You do what you feel is right for you. We will not judge you. The rest of the world does enough judging. We don’t need that here. We love each and every one of you.”

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Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

That’s how Ms. Ransier of River Rising feels about her customers: She loves them all. She cries when talking about how much they mean to her, and how Covid helped show her how much the cafe meant to them. When the pandemic hit, she said, her “old curmudgeon regulars” were the first to step up and offer cash donations to help keep her afloat.

“I didn’t even think they really cared, as long as we have their pastry,” she said. “But those ranchers, you know, they aren’t going to be wearing their heart on their sleeve. There’s always something good that comes out of everything.”

It’s bittersweet because she recently sold the business to her landlord, Fenn Nelson. The two had been in discussions since before the pandemic, and the timing finally worked out.

So far, Mr. Nelson is not planning any significant changes to the menu, the staff or the mask policy. At his other business, the microbrewery Higherground Brewing Company, he strongly encourages customers to wear masks inside but doesn’t make staff insist.

“At one level, I feel like I should push for more for masks,” Mr. Nelson said. “But on the other side, I feel like, at what cost? For us to survive, we need everyone as customers.”

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With Covid-19 Under Control, China’s Economy Surges Ahead

BEIJING — As most of the world still struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, China is showing once again that a fast economic rebound is possible when the virus is brought firmly under control.

The Chinese economy surged 4.9 percent in the July-to-September quarter compared with the same months last year, the country’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on Monday. The robust performance brings China almost back up to the roughly 6 percent pace of growth that it was reporting before the pandemic.

Many of the world’s major economies have climbed quickly out of the depths of a contraction last spring, when shutdowns caused output to fall steeply. But China is the first to report growth that significantly surpasses where it was at this time last year. The United States and other nations are expected to report a third-quarter surge too, but they are still behind or just catching up to pre-pandemic levels.

China’s lead could widen further in the months to come. It has almost no local transmission of the virus now, while the United States and Europe face another accelerating wave of cases.

The vigorous expansion of the Chinese economy means that it is set to dominate global growth — accounting for at least 30 percent of the world’s economic growth this year and in the years to come, Justin Lin Yifu, a cabinet adviser and honorary dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, said at a recent government news conference in Beijing.

Chinese companies are making up a greater share of the world’s exports, manufacturing consumer electronics, personal protection equipment and other goods in high demand during the pandemic. At the same time, China is now buying more iron ore from Brazil, more corn and pork from the United States and more palm oil from Malaysia. That has partly reversed a nosedive in commodity prices last spring and softened the impact of the pandemic on some industries.

Still, China’s recovery has done less to help the rest of the world than in the past because its imports have not increased nearly as much as its exports. This pattern has created jobs in China but placed a brake on growth elsewhere.

China’s economic recovery has also been dependent for months on huge investments in highways, high-speed train lines and other infrastructure. And in recent weeks, the country has seen the beginning of a recovery in domestic consumption.

The affluent and people living in export-oriented coastal provinces were the first to start spending money again. But activity is resuming now even in places like Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the new coronavirus first emerged.

“You’ve had to line up to get into many restaurants in Wuhan, and for Wuhan restaurants that are popular on the internet, the wait is two or three hours,” said Lei Yanqiu, a Wuhan resident in her early 30s.

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Credit…Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

George Zhong, a resident of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in western China, said that he had made trips to three provinces in the past two months and has been actively shopping when he is home. “I spend no less than in previous years,” Mr. Zhong said.

China’s economic growth in the past three months came in slightly below economists’ forecasts of 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent. But the performance was still strong enough that stock markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong rose in early trading on Monday.

The country’s broadening recovery could also be seen in economic statistics just for September, which were also released on Monday. Retail sales climbed 3.3 percent last month from a year ago, while industrial production was up 6.9 percent.

China’s model for restoring growth may be effective, but may not be appealing to other countries.

Determined to keep local transmission of the virus at or near zero, China has resorted to comprehensive cellphone tracking of its population, weekslong lockdowns of neighborhoods and cities and costly mass testing in response to even the smallest outbreaks.

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Credit…Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

China’s rebound also comes with some weaknesses, particularly a jump in overall debt this year by an amount equal to as much as a third of the economy’s overall output. Much of the extra debt is either borrowing by local governments and state-owned enterprises to pay for new infrastructure, or mortgages taken out by households and companies to pay for apartments and new buildings.

The government is aware of the risk of letting debt accumulate quickly. But reining in new credit would hurt real estate activity, a sector that represents up to a quarter of the economy.

Another risk to China’s recovery is its heavy dependence on exports. The surge in exports in the past three months, along with lower prices for imports of commodities, accounted for a sizable chunk of economic growth. Exports still represent over 17 percent of China’s economy, more than double the proportion that they make up in the American economy.

China’s leaders recognize that the country’s exports are increasingly vulnerable to geopolitical tensions, including the Trump administration’s moves to unwind trade relations between the United States and China. Shifts in global demand might also threaten exports, as the pandemic batters overseas economies.

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Credit…Jane Barlow/Press Association, via Associated Press

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has increasingly emphasized self-reliance, a strategy that calls for expanding service industries and innovation in manufacturing, as well as enabling residents to spend more.

