WASHINGTON/SEATTLE (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered travel from Europe to the United States restricted for 30 days, responding to mounting pressure to take action against a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak disrupting nearly all corners of U.S. daily life.
Trump, whose administration has come under sharp criticism for its response to a public health crisis that he has previously downplayed, also announced several steps aimed at blunting economic fallout posed by coronavirus.
The travel order, which starts on midnight Friday, does not apply to Britain, or to Americans undergoing “appropriate screenings,” Trump said.
“We are marshaling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people,” Trump said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office. “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.”
Soon after, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled a broad package of proposals to help Americans affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including paid sick leave, family leave and medical leave.
Trump, whose re-election bid on Nov. 3 could hinge on how well he responds to the crisis, stopped short of declaring a national emergency as the number of coronavirus infections continued to mount.
He did not address a shortage of diagnostic test kits, which according to experts has made it difficult to gauge the full scale of outbreaks in the United States and curtail transmission of the virus.
After triggering confusion by suggesting that “trade and cargo” from Europe would also be suspended, Trump clarified that “trade will in no way be affected” by the travel restriction.
“The restriction stops people not goods,” he said in a tweet moments after his speech.
Amid the confusion, Washington, D.C., resident Michelle Cravez, 30, who is visiting her brother in Prague, noticed her phone exploding with notifications after a night out. Cravez, who planned to travel home next week, quickly rebooked a ticket leaving early on Friday morning.
“It quickly became apparent that demand was pushing costs up and seats were going fast,” she said in a Twitter conversation with a Reuters reporter. “Shortly after, we find out that this ruling may not apply to citizens. Still, with everything so fluid - who knows whether flights start getting canceled - we decided to bite the bullet and book a new itinerary that got us home before the deadline.”
Trump’s travel order, which applies to 26 European countries, capped a day of mounting upheavals on the domestic front from a highly contagious respiratory illness, also known as COVID-19.
In the hard-hit Seattle area, the largest public school district in Washington state announced an unprecedented two-week suspension of all instruction as Governor Inslee banned public gatherings of more than 250 people in three surrounding counties.
The greater Seattle area is the epicenter of the deadliest, and one of the largest, clusters of coronavirus infections in the United States, accounting for the bulk of at least 38 U.S. fatalities from the disease.
Washington state has documented 373 coronavirus cases, including 30 deaths, most of them concentrated around a long-term care facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. There were 1,311 cases in total in the United States, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The outbreak took a major toll on U.S. sports on Wednesday as the National Basketball Association said it was suspending the season until further notice after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus.
Earlier in the day, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) said its wildly popular “March Madness” basketball tournament games would be played in arenas without fans.
Late-night television was taking a hit as well, with at least two shows produced in New York City - NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” - planning to begin taping without a live studio audience for the first time, Hollywood trade publication Variety reported.
The outbreak even touched one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars, as Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced on Twitter that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for coronavirus in Australia, where he was on a film shoot.
Coronavirus outbreaks have flared in several European nations, especially in Italy, whose government has imposed a virtual lockdown of the entire country.
Seeking to stem the financial and economic impact of the pandemic, which has sent stocks plunging over the past week, Trump instructed the Treasury Department to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain business and individuals hit by the health crisis.
The president also said he would take emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus. And he said he was directing the Small Business Administration to provide capital and liquidity to firms affected coronavirus, including low-interest loans.
Wall Street stocks plunged because of uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI confirming a bear market for the first time in over a decade. [L1N2B42ID]
The market concern was compounded by a Reuters report that the White House had ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified.
U.S. stock futures ESv1 slid as the president spoke, falling more than 4%.
The World Health Organization described the coronavirus, which emerged late last year in China, as a pandemic on Wednesday for the first time.
Social and public routines have seen widespread disruptions in the United States for weeks, with concerts and conferences canceled and universities closing their campuses as they shift to online instruction.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade would be postponed, following several other cities that have likewise scrubbed their March 17 holiday celebrations.
Public gatherings have been suspended in a coronavirus “hot zone” in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb.
Democratic presidential contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were reassessing how to campaign in the face of the spreading outbreak.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, David Lawder, Andrea Shalal and Richard Cowan in Washington, and Maria Caspani and Michael Erman in New York, Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Peter Cooney and Lincoln Feast.