In a Wednesday evening address from the Oval Office, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would issue a thirty-day travel ban for travel from the European Union, excluding the United Kingdom and a number of other notable exceptions. He is also looking to Congress, the Small Business Administration and the Treasury Department to take steps to stimulate the U.S. economy.
The steps are the latest effort by the government to tamp down the spread of COVID-19.
"We will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” President Trump said, adding “the new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight. These restrictions will be adjusted subject to conditions on the ground. 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."
The President’s address painted a picture of a far more sweeping executive order though than the one he signed earlier today. That order is far more narrow in scope, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.
The ban explicitly states that the travel ban "does not apply to legal permanent residents, (generally) immediate family members of U.S. citizens, and other individuals who are identified in the proclamation," which does not appear to coincide with the total ban implied by the President’s phrasing on live television.
Also in contradiction to the Oval Office address, goods and cargo will not be subject to the ban.
The White House clarifies the president's Europe travel ban "only applies to human beings, not goods and cargo. It tracks very similar to the proclamation issued for China.
The people transporting goods will not be admitted into the country, but the goods will be."
— Ana Swanson (@AnaSwanson) March 12, 2020
The president then turned from halting the spread of the coronavirus to bolstering the American economy, which has been battered in recent weeks from fears of aftershocks from coronavirus.
The President said that he would be authorizing the Small Business Administration to issue some $50 billion in loans to compensate businesses whose income is impacted by efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, funding subject to Congressional approval. That move should allow for more companies to compensate workers for time spent in quarantine if they, or their family members, are ill.
The President also said, "Using emergency authority, I will be instructing the Treasury Department to defer tax payments, without interest or penalties, for certain individuals and businesses [that] are negatively impacted." He continued, “This action will provide more than $200 billion of additional liquidity to the economy.”
President Trump issued a call to Congress to eliminate payroll taxes as another step to cushion the economic blow of a more aggressive response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.
Finally, the address alluded to an agreement between the White House and U.S. insurers that would have them "waive all [fees for] coronavirus treatments," but according to a spokesperson for the insurance lobby, the copayment waiver is only, "For testing. Not for treatment."
Trump's claim tonight that health insurers "have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments" seems to be news to them.
“For testing. Not for treatment.” a spokesperson for the major insurance lobby AHIP says.
— Sarah Owermohle (@owermohle) March 12, 2020
If the President's address was intended to calm the tumult emanating from stock markets over the coronavirus outbreak, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average were down 1,114 points or 4.74% in pre-market trading. The Nasdaq was down 400 points or 5%.
And the unprecedented steps followed an already calamitous day on Wall Street and the wider world as the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and stocks again suffered massive losses in trading.
As notable as the European travel ban is (and as inexplicable as the exclusion of the U.K. may be), the President's speech drew criticism for the things it did not include. Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs under President George W. Bush, wrote, "COVID-19 is not a 'foreign virus.' It is a global threat that can only be resolved by working with, and not against, all the other nations of the world."
Missing in President Trump’s speech—any responsibility to work with other countries to limit the twin crises, health and economic, from COVID-19. He should close ranks to work with China, Japan, South Korea, Europe+Iran. Instead, he thinks we can dig a moat around America.
— Nicholas Burns (@RNicholasBurns) March 12, 2020
And while the President issued assurances that the government was well-prepared to meet the challenge that the spread of COVID-19 poses, recent reporting indicates that critical components for the COVID-19 test are facing shortages and there's still not enough testing being done.
Johns Hopkins University is currently tracking 1,281 people who have been infected with the disease in the U.S. and that number is likely to increase as more tests are conducted. So far, 36 people in the U.S. have died of the illness.
What would help would be greater transparency and open reporting on not just the number of cases that have been confirmed, but the number of tests conducted in the U.S. However, reporting around the spread of the disease has been limited since communications were centralized in the Office of the Vice President.
Apparently, the opacity around the COVID-19 virus has been by design. Since mid-January, the White House has designated that briefings on the coronavirus outbreak be classified, a decision which has limited the ability of experts to attend inter-agency meetings, according to a report in Reuters.
“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official told the newswire service. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”
Apparently the classification was made at the insistence of the White House and the lack of free-flowing information may have hindered the ability of various agencies to effectively respond to the spread of COVID-19 earlier.
When the disease was first identified by a doctor in China, the country's Communist government suppressed information and allowed for a citywide outbreak, which eventually became the global pandemic the world is now facing. It appears that the U.S. is on its way to making the same mistakes.
But even as the President continues to issue assurances, more and more aspects of American life are being disrupted. Nearly simultaneous with the president's speech, the National Basketball Association canceled the remainder of its season after a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus, while the NCAA is going ahead with its annual championship tournaments to stadiums emptied of fans. Large gatherings are being called off in Washington State, California, and New York as mitigation measures to level the spread of the disease are put into place.
Still, the person in the highest position in the government to coordinate an aggressive response remains confident. "The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared, more resilient than the United States," the President said.