“We need to make consumers the mainstay,” said Qiu Baoxing, a cabinet adviser who is a former vice minister of housing, at the news conference in Beijing. “By focusing on domestic circulation, we are actually enhancing our own resilience.”

But empowering consumers has long been a challenge in China. Under ordinary circumstances, most Chinese are compelled to save for education, health care and retirement because of a weak social safety net. The economic slowdown, and the pandemic, have meant lost jobs, compounding the problem, particularly for low earners and rural residents.

Beijing’s approach to helping ordinary Chinese during the slowdown has been to provide companies with tax rebates and large loans from state-owned banks, so that businesses would not need to lay off workers. But some economists argue that Beijing should instead be handing out coupons or checks to more directly assist the country’s poorer citizens.

Millions of Chinese migrant workers endured at least a month or two of unemployment in the spring as factories were slow to reopen after the epidemic. Young Chinese found themselves dipping into their savings to eat or taking on second jobs to make up for slashed wages.

But Chinese government economists are wary of providing direct payments to consumers. They say that the government’s priorities are investment-driven growth and measures to improve productivity and quality of life, such as digging new sewerage systems or adding elevators to three million older apartment towers that lack them.

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Credit…Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

“We’ve seen a lot of suggestions to increase consumption, but the crux is to enrich people first,” said Yao Jingyuan, a former chief economist of the National Bureau of Statistics who is now a policy researcher for the cabinet.

Western governments have experimented with providing extra-large unemployment checks, one-time payments and even subsidized meals at restaurants. These payments have been aimed at helping families sustain a minimum standard of living through the pandemic — which in turn has fueled demand for imports from China.

The widening of the trade surplus — in which the increase in exports exceeded the growth in imports — represented 0.6 percentage points of the 4.9 percent economic growth, an official said on Monday. Consumption and investment in China accounted for the rest.

“On the whole, China’s economy was primarily driven by domestic demand,” Liu Aihua, a spokeswoman for the National Bureau of Statistics, said at a news conference in Beijing.

But Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, said that as people in other countries supported by government subsidies continue to turn to China for products during the pandemic, “we’re going to see a resurgence of trade conflict, and not just U.S.-China, but global.”

Liu Yi and Amber Wang contributed research.

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Former Fox News Host Spreads Virus Misinformation on His Sinclair Show

In the latest episode of Eric Bolling’s show from the Sinclair Broadcast Group, “America This Week,” the conservative broadcaster perpetuated misinformation about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic and measures that help slow its spread.

In the episode, which was posted to several Sinclair station websites this week, Mr. Bolling made claims, which scientists have widely disputed, that the coronavirus was manipulated in a Chinese laboratory. He also questioned the effectiveness of face coverings and lockdowns, despite evidence that they are instrumental in limiting transmissions.

“It’s damn near certain this virus has to have been altered in a Chinese lab,” Mr. Bolling said in his monologue. “No way this is your routine ‘guy and girlfriend chow down on an uncooked bat turned into a virus.’”

Mr. Bolling, a former Fox News host, also said that “closing down cities and economies and wearing your tube socks around your face hasn’t slowed the virus down.”

In an interview on Friday, after the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America raised concerns about the episode, Mr. Bolling said the segment was being edited to remove some of his statements before airing this weekend on dozens of Sinclair stations. Sinclair, which is known for its conservative stances, owns or operates nearly 200 television stations across the country and reaches 39 percent of American households.

Ronn Torossian, a Sinclair spokesman, said in a statement on Friday that Mr. Bolling “did not provide necessary context when providing commentary about the recent rise in new coronavirus cases.”

“Eric remains committed to discussing important issues, but in this instance recognizes that his words may be misinterpreted. As a result, we have decided to edit the episode and remove the portion in question,” Mr. Torossian said.

Mr. Bolling stood by his unsubstantiated claims that Chinese scientists had tampered with the virus. He did not cite studies to support his belief but said, “I read a lot,” adding, “Some of my closest friends are doctors.” On Friday, an online version of the show still included his claims that the virus was altered in a lab.

Mr. Bolling’s claim followed similar statements by a guest last month on the Fox News show hosted by Tucker Carlson. Scientists have concluded that the coronavirus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus” and linked it to bats. Suggestions that the virus was engineered at some point to become more dangerous are “just nonsense,” other scientists said.

Mr. Bolling has been a conduit for virus-related misinformation before. In a July segment of his Sinclair show, he interviewed the discredited scientist Judy Mikovits, who was featured in a debunked video called “Plandemic.” Ms. Mikovits shared false claims linking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the national infections-disease expert, to the creation of the coronavirus. Sinclair pulled the segment, saying on Twitter that it was “not appropriate to air.”

In the interview, Mr. Bolling said his comment on face coverings was not meant seriously. “For two years, I’ve worn masks on airplanes,” he added. “I believe in masks. I believe masks save lives, and I always have.”

President Trump, whom Mr. Bolling is scheduled to interview in a Sinclair town-hall-style event next week, has said of face coverings: “Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.”

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last month that the pandemic could be controlled in six to 12 weeks if all Americans wore face coverings, calling them “the most important, powerful public health tool we have.” The use of masks has also been backed by health experts from the Mayo Clinic Health System; Stanford University; the University of California, San Francisco; and Johns Hopkins Medicine. They say they reduce the number of respiratory droplets expelled into the air and limit the risk of coronavirus exposure.

