With spotlight on the economy, Biden confers with leaders of corporate America

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WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Joe Biden said on Monday “more people may die” if outgoing President Donald Trump continues to block efforts to plan for a U.S. transition of power as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, and added that he would not hesitate to get vaccinated.

Biden also said business and labor leaders had signaled willingness to cooperate to fix the pandemic-battered U.S. economy but stressed COVID-19 first must be brought under control and urged Congress to pass relief legislation.

The Democratic president-elect delivered a speech and took questions from journalists in Wilmington, Delaware, after consulting with the CEOs of top U.S. companies and labor leaders on Monday.

He welcomed further progress in COVID-19 vaccine development.

Biden said the CEOs and labor leaders were “ready to come together” and that “the unity was astounding.” Biden will inherit an economy that has suffered millions of job losses during a pandemic that has killed more than 246,000 people in the United States. U.S. COVID-19 cases are surging as Biden prepares to take office on Jan. 20.

“We’re going into a very dark winter. Things are going to get much tougher before they get easier,” Biden said of the pandemic.

In response to a question about the consequences of the Trump administration not cooperating with the Biden transition team on fighting the pandemic, he said, “More people may die if we don’t coordinate.”

“As you battle COVID, we have to make sure that businesses and workers have the tools, the resources and the national guidance and health and safety standards to operate safely,” Biden added.

Biden said it would be a lot easier for the presidential transition if Trump were to cooperate but said of the incumbent’s refusal to concede: “I find this more embarrassing for the country than debilitating for my ability to get started.”

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He called for bipartisan cooperation against the pandemic and urged Congress to pass pandemic relief legislation. Talks on such legislation stalled for months before the Nov. 3 election.

Biden said the coronavirus continues to spread “almost unabated” and that it was state governors who were stepping up.

On other economic matters, Biden said he plans to pursue “a fairer tax structure” with corporations paying their fair share and added that he wanted to see a $15 hourly minimum wage nationwide. Biden said no government contracts will be given to companies that do not make products in the United States.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris held a midday video conference with several chief executives including General Motors Co’s GM.N Mary Barra, Microsoft Corp’s MSFT.O Satya Nadella, Target Corp’s TGT.N Brian Cornell and Gap Inc’s GPS.N Sonia Syngal.

Also taking part were AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and the heads of the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers and two other large unions.

Biden told reporters that he made it clear to corporations on the video conference that he is a “union guy.”

‘READY FOR PRIME TIME’

Biden earlier on Monday said Moderna Inc’s MRNA.O announcement that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was 94.5% effective based on interim data from a late-stage trial provided fresh hope for beating the coronavirus. Coupled with positive results last week on a rival Pfizer Inc PFE.N shot, Moderna’s news added to optimism that widespread vaccination in the coming months could help tame the pandemic.

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Asked whether he personally would be willing to get vaccinated with one of the newly developed shots, Biden said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to get the vaccine.”

“They appear to be ready for prime time, ready to be used,” Biden said of the two vaccine candidates.

Biden also urged Americans to limit the number of people at gatherings for next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, with social distancing and masks encouraged.

Unlike in 2008, when the country elected Democrat Barack Obama and his running mate Biden as the global economy teetered from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the worst of the current economic downturn may have passed. Unemployment has come down sharply from its April peak of 14.7% to 6.9% and is projected to fall further throughout next year.

TRUMP DIGS IN

Biden moved ahead with economic planning even as the Republican Trump on Monday again refused to accept his election loss. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Monday he was prepared to ensure a professional transition to Biden’s team.

“If the Biden-Harris ticket is determined to be the winner, and obviously things look like that now, we’ll have a very professional transition from the National Security Council, there’s no question about it,” O’Brien said.

Biden beat Trump by the same 306-232 margin in the state-by-state Electoral College that prompted Trump to proclaim a “landslide” victory in 2016. Biden also won the national popular vote by at least 5.5 million votes, or 3.6 percentage points, with some ballots still being counted.

Trump has made no headway with legal challenges in multiple states so far.

“I won the Election!” Trump wrote on Monday on Twitter, again falsely claiming victory. Twitter posted a disclaimer saying, “Official sources called this election differently.”

Election officials from both parties have said there is no evidence of major irregularities. Federal election security officials have decried “unfounded claims” and expressed “utmost confidence” in the election’s integrity.

Trump suffered another setback when James Bopp, a conservative attorney, on Monday voluntarily withdrew lawsuits filed in federal courts seeking to block the states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin from certifying their election results. The lawsuits made unsubstantiated claims of illegal voting.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Jan Wolfe, Jason Lange, David Shepardson, John Whitesides, David Morgan, Julie Steenhuysen, Michael Erman, Tom Hals and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller