On Wednesday evening, President Trump addressed the nation on the COVID-19 coronavirus, advising the people of special measures being taken or proposed to deal with its course in the U.S.
Moments before his televised speech from the Oval Office, the scheduled NBA game between the Utah Jazz and OKC Thunder was canceled at the last minute, initially without explanation, and the Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City cleared of fans. NBA authorities announced afterward that a Utah player had tested positive for the coronavirus. The NBA season is being suspended for an indefinite period, its future for the balance of regular-season play and the championship tournament now uncertain.
It was a suitably dramatic development, as an overture to the president’s address. Trump gave an upbeat emphasis to the strength of the U.S. economy and institutions, and praised the public health team working the coronavirus issue for America as the “best … anywhere in the world.”
But his tone was somber as he spoke of the measures being implemented. The major one he announced in the speech is a 30-day suspension of all travel from Europe, with the UK and Republic of Ireland excepted. Italy has seen an explosion of coronavirus cases in the last couple of weeks, and other EU nations (especially Germany) are expecting their rising number of infections to quickly become worse.
The UK and Ireland are not in the Schengen travel area, and are not as rapidly affected by the less restrictive Schengen travel regime as its members on the European continent. Moreover, the UK ceased airline flights to China in early February shortly after the U.S. did, and although London doesn’t currently ban entry by travelers from China, the airline suspension has drastically reduced such entries. The incidence of coronavirus infections and deaths is and has remained low in the UK compared to other parts of Europe, where airline suspensions came much later (if at all), and travel restrictions have been less stringent until very recently.
Trump touched on guidance for state and local authorities and discussed the administration’s efforts with an “$8.3 billion funding bill to help CDC and other government agencies fight the virus and support vaccines, treatments, and distribution of medical supplies.” Vice President Pence has been keeping the nation up to date on that with daily briefings.
The president advised Americans to “take extra precautions and practice good hygiene. Each of us has a role to play in defeating this virus. Wash your hands, clean often-used surfaces, cover your face and mouth if you sneeze or cough, and most of all, if you are sick or not feeling well, stay home.”
He also said local authorities are being encouraged to suspend non-medical visits to living facilities for the elderly, who are especially susceptible to the virus and the most likely to die from it. (Most of the U.S. fatalities from the coronavirus to date have involved elderly people in assisted living homes.)
Trump’s other major announcement was of a proposal to suspend the payroll (Social Security) tax until the end of the year, a measure to provide financial relief to Americans hit by virus-driven costs and a likely economic downturn. Analysts speaking on the news programs immediately following his address predict Congress will oppose this measure, or at least oppose a complete suspension. The Democratic-led House may agree to a compromise on a shorter and/or partial suspension of the FICA tax.
The travel suspension with Europe is certainly a tough measure, and one that will impose significant economic costs. Trump confirmed that the suspension affects cargo as well as human travel, although exemptions will be considered, and the slate of prohibitions and exemptions updated as time goes on:
There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.
To date, the most significant sources of the coronavirus in the U.S. have been China and Europe, so the travel ban from Europe makes sense, even though it’s a hard pill to swallow. As the early travel ban on China was key to limiting the virus’s spread in the U.S., the travel suspension with Europe may help in that regard as well. It’s a precaution that is not unreasonable, but naturally unwelcome.
Politicizing the coronavirus as a public health issue is tiresome in the extreme, and I don’t want to speak in either vituperative or triumphalist terms here. I thought the additional testing kits could have been rolled out faster, but other than that, have thought the federal and state governments are handling the problem reasonably well. Now and then we get an overwrought comment from a state official, but that’s actually rarer than we may think. It’s the media doing most of the bellyaching.
As a final note — an analytical one — it is interesting to see the world’s billions of people being essentially frozen in place, at least for some amount of time. Other nations are imposing travel restrictions as well, and significant ones. India announced this week that her border with Myanmar will close on Friday, 13 March, and almost all tourist visas (i.e., for foreign travelers from any source) are being canceled. Saudi Arabia has suspended routine, non-hajj access for pilgrims to Mecca. Israel is quarantining all arriving travelers for 14 days after arrival, a measure that will deter travel significantly until it is lifted, and may affect the high travel season of Passover and Easter. In the Far East, of course, the usual impressive bustle of mass travel has receded, for now, to a level only Hollywood screenwriters might have imagined, and then if they were writing science fiction.
The fear of a rampant virus is causing travelers to rigorously avoid some of the world’s top travel destinations, and causing others to not set forth for travel at all. The economic consequences are already profound (e.g., for airlines, but also for trade and other transport businesses). People and communities in the hardest-hit locations will recover, but many businesses may not. There is no predicting, today, what the post-COVID-19 world will look like, with or without a globally catastrophic mortality rate. But for a time, it seems we will see something more significant than people not leaving their homes. We will see people not traveling across borders, and around the world, with the ease and lack of ceremony we have grown so accustomed to over the last century.
The text of Trump’s speech is here.