Mr. Bolling began hosting “America This Week” last year. He was was ousted from Fox News in 2017 after a report that he had sent lewd photographs via text message to three female colleagues, allegations he denied.

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How United Airlines Is Trying to Plan Around a Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out travel in the spring, United Airlines slashed its flight schedule, salted away aircraft in the New Mexico desert and parked planes at hangars around the country.

That was the easy part.

Now, with what is normally the peak summer season behind it and travel proceeding in fits and starts, the airline is continuing to fine-tune every facet of its business, from maintenance to flight planning, as it tries to predict where a wary public will fly, a challenge even in the best of times.

“We can really throw away the crystal ball, which was hazy to begin with,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president for domestic network planning.

This week, the airline announced a $1.8 billion loss during the third quarter, with revenues down 78 percent compared to the same period a year ago. While United said it was ready to “turn the page” from survival to rebuilding, it said it didn’t expect a recovery to begin in earnest until 2022.

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times
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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

Passenger volumes for U.S. airlines are down about 65 percent, according to an industry group, and major carriers have taken on enormous debt as they lose billions of dollars each month. After hopes for a second congressional rescue package faded last month, United furloughed more than 13,000 workers and American Airlines furloughed 19,000.

But while every airline is struggling, each struggles in its own way. United relies far more than its rivals on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take far longer than domestic travel to bounce back. Lucrative business travel will be slow to return, too, and the airline said this week that it had amassed more than $19 billion in cash and other available funds to cope with the downturn.

“We’ve got 12 to 15 months of pain, sacrifice and difficulty ahead,” United’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, said on an earnings conference call on Thursday. “But we have done what it takes in the initial phases to have confidence — it’s really about confidence — in getting through the crisis and to the other side.”

In navigating that path, the airline has focused on finding savings while positioning itself to serve the few passengers who still want to fly. When the virus devastated travel in March and April, the airline took hundreds of planes out of circulation. Among the first to go were twin-aisle jets used for international flights, which dropped early as countries closed borders. Single-aisle planes — the kind used for domestic routes — followed soon after.

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

About 150 planes were sent to long-term storage in Roswell, N.M. — yes, that Roswell — where the dry conditions are better suited for long-term aircraft preservation. Many others were parked at United’s hub airports in and near cities including Chicago, Washington and Newark, where technicians could more easily get them back into service if needed.

Since July, United has brought back more than 150 of the planes that the airline or its regional carriers had grounded, it said on Thursday. About 450 are still stashed away, but must be maintained in a way that allows flexibility.

To get it right, Tom Doxey, United’s senior vice president for technical operations, and his team consult models created by computer scientists and solicit guidance from maintenance crews. Generally, two considerations loom large: how soon a plane will need substantial maintenance and the likelihood that it will be among the first to start flying again.

“If you have an aircraft that maybe is less likely to come back soon, you kind of want it at the back of the parking lot,” Mr. Doxey said. “It goes into prolonged storage and it probably goes to a desert location.”

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

As demand for domestic flights picks up, United will most likely put single-aisle Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s to use, so it keeps many at the ready, he said. The same goes for the Boeing 777s or 767s, which can be used for international travel, whenever it rebounds. Planes that recently underwent intensive maintenance are kept closer at hand, too, than those that may soon be due for a deeper examination.

Fortunately for Mr. Doxey and United, some travel trends have started to emerge, making his job easier. Most of the people still flying are staying within the country, visiting friends and relatives or vacationing outdoors. If airline planners are right, travel to powdery ski slopes in the West may pick up soon, too. Those flights would put United’s smaller single-aisle planes to use.

Planning routes in such lean times can be incredibly complex, with airlines weighing a range of variables on limited resources. Not only do the right planes need to be in the right places, but planners must be sure that they have the gate agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots needed for each flight — out and back — all while trying to accommodate erratic travel trends.

To predict winter demand, Mr. Gupta and his domestic planning team consulted with resort operators and staff members near ski towns to gauge how many flights the company should add to snowy destinations. Based on recent and historical trends, they also added an unusual mix of direct flights to Florida this winter from the Northeast and the Midwest. On Thursday, United began offering preflight coronavirus tests to customers headed from San Francisco to Hawaii to help them avoid the state’s quarantine requirements and hopefully increase sales. It is also planning to expand service on dozens of routes to tropical destinations near and within the United States and resuming flights on nearly 30 international routes.

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

With few people flying internationally, though, United has less need for its wide-body jets, which account for a quarter of its fleet. But it has found a use for some of those bigger planes: When demand for air cargo spiked, United put its larger, fuel-efficient 787s to work hauling goods.

Before the pandemic, the airline operated more than 300 daily flights abroad, but that figure dipped to 11 during the depths of the crisis. Next month, the airline plans to operate more than 150 international departures each day. To understand when and how that demand might recover, Patrick Quayle, who oversees international network planning for United, and his team track a range of indicators, including national travel restrictions, the travel habits of dual citizens and the economic ties between countries.

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times
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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

“It’s a bit of playing United Nations and looking at alliances and looking at passport data, and it’s a bit of gut feeling, to be quite candid,” he said.

