NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From Disneyland to the U.S. Supreme Court, from Wall Street to Dodgers Stadium, nearly every facet of American life fell into turmoil on Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak forced sweeping closures and economic disruption.
As concern grew over a rapid spread of the virus that causes a sometimes fatal respiratory illness known as COVID-19, the U.S. stock market cratered anew, professional and college sports leagues suspended play, Broadway theaters went dark and many schools from Ohio to Texas shuttered.
An unprecedented cascade of shutdowns reflected growing fears that the outbreak of the highly contagious pathogen, which has already killed at least 38 people in the United States, could race out of control unless authorities squelch large public gatherings.
As companies locked their offices and dispatched employees to work from home, fears of a U.S. recession rose in step with the number of U.S. infections, which jumped to more than 1,300 on Thursday. The concerns were reflected in U.S. stock markets, with major indexes entering bear-market territory.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency, granting him new powers as the number of confirmed cases rose to 95 cases in the nation’s most populous city.
“We are getting into a situation where the only analogy is war, and a wartime dynamic,” de Blasio said, referring to an expected surge in demand for hospital beds.
From California to New York, officials banned large gatherings and closed museums and other institutions without saying how long the directives would stay in place, compounding the uncertainty.
After the Trump administration imposed sweeping restrictions on travel between the United States and Europe, Gabriella Ribeiro, a Wayne, New Jersey-based travel consultant, said she was fielding a flood of panicked calls from customers.
“We call it the ‘C’ word,” Ribeiro said of coronavirus. “We’ve been through Ebola and SARS, but I haven’t seen this level of panic among travelers since 9/11.”
With cancellations hitting everything from Little League baseball to school fairs, the rituals of American life started to grind to a halt.
The NCAA canceled their annual “March Madness” college basketball tournament. Professional hockey and basketball seasons were halted indefinitely. Major League Baseball ended spring training and suspended the first two weeks of the season.
“Opening day is religion around here,” said Frank Buscemi, a self-described sports junkie and Detroit Tigers baseball fan. “It makes sense, and you’ve got to err on the side of caution – we get that. It doesn’t make it any easier and it doesn’t make it any more fun.”
Officials in hard-hit areas, including New York and Washington states, sought to balance the need to protect the public while stopping short of crippling economic activity.
New York state banned gatherings of more than 500 people beginning on Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference. Establishments that can fit 500 people or fewer must halve their capacity.
Hollywood postponed the release of several movies and theaters around the world closed over the health crisis.
In Washington, D.C., officials closed the U.S. Capitol complex to the public after a staffer for a senator from Washington state tested positive for the coronavirus. [L1N2B50S4] The Supreme Court closed to the public indefinitely, and the Kennedy Center canceled all performances.
Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association announced that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.
‘WE’RE NOT SET UP’
The patchwork of state and local directives to stem the tide of infections came as U.S. health officials struggled to expand the country’s limited testing capacity, acknowledging that it remained difficult for many people 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.”
Two U.S. senators – Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham – opted for a self-quarantine after interacting with a delegation led by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Florida. One of Bolsonaro’s team tested positive for the virus.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also 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.”
Despite the unfolding crisis, Congress was unable to work out a deal on a sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday.
Republicans have balked at a plan crafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation. Trump said he didn’t support the bill.
But the Senate canceled a scheduled recess and will return next week to work on legislation.
The Trump administration spelled out details of new rules on U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from Europe under restrictions that ban most Europeans from entering the United States.
“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, which goes into effect at midnight on Friday and lasts for 30 days. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened.
Even for some of those not hit by the disease, the economic impacts became a reality.
The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said.
American Airlines Inc (AAL.O) and Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) 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.
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.
Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle, David Morgan and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani, Jonathan Allen, Michael Erman and Dan Burns in New York, Steve Gorman in Culver City, California; Writing by Ginger Gibson and Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman
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