Hours after the nation’s leading infectious disease expert testified to Congress that the worst impact of the new coronavirus is yet to come, President Trump framed the threat as a containable problem involving outsiders, with American clusters “seeded by travelers from Europe.”
His main policy response was to ban the entry to the U.S. of most foreign nationals who have been in Europe within 14 days of arrival in the U.S., although his description of the ban sparked initial confusion. The ban does not apply to U.S. citizens traveling to Europe or their immediate families, nor to permanent U.S. residents, officials said after Trump spoke.
The White House also had to clarify Trump’s statement in his prime-time Oval Office speech that “these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval.” The proclamation Trump issued does not restrict cargo trade.
Trump delivered his address amid a new wave of panic — both inside and outside the White House — on the same day the World Health Organization labeled the virus a pandemic and the longest bull market in American history came to a crashing end.
Within minutes of Trump’s speech, actor Tom Hanks announced that he had the disease and the NBA, with a star player testing positive, suspended its season, giving many more Americans a sense of immediacy.
Earlier in the day, senior public health officials had called for Americans to significantly change their lives to slow the spread of the disease, advocating the cancellation of public events and other dramatic steps. Trump, by contrast, continued to frame the problem as a blip, sticking to the belief he has expressed for weeks that the virus will “go away.”
He said Americans should “take extra precautions,” but offered few specifics other than exhorting people to wash their hands frequently.
He did go further than he has in the past to say that “older Americans should avoid nonessential travel” and that people in general should “stay home,” but at the same time, he continued to minimize the potential severity of the disease.
“For the vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low,” he said.
Similarly, although many financial forecasters are warning of a potential recession, Trump said the economy remained sound.
“This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time,” he said.
Market traders reacted negatively, with Dow futures dropping sharply after his remarks.
For Trump, his assurances were attempts at balance as he urged Congress to approve a new economic stimulus package and reluctantly canceled some of his own upcoming travel to Colorado and Nevada out of what his press secretary called “an abundance of caution.”
“We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus,” Trump said, sounding hoarse and tired.
“The virus will not have a chance against us” if Americans take precautions, he said.
Trump’s action to limit travel reflected how consistently restrictions on immigration have figured in his policymaking.
In banning travel from 26 European countries for 30 days, he blamed the European Union for failing to act sooner to keep Chinese visitors out. Although the restrictions he ordered could mitigate spread of the virus to some extent, the United Kingdom, which is exempted from the ban, has more known cases than many other European countries, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University, and the fact that U.S. nationals are exempt means that Americans traveling in Europe could bring the virus back with them.
Public health officials have urged more travel restrictions. But they say more is needed, because the virus can no longer be seen as primarily an outside threat.
More than 1,200 people in 41 states have already tested positive for the virus, and health officials generally agree that those numbers are just a fraction of the actual U.S. total because testing has been limited.
“The bottom line: It is going to get worse,” Anthony S. Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before Congress on Wednesday.
Fauci said major events, including sports, should be canceled.
“We must be much more serious as a country about what we might expect,” he said. “We cannot look at it and say, ‘Well, there are only a couple of cases here, that’s good.’ Because a couple of cases today are going to be many, many cases tomorrow.”