As difficult as planning has been, it is becoming even harder. The federal stimulus passed in March, the CARES Act, gave passenger airlines $25 billion to help keep tens of thousands employed. It also made life a little easier for network planners, allowing them to worry less about whether a flight would cover labor costs, a major expense, and freeing them up to make last-minute changes knowing that there were far more employees available to work than needed. The aid expired last month, though, and prospects of another round of funding have largely faded.

There may be some reason for hope, though. The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly one million people at airport checkpoints on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March, though it was still less than 40 percent of the number screened on the same weekday last year. Whatever happens in the months to come, Mr. Doxey said, United is prepared: “We have a plan in place.”

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Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times
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Unemployment Claims Rise Anew in Latest Sign of Economic Distress

The American economy is showing fresh signs of deceleration, hammered by layoffs, a surge in coronavirus cases and the lack of fresh aid from Washington.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that 886,000 people filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week, an increase of nearly 77,000 from the previous week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, the total was 898,000.

The rise follows the announcement of layoffs by major companies including Disney and United Airlines in recent weeks and an impasse between Republicans and Democrats over another round of aid for the economy. A recent jump in coronavirus infections, principally in the Midwest and Western states, only added to the grim outlook.

“It’s discouraging,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “The labor market appears to be stalled, which underscores the need for new stimulus as quickly as possible.”

The economy rebounded strongly in late spring and early summer as lockdowns eased in many parts of the country and employers brought back workers from furloughs. But those recalls have slowed, even as federal stimulus efforts have waned.

In past recessions, 800,000 new claims for state unemployment insurance in a week would have been extraordinary. But over the last 30 weeks, that figure has become a floor, not a ceiling.

The latest numbers “point to a lot of churn in the labor market, and it appears the rate of firings has picked up,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays.

More layoffs are expected as sectors like leisure and hospitality struggle. In some states, restaurants have been able to salvage some business by serving diners outside, but that option will disappear in many areas as winter approaches.

“The course of the virus determines the course of the economy,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “You can’t fully reopen with the contagion so high.”

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Credit…John Bazemore/Associated Press

A federal program set to expire at the end of the year, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, is seeing a surge in new applications. It provides 13 weeks of extended benefits after the end of regular state payments, which typically last 26 weeks.

In the week that ended Sept. 26, the most recent period with available data, nearly 2.8 million people were getting the extended benefits, a jump from fewer than two million the previous week. That increase was roughly equal to the decline in the number collecting state benefits.

But receiving those benefits, which are administered by the states, isn’t so easy, experts say. “The transition from regular state benefits to P.E.U.C. is not going smoothly,” said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group.

In some places, recipients of state unemployment benefits haven’t been notified of their eligibility for the federal extension, and aging computer systems have slowed the processing of applications.

If the program is not extended by Congress, “we’re going to see a disaster,” Ms. Shierholz said. “There will be a huge drop in living standards and an increase in poverty as well as downward pressure on economic growth.”

For workers facing the end of regular benefits, the extended payments have proven to be a lifeline.

Jared Gaxiola of Torrance, Calif., was laid off from his job as a freelance lighting technician in March, after live events were canceled across the country. When his state benefits ran out in mid-September, he was able to get a 13-week extension through Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

Mr. Gaxiola, 35, hopes to find a job by the time the federal payments run out in December. But with entertainment work still scarce, he worries about how he will pay his rent in the new year.

“I could probably borrow money from my sister if I needed to,” Mr. Gaxiola said. “But I really don’t want to have to do that.”

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Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Some workers who are caught between an unforgiving job market and uncertain prospects for help from the government have taken matters into their own hands.

For three years, Lea Polizzi worked more than 50 hours a week as a nanny and a freelance photographer in New York City. But in March, when the pandemic hit, the family she worked for on the Upper East Side left the city, and all of her photography gigs dried up.

Ms. Polizzi, 24, filed for unemployment benefits and started receiving about $200 a week from the state, as well as a $600 federal supplement. Those payments enabled her to meet expenses — including the $1,100 rent for her apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn — while she looked for a job.

But the $600 payments expired at the end of July. Since then, Ms. Polizzi has used about 75 percent of her savings — roughly $4,000 — to pay bills.

“That was the money I had saved to use for vacations or emergency funds,” she said. “I was going to buy a new camera. And then as soon as everything started going down, I had to put everything on hold, because I knew that I was going to end up having to pay rent with it eventually.”

Ms. Polizzi recently received $900 from Lost Wages Assistance, a short-term supplement from the federal government, and she expects one more payment from the program in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, she is making masks, lingerie, hats and jewelry and selling the items online at $25 to $200 apiece.

She has made about 60 sales. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it work and just pay all my bills through my art ventures,” she said.

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Despite the challenging picture over all, a few workers have been able to find better-paying positions, securing shelter in the coronavirus storm.

Before the pandemic struck, Chloe Ezi was a lifeguard at a public aquatic center in Powder Springs, Ga. It was part-time work that paid $11 an hour, but she was able to bring in an extra $300 a week by teaching private swim lessons.

In March, Ms. Ezi was sent home during coronavirus lockdowns. Because she continued to be paid half her wages — about $75 a week — the pool operators told her that she was not eligible to file for unemployment benefits.

Ms. Ezi, 19, was called back to work in May, but because virus restrictions kept her from teaching private swim lessons, she was able to bring in only about $150 a week — barely enough to cover her $280 monthly car insurance bill, her $80 cellphone bill, and $100 monthly payments to Penn Foster College, where she is completing a dental assistant certificate program, plus groceries and other necessities.

