WASHINGTON: The United States went into crisis mode on Thursday (Mar 12) to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has played havoc with businesses, shuttered schools and universities and severely disrupted the sports and entertainment world.
Fears of a recession grew as US cases of the virus that causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness rose and the Trump administration prepared to roll out restrictions that threaten to cripple the travel industry.
US stock markets cratered again after trading opened, with major indices entering bear-market territory.
Officials in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including New York and Washington states, were trying to balance the need to protect the public while stopping short of actions that could freeze the daily lives of millions of people and stop economic activity.
READ: New York bans gatherings of more than 500 on coronavirus fears
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN that “more and more restrictions” were likely on the way, though he said there were no plans to shut down the city’s famous theatre district or its subway system, a vital transportation link.
“I don’t want to see Broadway go dark,” de Blasio said, adding that authorities will be issuing further guidance either on Thursday or Friday. He also announced the closure of two schools in the city due to a student’s “self-confirmed” positive case of COVID-19.
Hollywood has postponed the release of several movies and movie theatres around the world have been closed over the health crisis.
More than 1,300 US cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, has accounted for a large share of the deaths.
US health officials have struggled to quickly expand testing capacity to make screening for the virus widely available, and have acknowledged that it is not easy for those possibly exposed to the virus to get tested.
“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top US official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”
Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association are among those who have been infected with the highly infectious coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
READ: Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson hospitalised in Australia with COVID-19
The NBA has suspended its season until further notice.
Harvard and Princeton are among the universities that have announced they will move to virtual classroom instruction after the spring break later this month.
US citizens and permanent residents returning from Europe will be screened for the virus and asked to go into “self-quarantine” for 14 days, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with CNN.
“Americans coming home will be funnelled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.
President Donald Trump defended his decision to impose a 30-day restriction on travel from Europe, except Britain and Ireland, that goes into effect at midnight on Friday.
READ: US to suspend all travel from Europe for 30 days to fight COVID-19 outbreak
Speaking to reporters in the White House alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened, and added that he had been unable to consult with the European Union prior to announcing it on Wednesday night.
The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said. Global stock markets sank again on Thursday.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq indices entered into a bear market. The S&P 500 plunged more than eight per cent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 4.3 per cent. Airline and some cruise line stocks were particularly hard hit.
The US House of Representatives plans to vote on Democrats’ sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday, according to a Democratic aide.
READ: Partisan battle erupts in US Congress over coronavirus response
Republicans have balked at the plan and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation, and Trump said on Thursday he didn’t support the bill.
Instead, Trump has pushed for a payroll tax cut and 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 backs emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.