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Travel clampdown needed to contain U.S. coronavirus outbreak: Pence

(C) Reuters. Trash bags of used gloves and protective suits sit outside Life Care Center of Kirkland

By Jonathan Allen and Steve Holland

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The expanding coronavirus outbreak threw daily American life into turmoil on Thursday as more professional sports leagues suspended their seasons, Broadway theaters canceled performances, and new restrictions caused chaos in trans-Atlantic airline travel.

Fears of a U.S. recession rose in step with an increase in the number of people infected by the virus, which causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness. The concerns were reflected in U.S. stock markets, with major indexes entering bear-market territory.

California and New York announced sweeping bans on large gatherings and more schools, museums and other institutions announced plans to close.

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 from the highly contagious coronavirus while stopping short of actions that could freeze the daily lives of millions of people and stop economic activity.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency to fight the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, allowing him to use new powers as the number of confirmed cases rose to 95 cases in the nation’s most populous city.

New York state will ban gatherings of more than 500 people beginning at 5 p.m. on Friday in order to slow the spread of the virus, Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference. Establishments that can fit 500 people or fewer must halve their capacity beginning on Friday, Cuomo said.

Broadway theaters in Manhattan will have to start observing the new rules on Thursday night, Cuomo said. Hospitals, nursing homes, mass transit and certain other facilities will be exempt from the new rule.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the world, said it was temporarily closing all three of its locations in the city.

In Washington, officials ordered the U.S. Capitol complex closed to much of the public starting on Thursday, a day after a staffer for a senator from Washington state tested positive for the coronavirus.

Hollywood has postponed the release of several movies and movie theaters around the world have been closed over the health crisis.

More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 38 people have died. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, has accounted for a large share of the deaths.

The state of Georgia reported its first death on Thursday.

Florida Senator Rick Scott said he would quarantine himself after meeting last week with a member of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s delegation in Florida. Another Bolsonaro official on the trip has since tested positive for the virus.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met the Brazilian delegation, but White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said: “Both the President and Vice President had almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time.”

U.S. 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 U.S. 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 coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The NBA has suspended its season until further notice. The National Hockey League announced on Thursday it was pausing its season and Major League Soccer announced a 30-day suspension of its season. Major League Baseball also reportedly suspended spring training and delayed the start of its regular season.

The outbreak has forced the closure of many schools and prompted some universities, including Harvard and Princeton, to announce they will move to virtual classroom instruction after the spring break later this month.


U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from Europe will be screened for the virus and asked to go into “self-quarantine” for 14 days as part of new travel restrictions that affect 26 nations but exempt Britain and Ireland, Pence said in an interview with CNN.

“Americans coming home will be funneled 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.

Trump on Thursday defended his decision to impose the measures, which go into effect at midnight on Friday and last for 30 days. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened.

The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said.

American Airlines Inc (O:AAL) and Delta Air Lines Inc (N:DAL) said they were capping fares for U.S.-bound flights from Europe amid reports of exorbitant pricing as U.S. citizens flocked to European airports trying to return home.

Delta said it would suspend eight U.S. flights to Europe on Friday and “continues to evaluate additional schedule adjustments based on customer demand.”

Global stock markets sank again on Thursday. The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) fell about 10%. Airline and some cruise line stocks were particularly hard hit.

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Democrats’ sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday, according to a Democratic aide.

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 Senate plans to return next week to work on its legislation rather than have a week-long recess.

U.S. companies have announced 633 layoffs related to the outbreak through Thursday morning, according to global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

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