“That’s not a lot to live off of,” Ms. Ezi said. “I was zeroing out my paycheck every month.”

To save money, Ms. Ezi lived with her boyfriend in his parents’ house.

“We’re all just a big family living in this house together,” she said. “It can get pretty stressful living with so many people like this.”

Tired of living in such close quarters, Ms. Ezi began looking for a job that would pay more. In August, she found a full-time position as a sales representative at a store that sells birding equipment, where she makes $13 an hour plus tips. She remains on the staff at the pool, where she still picks up an occasional shift.

Now she and her boyfriend can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Smyrna, Ga. They moved in on Wednesday.

“My new job allowed us to finally get our own place,” she said. “I’m feeling pretty proud of myself right now.”

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U.S. Investigates Vaxart’s Claims Related to Covid-19 Vaccine

Vaxart, a California biotech firm that is attempting to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, has come under scrutiny from federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company announced in June that it had been selected to participate in Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s flagship effort to develop cures and treatments for Covid-19. That sent Vaxart’s stock price soaring, allowing a hedge fund that controlled the company to reap an instant $200 million profit by selling shares.

The New York Times reported the following month that Vaxart appeared to have overstated its involvement in Operation Warp Speed.

Vaxart said it had received a subpoena from the Justice Department concerning its role in Operation Warp Speed and the stock sales in July, the company disclosed in a securities filing this week.

In August, the S.E.C.’s enforcement division requested documents from the company about the same matter, Vaxart said in the filing, which was first reported by Fierce Pharma, a trade publication.

“We are cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office regarding these requests and have provided documents and information in response,” Vaxart said in the securities filing. It added that it had “voluntarily provided documents requested by the S.E.C. and is cooperating with this informal inquiry.”

A number of shareholder lawsuits have also been brought against Vaxart, its executives and its board, accusing the company of misleading investors by overstating its role in Operation Warp Speed.

Vaxart is one of dozens of companies pursuing coronavirus vaccines. But the company, which had just 15 employees this summer, is not among the drug makers that have received substantial funding for their research and production efforts through Operation Warp Speed.

Nonetheless, the company in June issued a news release that stated: “Vaxart’s Covid-19 Vaccine Selected for the U.S. Government’s Operation Warp Speed.” That sent shares of the company soaring, and within days, a hedge fund, Armistice Capital, had sold shares worth more than $200 million.

But Vaxart’s involvement in Operation Warp Speed was limited. Its vaccine candidate was one among those being tested in an animal trial sponsored by the federal initiative. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is coordinating Operation Warp Speed, distanced the department from the company, saying it was involved only in preliminary studies but had not yet won government support.

The value of Vaxart stock has fallen by more than 50 percent since mid-July, when it hit new highs on the heels of its Operation Warp Speed announcement.

This week, the company said it had begun its Phase 1 trial and that initial tests on hamsters yielded promising results.

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How to Deal With a Crisis of Misinformation

There’s a disease that has been spreading for years now. Like any resilient virus, it evolves to find new ways to attack us. It’s not in our bodies, but on the web.

It has different names: misinformation, disinformation or distortions. Whatever the label, it can be harmful, especially now that it is being produced through the lens of several emotionally charged events: the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential election and protests against law enforcement.

The swarm of bad information circulating on the web has been intense enough to overwhelm Alan Duke, the editor of Lead Stories, a fact-checking website. For years, he said, false news mostly consisted of phony web articles that revolved around silly themes, like myths about putting onions in your socks to cure a cold. But misinformation has now crept into much darker, sinister corners and taken on forms like the internet meme, which is often a screenshot overlaid with sensational text or manipulated with doctored images.

He named a harmful example of memes: Those attacking Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker in Louisville, Ky., who was killed by the police when they entered her home in March. Misinformation spreaders generated memes suggesting that Ms. Taylor shot at police officers first, which was not true.

“The meme is probably the most dangerous,” Mr. Duke said. “In seven or 20 words, somebody can say something that’s not true, and people will believe it and share it. It takes two minutes to create.”

It’s impossible to quantify how much bad information is out there now because the spread of it online has been relentless. Katy Byron, who leads a media literacy program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit, and who works with a group of teenagers who regularly track false information, said it was on the rise. Before the pandemic, the group would present a few examples of misinformation every few days. Now each student is reporting multiple examples a day.

“With the pandemic, people are increasingly online doomscrolling and looking for information,” Ms. Byron said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find it and feel confident you’re consuming facts.”

The misinformation, she said, is also creeping into videos. With modern editing tools, it has become too easy for people with little technical know-how and minimal equipment to produce videos that appear to have high production value. Often, real video clips are stripped of context and spliced together to tell a different story.

The rise of false news is bad news for all of us. Misinformation can be a detriment to our well-being in a time when people are desperately seeking information such as health guidelines to share with their loved ones about the coronavirus. It can also stoke anger and cause us to commit violence. Also important: It could mislead us about voting in a pandemic that has turned our world upside down.

How do we adapt to avoid being manipulated and spreading false information to the people we care about? Past methods of spotting untruthful news, like checking articles for typos and phony web addresses that resemble those of trusted publications, are now less relevant. We have to employ more sophisticated methods of consuming information, like doing our own fact-checking and choosing reliable news sources.

