WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced he is sharply restricting passenger travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days 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 in an Oval Office address to the nation, blaming the European Union for not acting quickly enough to address the “foreign virus” and saying U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.
Trump said the restrictions — which take effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday — 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.
The State Department followed Trump’s remarks by issuing an extraordinary global health advisory cautioning U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel abroad” due to the virus and associated quarantines and restrictions.
Earlier Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic, and Trump’s lead health official on the crisis bluntly warned Congress that “things will get worse.’’
Cities around the world were banning large gatherings, and organizations were taking precautions of their own.
The NBA announced Wednesday evening that it has suspended its season “until further notice” after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus, and the NCAA said it will hold its signature March Madness basketball tournament without fans.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said that only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the tournaments, draining the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.
Meanwhile, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases topped 1,000 in the U.S., government officials warned that the outbreak will get worse.
“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.”
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.”
In a week of mixed messages and false starts, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act. Democrats were moving toward a proposal that would prioritize aid to workers affected directly by the virus.
Meanwhile, Trump said the U.S. 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 is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”
On Wall Street, a staggering skid that began less than three weeks ago pulled the Dow Jones industrial average into a bear market.
After a string of sharp losses, the Dow has now fallen more than 20% from its last peak on Feb. 12.
S&P 500 futures went from a loss of about 0.4% before Trump spoke to a decline of 1.5% afterward.
In using the word “pandemic” that it had previously shied away from, the World Health Organization on Wednesday sought to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.
“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief.
“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic if countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the fight against the virus that started in China, the U.N. health agency said.
“They’re suffering, but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.
WHO officials said they thought long and hard about labeling the crisis a pandemic — meaning a new virus causing sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world.
The risk of using the term, Ryan said, is “if people use it as an excuse to give up.” But the benefit is “potentially of galvanizing the world to fight.”
Underscoring the mounting challenge: The case count outside China has multiplied 13-fold over the past two weeks, WHO said.
With officials saying that Europe has become the new epicenter, Italy’s cases soared again, to 12,462 infections and 827 deaths — numbers second only to China.
“If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In response to the mounting crisis, Italy announced that all shops and businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would be closed nationwide beginning Thursday and designated billions in financial relief to cushion economic shocks from the virus, its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving crisis that even silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said it was necessary to “go another step” in toughening the already unprecedented travel and social restrictions that took effect Tuesday by shuttering restaurants, hair salons and other businesses that can’t operate with a meter of space between workers and customers.
Still, the effectiveness of travel restrictions and quarantines will likely drop substantially as COVID-19 spreads globally, making it impossible for countries to keep the virus out. Health officials will also need to be flexible in their response efforts, as the illness’ epicenters are likely to shift quickly and dramatically.
Although Trump said all European travel would be cut off, Homeland Security officials later clarified that the new restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area at any point for 14 days before their scheduled arrival in the U.S. The area includes France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others.