WASHINGTON – Taking dramatic action Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced he is sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the U.S. and moving to ease the economic cost of a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting the daily lives of Americans.
Trump made the announcement during a rare Oval Office address to the nation that he is suspending all travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days beginning at 11:59 p.m. Friday. After days of playing down the threat, he blamed Europe for not acting quickly enough to address the novel coronavirus and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.
“We made a lifesaving move with early action on China,” Trump said. “Now we must take the same action with Europe.”
Trump said the restrictions won’t apply to the United Kingdom, and there would be exemptions for “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.” It also wouldn’t apply to cargo. He said the U.S. would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.
Homeland Security officials later clarified that the new travel restrictions would only apply to most foreign nationals who have been in the “Schengen Area” at any point for 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area includes Italy, German, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others. It doesn’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others “identified in the proclamation.”
The Oval Office address was an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to downplay the virus. Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks, but the grueling events of Wednesday changed the mood: Communities canceled public events nationwide, universities moved to cancel in-person classes, and families grappled with the impact of disruptions to public schools. The number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S. and the World Health Organization declared the global crisis is now a pandemic.
Even as Trump spoke from behind the Resolute Desk, the pandemic’s ferocious rewriting of American daily life continued. The National Basketball Association suspended its season, and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for COVID-19.
After he spoke, the White House cancelled a planned trip by the president to Nevada and Colorado this week, “out of an abundance of caution.”
After a week of mixed messages and false starts, and as government officials warned in increasingly urgent terms that the outbreak in the U.S. will only get worse, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act.
Congress, for its part, unveiled a multibillion-dollar aid package Wednesday that was expected to be voted on by the House as soon as Thursday.
“I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He said the virus is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
After Trump’s address, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a series of moves, including restrictions for 60 days on travel by servicemembers, Defense Department civilians and their families to, from and through the four counties currently designated by the Centers for Disease Control as the highest risk COVID-19 counties -- China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. Esper said the restrictions include all forms of travel, including for what the military calls permanent change of station, in which a servicemember and his family move to a different home base or station.
Trump spoke after days of confusion in Washington amid mounting calls on the president to demonstrate greater leadership. In the hours leading up to his remarks, White House aides struggled to determine what action the president could take unilaterally and what required congressional action, as Trump personally weighed the public and political reactions to the options before him.
In his remarks, Trump focused more on the threat of travel continuing to bring in illness when, in fact, in parts of the country there is “community spread” -- meaning people who don’t have a known travel exposure are becoming infected. He left unaddressed testing, the backlog that is hampering efforts to learn just how many Americans already are infected. And while he warned the elderly to avoid risky crowds, advised nursing homes to suspend visitors and told sick people to stay home from work, he didn’t address one of the biggest concerns -- whether hospitals are equipped to handle the sick or will be overwhelmed.
Georgetown University public health expert Lawrence Gostin tweeted in reaction to Trump’s speech, “Most of Europe is as safe as US,” and COVID-19 “is already here; germs don’t respect borders.”
Trump said he was also directing agencies to provide unspecified financial relief for “for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus,” and asked Congress to take action to extend it.
Trump said the U.S. will will defer tax payments for some individual and business filers for three months to lessen the impacts of the virus outbreak. He said the Small Business Administration will also make low-interest loans available to businesses to help them weather the storm.
“This is not a financial crisis,” he said. “This just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”
Trump also reiterated his call on Congress to pass a cut to the federal payroll tax in order to stimulate the economy, though that proposal was dismissed by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He remained silent on his previous calls to provide assistance to industries hard-hit by the pandemic like airlines and cruise ships.
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled an economic assistance plan that was gaining bipartisan backing. Central to the package is free coronavirus testing nationwide and emergency funding to reimburse lost paychecks for those self-quarantining, missing work or losing jobs amid the outbreak.
The draft legislation would create a new federal emergency sick leave benefit for people with the virus or caring for a coronavirus victim. It would provide two-thirds of an employee’s monthly income for up to three months.
Facing a likely surge in unemployment claims, the package would also give states money for the newly jobless. It would provide additional funding for food and nutrition benefits for pregnant women, mothers and young children. It also would up money for “meals on wheels” and food for low-income elderly people.
“Right now we’re trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with Pelosi, urged Congress “to pass legislation quickly.”
“This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses,” Mnuchin said.
The administration had floated several other strategies, including the rare idea of declaring a national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the planning and granted anonymity. But Trump ultimately opted against taking that step Wednesday.
Trump also provided new guidance to vulnerable Americans, warning, “The elderly population must be very, very careful.” He said the government is “strongly advising” that nursing homes for the elderly “suspend all medically unnecessary visits” and advised older Americans “to avoid non-essential travel in crowded areas.” Trump, who is 73 years old, is considered at higher risk because of his age.
Trump has repeatedly flouted the advice of public health experts, who have advised the public to stop hand-shaking and practice social distancing. But that didn’t stop him from calling on fellow citizens to help combat the virus’ spread. “For all Americans, it is essential that everyone take extra precautions and practice good hygiene. Each of us has a role to play in defeating this virus,” he said.
As pressure mounted for Washington to respond, the GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support for the funding package in Congress.
“We need to do something,” McCarthy said. “I think they could become very bipartisan.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Congress’ attending physician told staff there could be 70 million to 100 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. That’s on par with other estimates. A Harvard official has estimated that 20% to 60% of adults will get the virus, noting it’s “a pretty wide range.”
Pelosi’s goal is to pass an aid package before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later.
In Washington, tourists still arrived at the U.S. Capitol, but an official unauthorized to discuss the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that tours would soon be shut down.