Here’s what we can do.

Get used to this keyboard shortcut: Ctrl+T (or Command+T on a Mac). That creates a new browser tab in Chrome and Firefox. You’re going to be using it a lot. The reason: It enables you to ask questions and hopefully get some answers with a quick web search.

It’s all part of an exercise that Ms. Byron calls lateral reading. While reading an article, Step 1 is to open a browser tab. Step 2 is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is behind the information?

  • What is the evidence?

  • What do other sources say?

From there, with that new browser tab open, you could start answering those questions. You could do a web search on the author of the content when possible. You could do another search to see what other publications are saying about the same topic. If the claim isn’t being repeated elsewhere, it may be false.

You could also open another browser tab to look at the evidence. With a meme, for example, you could do a reverse image search on the photo that was used in the meme. On Google.com, click Images and upload the photo or paste the web address of the photo into the search bar. That will show where else the image has shown up on the web to verify whether the one you have seen has been manipulated.

With videos, it’s trickier. A browser plug-in called InVID can be installed on Firefox and Chrome. When watching a video, you can click on the tool, click on the Keyframes button and paste in a video link (a YouTube clip, for example) and click Submit. From there, the tool will pull up important frames of the video, and you can reverse image search on those frames to see if they are legitimate or fake.

Some of the tech steps above may not be for the faint of heart. But most important is the broader lesson: Take a moment to think.

“The No. 1 rule is to slow down, pause and ask yourself, ‘Am I sure enough about this that I should share it?’” said Peter Adams, a senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, a media education nonprofit. “If everybody did that, we’d see a dramatic reduction of misinformation online.”

While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter help us stay connected with the people we care about, there’s a downside: Even the people we trust may be unknowingly spreading false information, so we can be caught off guard. And with everything mashed together into a single social media feed, it gets tougher to distinguish good information from bad information, and fact from opinion.

What we can do is another exercise in mindfulness: Be deliberate about where you get your information, Mr. Adams said. Instead of relying solely on the information showing up in your social media feeds, choose a set of publications that you trust, like a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcast news program, and turn to those regularly.

Mainstream media is far from perfect, but it’s subjected to a standards process that is usually not seen in user-generated content, including memes.

“A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking no source of information is perfect,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s when people really start to feel lost and overwhelmed and open themselves up to sources they really should stay away from.”

The most frightening part about misinformation is when it transcends digital media and finds its way into the real world.

Mr. Duke of Lead Stories said he and his wife had recently witnessed protesters holding signs with the message “#SavetheChildren.” The signs alluded to a false rumor spread by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy about a child-trafficking network led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. The pro-Trump conspiracy movement had effectively hijacked the child-trafficking issue, mixing facts with its own fictions to suit its narrative.

Conspiracy theories have fueled some QAnon believers to be arrested in cases of serious crimes, including a murder in New York and a conspiracy to kidnap a child.

“QAnon has gone from misinformation online to being out on the street corner,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s dangerous.”

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July Is the New January: More Companies Delay Return to the Office

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered offices around the United States in March, many companies told their employees that it would be only a short hiatus away from headquarters.

Workers, they said, would be back in their cubicles within a matter of weeks. Weeks turned into September. Then September turned into January. And now, with the virus still surging in some parts of the country, a growing number of employers are delaying return-to-office dates once again, to the summer of 2021 at the earliest.

Google was one of the first to announce that July 2021 was its return-to-office date. Uber, Slack and Airbnb soon jumped on the bandwagon. In the past week, Microsoft, Target, Ford Motor and The New York Times said they, too, had postponed the return of in-person work to next summer and acknowledged the inevitable: The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Let’s just bite the bullet,” said Joan Burke, the chief people officer of DocuSign in San Francisco. In August, her company, which manages electronic document signatures, decided it would allow its 5,200 employees to work from home until June 2021.

“We’re still in a place where this is evolving,” she said. “None of us have all the answers.”

Many more companies are expected to delay their return-to-office dates to keep workers safe. And workers said they were in no rush to go back, with 73 percent of U.S. employees fearing that being in their workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety, according to a study by Wakefield Research commissioned by Envoy, a workplace technology company.

More companies are also saying that they will institute permanent work-from-home policies so employees do not ever have to come into the office again.

In May, Facebook was one of the first to announce that it would allow many employees to work remotely even after the pandemic. Twitter, Coinbase and Shopify have also said they would do so. On Friday, Microsoft announced it would also be part of that shift.

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Credit…Stuart Isett for The New York Times

The elongating timelines and changing policies add up to a continued balancing act for companies as the coronavirus shatters work norms and upends assumptions about where workers need to be to achieve maximum productivity. Employers are also under pressure to be as open as possible about their intentions so that workers can plan ahead with their lives.

The postponement of return dates is a “psychological blow for those who expected this to be a transition phase,” said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who studies remote work. “The reality is hitting that, ‘There won’t be a vaccine as I expected very quickly. This is going to be my life, and I’d better learn how to do this.’”

Dr. Neeley likened the situation to waiting at an airport terminal for a flight that is continually delayed. With the new dates announced, she said, people can finally start adjusting from a temporary “grinning and bear it” approach to a permanent shift.

