President Trump delivered a dire assessment Monday of the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic, urging Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and warning that the crisis could last through the summer.
A day after he had urged Americans to “relax,” the president avoided any rhetorical sugarcoating of the danger of the disease that has abruptly upended normal life across the country and threatens to send the economy into a tailspin.
Announcing new national guidelines, Trump called on Americans to avoid eating and drinking in bars, restaurants, and public food courts, and to halt unnecessary travel or shopping trips. With schools closed in Los Angeles, New York and several states, he also recommended that families school their children from home when possible.
“If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus, and we are going to have a big celebration altogether. With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly — a lot of progress has been made,” the president said at the White House.
“It’s important for the young and healthy people to understand that while they may experience milder symptoms, they can easily spread this virus and they will spread it indeed, putting countless others in harm’s way,” he added.
Asked how long the crisis would last, Trump offered a stark prediction, saying, “People are saying July, August, something like that,” a forecast that helped send stock markets into one of the steepest swoons in history, with the Dow Jones industrial average dropping nearly 3,000 points, or 12.9%.
Although he insisted the “market will take care of itself,” Trump appeared to acknowledge the vast social and economic upheaval was worse than he had expected, as theaters, casinos, shopping malls, sporting events and other public places shut their doors, and as anxious Americans slowed the spending that helps drive the world’s largest economy.
For the first time, Trump insisted multiple times that the public health crisis now was his primary focus.
“We’re not thinking in terms of recession,” he said. “We’re thinking of the virus.”
The president’s ominous tone was strikingly different from his previous efforts to downplay the crisis, which now threatens his reelection bid. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who appears likely to effectively lock up the Democratic presidential nomination after Arizona, Illinois and Florida hold primaries on Tuesday, is campaigning on a promise of steady, experienced leadership in direct contrast to Trump’s often erratic response.
Trump’s shift also follows criticism from some of the nation’s governors and mayors, who have already imposed restrictions on travel, commerce and schools, as well as public health officials dismayed by the president’s reluctance to deliver an urgent warning about the threat.
“It’s encouraging if he’s finally getting out ahead of this and taking it seriously and not minimizing or dismissing important realities,” said Robert Hecht, a global health consultant who teaches global health policy and epidemiology at Yale and previously led the health group at the World Bank. “He’s been so inconsistent.
“There’s so much behavioral change that needs to happen here in the next few weeks, and even a few days’ difference can cost thousands of lives.”
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, was especially outspoken in criticizing the federal response so far.
“This is a national pandemic and there are no national rules,” Cuomo told reporters in Albany, N.Y. “It makes no sense.”
In a teleconference with all 50 governors, Trump suggested that states should do more, however. He urged state officials to prepare unilaterally for an anticipated shortage of hospital beds and ventilators because of an influx of critical coronavirus cases.
“Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” Trump said, according to a transcript of the call shared by one of the participants. “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves,” he continued. “Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”
Trump later summarized the “very good” teleconference in a tweet that he ended by singling out Cuomo, who he said “has to ‘do more.’”
The president later deleted the tweet, but not before Cuomo had responded in kind: “I have to do more? No — YOU have to do something! You’re supposed to be the President.”
Beyond the mixed messages from Washington, public health experts worry about a patchwork of varying state-level responses, which could lessen the effectiveness of efforts to stop the virus.
“Local initiatives are very important but the overall leadership should be at the federal level,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“Leaving the private sector to deal with the testing issues is clearly not working. That may be the most explicit example of where federal leadership is essential,” he said.
Beyrer noted the difference in resources and judgment between Washington state, which was early to adopt protocols and drive-by testing, and Oklahoma, where the governor tweeted and deleted a picture of his family in a crowded restaurant over the weekend.
On Sunday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, urged anyone older than 65 to self-isolate and placed nine Bay Area counties under a shelter-in-place directive. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, moved Monday to shut all bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms in the state.
In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency March 10 — more than 72 hours before Trump did — before his state’s first coronavirus death, in an effort to get ahead of a worsening situation.
More than 4,600 people have tested positive for the new COVID-19 disease in the United States and at least 85 have died.
Trump has slowly adjusted his response to the seriousness of the crisis, delivering an Oval Office address last week, announcing a national emergency two days later, and appearing with the coronavirus task force at White House briefings over the weekend, where he praised his administration’s efforts but left without taking questions.
As the president’s response has drawn criticism, Trump’s defenders, including multiple Fox News anchors, have suggested that the coronavirus crisis was a false narrative driven by Democrats to undermine the president’s political standing and reelection prospects.
But when asked about widely panned statements by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-Okla.) urging constituents to head to restaurants during the crisis, Trump made clear he sided with public health officials, who have pleaded for people to avoid public gatherings.
“I’m struck that so many people view this public health crisis through a political lens, and that is very worrisome to me,” said Lanhee Chen, who served in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
“People who support the president are inclined to take it as seriously as the president takes it.”