WASHINGTON/NEW YORK: The United States and Canada closed their shared border to “non-essential traffic” on Wednesday as U.S. President Donald Trump moved to hasten medical equipment production and said hospital ships would be deployed in the battle against the coronavirus.
The virus spread to Capitol Hill, with U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart saying on Wednesday he has tested for positive for coronavirus, becoming the first member of Congress known to be infected.
The 58-year-old Florida Republican said he placed himself under self-quarantine in Washington on Friday after appearing on the floor of the U.S. of Representatives for a number of votes earlier that day.
He said he developed a fever and headache on Saturday evening and was diagnosed by a positive test result shortly thereafter. The implications this posed for infection control on Capitol Hill was not immediately clear.
Wall Street extended a four-week plunge in the face of deepening concerns about a public health crisis that has paralyzed large sectors of the U.S. economy and led to fears of a global recession.
Trump signed legislation late on Wednesday providing over $100 billion to limit the damage from the coronavirus pandemic through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, after the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed it.
In a struggle that Trump at first made light of but now likens to a war, the Republican president said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to allow the government to accelerate production of medical equipment such as face masks and other protective gear during the health crisis.
“It’s a very tough situation here. You have to do things,” Trump said.
The law, enacted in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War, empowers the president to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security and other reasons.
VIRUS IN ALL 50 STATES
The Trump administration has been criticized as being slow in its initial response, with the United States facing shortages of diagnostic testing kits and other essential medical equipment.
With cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus reported in all 50 states and the total number of known U.S. infections closing in on 8,000, millions of Americans are staying at home instead of commuting to work or going to school.
The U.S. death toll has climbed to at least 146.
New York, Washington state and California accounted for most of the cases, with the largest cluster of U.S. deaths from the illness – 62 – documented in the greater Seattle area.
To help alleviate an expected shortage of sick beds, Trump said two hospital ships would be pressed into service, one to New York, the other on the West Coast.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. Navy ship Comfort, with room for 1,000 patients, would be in New York Harbor to help deal with medical needs in the most populous U.S. city.
But U.S. defense officials said the Comfort was undergoing maintenance in Virginia and it could take weeks before the ship can head to New York. The hospital ship Mercy was in San Diego and would be ready to deploy sooner.
Trump, appearing in the White House briefing room with members of his coronavirus task force, said closure of the border with Canada for 30 days was by mutual consent and would not affect trade.
The two nations share one of the world’s largest trading relationships, and their economies are highly integrated.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa that travelers could no longer cross the border for recreation and tourism.
“Our governments recognize it is critical that we preserve supply chains between both countries,” Trudeau added. “These supply chains ensure that food, fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border.”
The U.S.-Mexico border will remain open, Trump said.
‘EVERYONE IS AFRAID’
In New York, Cuomo said he would not approve a directive for residents of New York City to be confined to their homes, a “shelter-in-place” proposal that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was close to recommending.
Cuomo said he was ordering all non-essential businesses in the state to require at least half their employees to work from home or simply stay home.
“Let’s maintain the public health. We’ll figure out the economy afterwards,” Cuomo told a news conference.
Small businesses, however, are trying to figure it out now.
“In the next few days and weeks we’ll have a disruption of supplies – beer, water, soda. One of our wholesalers has already shut,” said Ibrahim Yacop, 36, owner of 7 Days Liquor in Glendale, California.
“Stress is what’s affecting people more than the virus. We’re telling our customers not to freak out but there’s a huge sense of fear. Everyone is afraid and business is not normal,” Yacop said.
By the closing bell on Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had effectively erased the last of the once-sizeable gains it had accrued since Trump took office in January 2017.
The S&P 500, a broader measure of the U.S. stock market, ended the day down 5.2%, nearly 30% off February’s record peak as growing signs of coronavirus damage to corporate America overshadowed sweeping official moves to protect the economy.
On top of the legislation signed into law on Wednesday, the Trump administration, as part of a $1 trillion stimulus and rescue proposal, asked Congress to approve $500 billion in cash payments to taxpayers in two rounds – on April 6 and May 18. It is also seeking $50 billion in loans to U.S. airlines, which have been pummeled by the pandemic, according to a document seen by Reuters.
Some Senate Republicans have called for delivering $1,000 checks to taxpayers, but Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said they should receive more.
The administration is seeking another $150 billion to aid severely distressed sectors of the economy with secured lending or loan guarantees and $300 billion in small business loans. Officials have said that could include hotels, restaurants, aviation manufacturing and cruise lines.
As she waited for a bus to take her home in Chicago, Carol Ladd, 45, a part-time food service worker at a senior citizens housing complex, said $1,000 would not be nearly enough, given that disruptions could last for months. Reuters