Successful companies “have begun to think about long-term strategy rather than ‘Let’s just survive our crisis,’” she said.

Much of corporate America is now following the lead of Silicon Valley tech companies like Google and Facebook. They were among those that allowed employees to work from home even before the pandemic hit in full force in March. Since then, Facebook has set the tone in planning for permanent remote work, while Google established the July 2021 target date for returning to the office.

“I hope this will offer the flexibility you need to balance work with taking care of yourselves and your loved ones over the next 12 months,” Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, wrote in an email to employees about the July 2021 date.

Other employers soon emulated the tech giants, also citing worker flexibility as a key factor in pushing their return-to-office dates to next summer.

Ms. Burke, the DocuSign executive, said announcing the June 2021 return date to employees prompted a “collective sigh of relief inside the company” because it put an end to the incremental postponements and uncertainty of when they would be expected to return.

Remote work has been productive, she said, and people like not having to commute. But a mix of in-person and remote is probably the most popular option for employees when life returns to normal, she said, because they also miss the social interaction of an office space.

Zoom “is not the same thing, and it’s exhausting,” Ms. Burke said. “By 7 o’clock last night, I was Zoomed out.”

Other companies that have delayed their returns to the office until next summer often face a more complicated decision because their work forces are not just made up of white-collar engineers, unlike those of internet companies.

Ford said last week that its decision to hold off on back in-person office work through June 2021 would apply to its roughly 32,000 employees in North America who are already working remotely. The company, which has about 188,000 employees, said the policy does not apply to factory staff.

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Credit…Aaron P/Bauer-Griffin, via Getty Images

When Target announced its decision to let some employees continue to work at home through June 2021 in a letter to staff last week, it said it would apply just to employees at its headquarters in Minneapolis. The company said a small number of employees who rely on the headquarters facilities would continue to work on-site. In-store employees will work in retail stores as usual.

Some companies that have already tried bringing employees back to the office have grappled with safety concerns. Last month, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase sent some workers back home after employees who had returned to the office tested positive for the virus.

Tech companies have also been at the forefront of permanent work-from-home policies because digital work is often simpler for people to conduct via laptops and teleconferences than by being on site.

Slack told employees — many of them engineers — in early August that its offices would remain closed until June 2021 and that it was considering permanent work-from-home, a decision partly driven by how productive its employees have been remotely, said Robby Kwok, the chief of staff to Slack’s chief executive.

“I do think this flexibility that employers are giving to employees about not needing to come into the office five days a week is going to be extremely beneficial for productivity, for engagement,” Mr. Kwok said.

Even when the pandemic subsides, 72 percent of Slack employees surveyed said, they preferred that the company allow a mix of at-home and office work. Slack operates a messaging platform used by many businesses.

Still, some tech companies have reservations about embracing permanent remote work and what might be lost in the process. Rapid7, a cybersecurity company in Boston, has told its more than 1,600 employees that they would continue to work from home through the beginning of 2021. But the company said it does its best work through in-person collaboration, and the pandemic has not changed that.

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Credit…Carlos Chavarría for The New York Times

“We know we are not meant to be 100 percent remote,” said Christina Luconi, the company’s chief people officer. “We will all go back to the office” when it is safe to do so, she said.

A push to all-company remote work can be particularly difficult for companies with predominantly young work forces, said Andy Eichfeld, the chief human resources and administrative officer at the credit card company Discover, which told employees on Sept. 29 that they would not need to return to the office before June 2021.

“A younger person needs apprenticeship in the first 10 or 15 years of their career,” Mr. Eichfeld said. “And we know how to deliver that in person. I’m not sure apprenticeship happens remotely.”

For some workers, the return date of next summer and the idea of permanent work from home is a mixed blessing.

When Colin Fahrion, a digital communications specialist for the University of California, San Francisco, found out in June that he would not need to return to the office until at least July 2021, he moved 15 miles farther away from San Francisco, from Richmond to Vallejo, about 30 miles outside the city, and bought a house.

Mr. Fahrion, 47, now has a dedicated office space and a backyard where his dog can play, and he has talked to his supervisor about working remotely on a permanent basis. Still, he finds Zoom meetings to be devoid of collaborative energy.

“I miss my co-workers,” he said.

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Covid-19 Vaccines Offer Drug Makers Chance at Salvation, Financial and Beyond

For a long time, drug makers have been the most hated industry in America. Companies are blamed for gouging prices on lifesaving drugs and enriching themselves through the opioid crisis, among other sins.

Now, with pharmaceutical companies racing to find vaccines to end the coronavirus pandemic, the industry is hoping to redeem itself in the public’s mind.

The primary goal, of course, is to rescue the world from the grips of a vicious virus. But a big fringe benefit is to get public credit — and to use an improved image to fend off government efforts to more heavily regulate the industry.

Consider Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest health care companies.

In recent years, its reputation has been battered by accusations that products like its artificial hips and talcum powder have harmed customers. In 2019, an Oklahoma judge ordered the company to pay $572 million for contributing to the opioid epidemic.

This spring, Johnson & Johnson jumped into the hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine; its candidate is now in the final stage of clinical trials. (On Monday, the company said it had temporarily paused the study after a participant became sick with an unexplained illness.)

