President Donald Trump took the extraordinary step Wednesday of announcing a suspension of all travel from Europe to the U.S. in an effort to contain the coronavirus, calling the fast-spreading respiratory illness a “horrible” pandemic that requires an “aggressive” response.
After downplaying the virus for days, Trump struck a sober tone as he said in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office that the travel ban will take effect Friday and last for the next 30 days.
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe,” Trump said.
The extremely unusual announcement came hours after the World Health Organization officially designated the virus as a global pandemic, a rare label that has only been used for a handful of diseases over the course of history.
The U.S. death toll from the virus, meanwhile, climbed to 37 and the number of Americans infected surpassed 1,100. Globally, some 110,000 people have been infected and more than 4,000 have died.
Trump said in his address the new travel restrictions will apply to the “tremendous amount of trade and cargo” coming from Europe, in addition to individuals, sparking concerns across the globe about a devastating economic hit.
But the White House walked back Trump’s statement afterward and said the ban does not apply to trade and cargo, effectively admitting the president misspoke.
The United Kingdom will be exempt from the travel ban. American citizens and permanent U.S. residents will be allowed to return from Europe as long as they undergo “appropriate screenings,” Trump said.
Additionally, Trump said he will take executive action in short order to provide economic relief for Americans whose lives have been disrupted by the virus.
“To ensure that working Americans impacted by the virus can stay home without fear of financial hardship, I will soon be taking emergency action, which is unprecedented, to provide financial relief,” Trump said. “This will be targeted for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.”
The president did not elaborate on the economic relief measures.
Administration officials were in talks earlier in the day with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about an emergency aid package that would guarantee paid sick leave, food assistance, free medical tests and unemployment assistance, as thousands of Americans are forced to stay home from work as the virus continues to spread.
A vote on such a measure is expected in the House as early as Thursday.
In another nearly unheard of development, the NBA announced late Wednesday it was suspending the rest of its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.
Adding to the anxiety, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced an aide in her office had tested positive for the virus, raising the prospect that the pandemic may have been spreading on Capitol Hill.
Beyond economic relief for individuals, Trump said he would ask Congress to provide a $50 billion boost to a program providing loans for small businesses suffering from economic disruptions.
He said he would also ask lawmakers to “very strongly” consider implementing a payroll tax break, even though leaders from both parties rejected the request earlier this week.
The president’s announcement — while drastic — fell short of the national disaster declaration that some congressional Democrats had asked for.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also blasted Trump for failing to make good on providing an update on “the most important thing: rapid, expansive testing.”
“Our ‘leader’ is more preoccupied with who to blame than how to protect people now that it’s in our communities,” de Blasio said in a statement. “New Yorkers don’t care where the virus came from. They just want every level of Government to do the utmost to halt the spread.”
Trump’s bid for reelection is centered on the relatively strong state of the U.S. economy, and a payroll tax break would likely help soothe growing fear over the virus on Wall Street.
After the WHO’s pandemic announcement Wednesday afternoon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 6%, bringing it 20% below last month’s high and officially putting the index into what traders call a “bear market” for the first time in 11 years.
Trump already pitched Senate Republicans on a payroll tax measure Tuesday.
However, he offered few specifics, and Republicans appeared unlikely to support the costly proposal.
Democrats say they won’t consider it, either, as they are more interested in providing immediate relief for workers instead of easing the stock market, which has suffered historic losses in the past few days.
“Right now we’re trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said earlier Wednesday.
After Trump’s address, the White House announced he would not travel to Nevada and Colorado later this week “out of an abundance of caution.”
The president’s drastic travel announcement sharply contrasted his response to the virus so far.
He has consistently sought to downplay the severity of the virus, including falsely claiming last month that the number of U.S. cases would be “close to zero” within days. Instead of recommending that people to take precautions, Trump has repeatedly pleaded for “calm” and inaccurately said the illness is no worse than seasonal flu.
Contrastingly, Trump said in his Oval Office address that people should wash their hands, clean used surfaces, cover their mouths while sneezing and not go to work if they feel sick. He urged older people, in particular, to follow the advice.
“This is not a financial crisis,” Trump said. “This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”
Earlier in the day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offered dire warnings about the virus during an appearance before the House Oversight Committee.
“I can say we will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now,” Fauci said, adding that the virus could impact “many, many millions” of people if “we are complacent.”
Health experts have warned that upward of 60% of the American population could be infected by the virus.
Fauci also affirmed that the coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu, directly contradicting Trump’s previously rosy assessments.
Most people recover from the virus within a few weeks and experience only mild symptoms, such as fever and a cough. However, older people and individuals with underlying health problems can experience more severe symptoms, including pneumonia.