Taking dramatic action, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he is sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European Schengen countries to the U.S. for 30 days, starting on Friday night.
Trump, in a rare Oval Office address to the nation, said the month-long restriction on travel would begin late Friday, at midnight. After days of playing down the coronavirus threat, he blamed Europe for not acting quickly enough to address the “foreign virus” and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travellers.
The State Department followed Trump’s remarks by issuing an extraordinary global health advisory cautioning U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel abroad” due to the virus and associated quarantines and restrictions.
Trump spoke after days of confusion in Washington and in the face of mounting calls on the president to demonstrate greater leadership. At times, though, his remarks contributed to the uncertainty.
While Trump said all European travel would be cut off, Homeland Security officials later clarified that the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the “Schengen Area” at any point for 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area includes France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others, and the White House said the zone has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of mainland China.
The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others “identified in the proclamation” signed by Trump.
Restrictions only apply to people from Schengen countries
And Trump misspoke when he said the prohibitions would “not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things.” The official proclamation released after Trump spoke made clear it applies to people, not goods and cargo.
The restriction does not apply to legal permanent residents of the U.S. or their families when they are returning from Europe. It also does not apply to U.S. citizens coming back from Europe, Trump acknowledged.
It also does not apply to Ireland, Romania, Croatia, Ukraine and several other European states. Instead, it will only affect the 26 European states that are part of the Schengen area. That is most of Europe, but not all of it.
The Oval Office address represented an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to play down the severity of the virus outbreak. Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks, but the gruelling events of Wednesday changed the mood: Communities cancelled public events nationwide, universities moved to cancel in-person classes, and families grappled with the impact of disruptions to public schools. The number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S. and the World Health Organization declared the global crisis is now a pandemic.
After Trump spoke, the White House cancelled a planned trip by the president to Nevada and Colorado this week, “out of an abundance of caution.” Trump’s re-election campaign also postponed a planned March 19 event in Milwaukee that was set to feature the president.
Trump, 73, is considered at higher risk because of his age and has repeatedly flouted the advice of public health experts, who have advised the public to stop hand-shaking and practice social distancing. But that didn’t stop him from calling on fellow citizens to help combat the virus’ spread. “For all Americans, it is essential that everyone take extra precautions and practice good hygiene. Each of us has a role to play in defeating this virus,” he said.
Trump officials emphasize that coronavirus ‘made in China’
Trump administration officials, on the defensive about their own handling of the virus, have repeatedly reminded people that the virus started in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referring to it as the “Wuhan coronavirus.”
President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, went even further on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington. “There’s lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation, or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out. It probably cost the world community two months.”
O’Brien said that if experts would have had those two months to get ahead of the spread of the virus, “I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what’s now happening across the world.”
China, however, says it is helping the international community battle the virus. U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Beijing is working closely with other countries and have provided medical supplies to nations, including Korea, Japan and Italy.
“We are sending medical teams to countries that need that, and we will do whatever to join the international community to fight this virus … because we have only one world, we need to join hands, we need to show solidarity.”
Trump move escalates pain for airlines
Trump’s ban on most Europeans entering the United States is the latest stunning setback for an airline industry that is reeling from a drop in bookings and a surge in people who are cancelling reservations for fear of contracting the coronavirus.
The disruption to air travel is also certain to ripple through economies, causing widespread damage to hotels, car rental companies, museums and restaurants.
Airlines have been slashing their flight schedules, especially on international routes, to cope with a sharp decline in travel demand among fearful customers. Business travel is slowing as companies impose restrictions on employee travel and major conferences are cancelled.
An industry trade group warned that airlines worldwide could lose up to $113 billion in revenue from the virus — several times the damage caused by the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. Since mid-February, shares of American Airlines have dropped by nearly half, United Airlines by more than one-third and Delta Air Lines more than one-fourth.
It isn’t just U.S. airlines feeling the pain. Germany’s Lufthansa plans to cut up to half its flights because of a “drastic” drop in bookings. In Asia, travel restrictions are taking a toll on that region’s airlines. Cathay Pacific Airways warned Wednesday that it faces a “substantial loss” in the first half of this year. The Hong Kong-based airline cancelled 90% of its flight capacity to the mainland at the start of February after Beijing told the public to avoid travel as part of efforts to contain the outbreak centred on the city of Wuhan.
With air travel and airline revenue plummeting, airlines are losing their appetite for new planes. On Wednesday, Boeing’s stock fell 18% — its biggest one-day percentage drop since 1974 — and the iconic airplane manufacturer announced a hiring freeze.
There are nearly 400 daily flights from Europe to the U.S., according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking service. About 72.4 million passengers flew from the U.S. to Europe in the year ended last June, making it the most popular international destination, according to Transportation Department figures. About one-third of those passengers fly on U.S. airlines, the rest on foreign carriers. Trump didn’t mention restrictions on Americans travelling to Europe.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst in San Francisco, said the ban will push airlines including American, Delta and United to reduce flights between the U.S. and Europe, and will cast a long shadow over the peak summer travel season.
“This is going to cause a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic to reconsider where they are going to spend their summer vacation,” he said. “Leisure travellers will stay close to home,” while people travelling on business will be grounded by corporate restrictions, he said.
Majority of people recover from COVID-19
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Congress’ attending physician told staff there could be 70 million to 100 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. That’s on par with other estimates. A Harvard official has estimated that 20% to 60% of adults will get the virus, noting it’s “a pretty wide range.”
In Washington, tourists still arrived at the U.S. Capitol, but an official unauthorized to discuss the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that tours would soon be shut down.