Regardless of whether the vaccine ever comes to market, the company is looking to create a surge of positive publicity from its work. Its chief executive, Alex Gorsky, went on the “Today” show this spring and called Johnson & Johnson’s lab workers heroes. The company has produced a slick, self-promotional online video series, “The Road to a Vaccine,” featuring feel-good interviews with the company’s scientists and segments on issues like whether it is safe to send children back to school.

Johnson & Johnson’s efforts to develop a vaccine will show that “J&J is a company full of people with heart and soul who are doing this 24-7, with all their science and know-how,” Dr. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, said in an interview. While the company’s image at times has been “trashed,” he said, “I hope that we can get to a better reputation.”

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Credit…Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

That is a widely held sentiment across the pharmaceutical industry. Companies are looking for public makeovers as a political battle over drug price controls looms. Others are seizing the once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise money for future projects from investors and the government.

For an industry demonized by consumers and politicians, the hunt for a vaccine “offers a path to redemption,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Last fall, a Gallup poll found that drug makers had the worst reputation of any American industry. Americans were twice as likely to rate the industry negatively as positively. Drug companies were even less popular than the federal government.

The pandemic — and the high hopes for a fast, safe, effective vaccine — appears to be changing that perception, at least for now. This spring, other opinion polls showed that Americans’ views of the industry were improving.

When Gallup released the results of this year’s annual survey, conducted in the first half of August, the results confirmed that the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation had gotten a bit better. Now, it is second-to-last, having inched past the U.S. government.

Public opinion matters. The industry is facing a fight in Washington over price controls, which could take a bite out of companies’ profits in the United States. The latest salvo came last month when President Trump issued an executive order that called for capping the costs of some prescription drugs.

The industry’s largest trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, is fighting back by invoking the industry’s effort to fight the coronavirus. It denounced Mr. Trump’s executive order as “a reckless attack on the very companies working around the clock to beat Covid-19.”

Kim Monk, managing director of Capital Alpha Partners, a policy research firm based in Washington, said that finding a safe and effective vaccine could help drug companies in their campaign to stave off price controls. “You don’t even need to say it,” she said. “It’s part of the strategy.”

To be sure, the race for a coronavirus vaccine is much more than a public relations play. Scientists at pharmaceutical companies take great pride in their work to combat human suffering. And there is immense prestige involved in being among the first to successfully conquer a devastating global pandemic.

There are also potentially enormous profits on the line.

Vaccines are often thought of as the pharmaceutical industry’s sleepy, low-profit backwater, but that is not always the case, said Dr. David Bishai, a professor of health economics at Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health.

Prevnar, a vaccine to prevent pneumococcal disease, which leads to ear and sinus infections, is Pfizer’s top-selling product, responsible for nearly $6 billion in revenue last year.

Merck’s Gardasil, which protects against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer, generated close to $4 billion in sales last year, making it the company’s third-best seller.

While drug makers generally do not disclose what they earn on individual drugs, two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, have said in securities filings that the profit margins in their vaccine divisions are greater than in their other lines of business.

Ronny Gal, an analyst at Bernstein, estimated that sales from a coronavirus vaccine could be up to $20 billion in the first year alone. And since diseases are rarely eradicated, vaccines “tend to be a very long-term business,” he said.

Two leading drug makers have pledged to not profit from their vaccines. But those promises are laden with caveats.

Johnson & Johnson has said it will sell the vaccine on a “not-for-profit” basis for “emergency pandemic use.” But the company hasn’t explained in detail how it will define “not for profit.” In any case, when the “emergency pandemic” phase of the crisis ends, the company will no longer be bound by its pledge. Jake Sargent, a Johnson & Johnson spokesman, said the end of the emergency phase “will be defined at a future date by global health authorities.”

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Another major drug company, AstraZeneca, has made a similar pledge not to profit on its vaccine, which is also in large clinical trials, during the pandemic. But in a contract with one of its manufacturers, AstraZeneca has suggested that it can declare the pandemic to be over as soon as July 2021 — around the time that a successful vaccine is likely to be getting sold worldwide, according to the Financial Times.

“The company has committed to supplying the potential vaccine at no profit during this pandemic period,” said an AstraZeneca spokeswoman, Michele Meixell. “It is too early to determine pricing post-pandemic.”

The Covid-19 vaccine business is likely to be unusually lucrative because much of the risk has been taken out of the equation. The federal government has entered into deals with companies totaling more than $10 billion to develop, manufacture and distribute coronavirus vaccines. Drug companies usually spend small fortunes to market their products. But that will probably not be required to generate public interest in a coronavirus vaccine.

“If you get a vaccine and it gets recommended by the C.D.C., you barely need a sales force,” said Geoffrey Porges, the director of therapeutics research at the investment bank SVB Leerink.

A successful vaccine could be a transformative moment for unproven companies like Moderna and Novavax, which have never previously brought vaccines to market. But even being involved in the race is proving financially fruitful for smaller firms.

The German biotech firm CureVac, which says it hopes to have a successful vaccine by the end of the year, raised $245 million in August when it began trading on the Nasdaq. It is now valued at nearly $10 billion, despite never having brought a product to market.

Ms. Monk of Capital Alpha Partners said drug makers large and small are likely to benefit from any association with fighting the coronavirus. “For an industry that is not viewed favorably by the public,” she said, “this is a real opportunity for them to put on a white hat and save the world.”

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