“I found it very encouraging that there are signs that people are waking up from hibernation, buying new clothes and going out to restaurants,” said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global. “I think people are feeling optimistic that the United States will win the war on the virus. And they have good reason to be hopeful.”

Many economists said the strong retail sales were likely to continue through the spring, even after the new stimulus payments are used up.

The gradual return to normal activities as business restrictions ease has in turn prompted employers to recall workers — and this time, to hold on to them.

The Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of first-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, to about 613,000, the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. That was a decline of 153,000, the largest week-over-week decrease since the summer.

In addition, 132,000…

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