By Steve Holland and Maria Caspani
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The White House issued new U.S. coronavirus guidelines on Monday warning Americans to limit social gatherings to 10 or fewer people and urging restaurants, bars and other public venues to close in states where local transmission of the virus exists.
But President Donald Trump refrained from ordering sweeping public quarantines or lockdowns for the time being, even as some state and local authorities imposed mandatory restrictions of their own on eateries, movie theaters and other places of leisure in a bid to contain the respiratory virus.
“We’re recommending things,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We haven’t gone to that step yet” of ordering a lockdown. “That could happen, but we haven’t gone there yet.”
Trump also said a nationwide curfew was not under consideration at this point, and that postponements of primary elections, like those announced in Georgia and Louisiana, were generally unnecessary.
The number of known coronavirus infections and deaths in the United States paled in comparison with hot spots of the global pandemic, such as China, Italy or Iran. But the tally of confirmed U.S. cases has multiplied quickly over the past few weeks, surpassing 4,300 to date and prompting fears American hospitals might soon be overwhelmed, as Italian medical centers have been strained to the breaking point.
At least 80 people in the United States had died of the virus, as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University and public health agencies, with the hardest-hit state, Washington, accounting for the bulk of those fatalities, including six more announced on Monday.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said health officials were relying on members of the millennial generation – those in their 20s to 40s, and representing the largest living adult cohort – to alter their social behavior for the good of the public.
“Why do I think the millennials are the key? Because they’re the ones that are out and about, and they’re the most likely to be in social gatherings, and they’re the most likely to be the least symptomatic,” Birx told the briefing.
COORDINATED NATIONAL RESPONSE
Release of the latest 15-day plan for slowing the spread of the virus came as state and local government officials pleaded with the Trump administration to mount a coordinated national response to the pandemic, as millions of workers and students were already hunkering down at home.
Besides recommendations to avoid social gatherings and close bars, restaurants and other public places in states where community spread of the virus is evident, Birx said one of the most important measures was for people who are sick to stay home.
“If everybody in America does what we ask for over the next 15 days, we will see a dramatic difference,” Birx said.
The unprecedented wave of closures and restrictions, which began to accelerate last week, took on fresh urgency as New Jersey “strongly discouraged” all non-essential and non-emergency travel between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., starting on Monday.
The states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut struck a regional agreement to close all movie theaters, casinos and gyms as of 8 p.m. EDT Monday (0000 GMT). Restaurants and bars in the three states – where more than 22 million people live – will serve takeout and delivery only.
Officials in six San Francisco Bay Area counties on Monday ordered residents to stay at home for all but the most crucial outings until April 7.
In the nation’s capital, Washington, a deeply divided Senate was considering a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill requiring sick leave for some workers and expanded unemployment compensation, while the Supreme Court postponed oral arguments for the first time in over a century.
Washington’s mayor on Monday also announced restrictions on businesses, including tough curbs on bars and restaurants, in response to the outbreak.
From sidewalk shouting matches to politically fueled online sniping, tempers showed signs of fraying in some U.S. cities over the coronavirus pandemic.
SCHOOLS CLOSED IN 33 STATES
Some 64,000 U.S. schools were closed in at least 33 states, including in the nation’s two biggest public school systems – New York City and Los Angeles. School closures nationwide were disrupting instruction for at least 32.5 million students, according to Education Week.
School districts are trying to find a way to provide meals and create lessons plans for the millions of students forced to stay home. [nL1N2B95B3]
State restrictions on restaurants and places of leisure, while in line with expert advice to slow spread of the virus through “social distancing,” will hit many lower-paid workers in the service industry.
Jessica Wilmot, owner of the Ancient Mariner pub in Ridgefield, Connecticut, said that while she felts closing shops was the right move, she worried about her mostly part-time staff who work paycheck to paycheck.
“Personally I’m all for containment,” said Wilmot, noting that her revenues had already fallen about 40% last week from the prior week. “But my business view is, I’m nauseous.”
AIRLINES SEEK BAILOUT
As traders on Wall Street reacted to drastic weekend measures from the Federal Reserve to stave off a global recession, U.S. stock markets plunged anew on Monday with the closing down 12%.
Major airlines sought a U.S. government bailout of more than $50 billion as the White House drafted a financial assistance package following the steep falloff in U.S. travel demand. “We have to back the airlines,” Trump said on Monday. “It’s not their fault.” Separately, U.S. airports are seeking $10 billion in government assistance.
Trump, a Republican, declared a national emergency on Friday and has championed the U.S. government’s response, saying his administration has done a “a very fantastic job.” Democratic leaders have criticized him for downplaying the crisis and issuing misleading or false statements.
The outbreak also has taken a major toll on U.S. sports. Major League Baseball said it would further delay the start of its 2020 season, originally scheduled for next week, after the call by U.S. public health officials to cancel large public gatherings.
The United States has lagged behind other industrialized nations in its ability to test for the novel coronavirus. In early March, the Trump administration said close to 1 million tests would soon be available and anyone who needed a test would get one, a promise it has failed to keep.
Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, said at the White House on Monday that 1 million tests were now available with help from leading commercial laboratories, and that at least 2 million test kits would be ready by next week.
(Graphic: Tracking the spread of the global coronavirus link: https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)