Officials across the country on Sunday curtailed many elements of US life to fight a COVID-19 outbreak, with health officials recommending that groups of 50 or more not get together and a government expert saying that a 14-day national shutdown might be needed.
Governors and mayors closed restaurants, bars and schools as the nation sank deeper into chaos. Travelers returning home from abroad were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have urged people to avoid.
In a sign of impending economic gloom, the US Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero.
US President Donald Trump sought to calm a jittery nation by declaring the government has “tremendous control” over the situation and urging people to stop the panic buying of grocery staples that has depleted store shelves nationwide.
Gun stores started seeing a similar run on weapons and ammunition as the panic intensified.
As Americans struggled with changing their daily habits, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a dramatic recommendation: Because large events can fuel the spread of the disease, it said that gatherings of 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed throughout the country for the next eight weeks.
Yet in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the CDC statement also said that the recommendation does not apply to “the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.”
Even before the warning, parts of the country already look like ghost towns, with others areas are about to follow, as theme parks closed, beaches shooed away spring breakers and states and large cities ordered bars and restaurants shuttered.
“The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”
New York City said eateries could only accept takeout and delivery orders.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also ordered nightclubs, movie theaters and other entertainment venues closed.
“These places are part of the heart and soul of our city. They are part of what it means to be a New Yorker, but our city is facing an unprecedented threat, and we must respond with a wartime mentality,” he said in a statement on Sunday night.
His decision came after Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, said that he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown imposed to prevent the virus’ spread.
“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of COVID-19.
He heads the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
There is no indication Trump is considering such a move.
The death toll in the US has climbed to 64, while infections passed 3,700.
Meanwhile, state and local officials rained harsh criticism on Trump and his administration over long lines of returning international passengers at some US airports.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lambasted the administration for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours inside the customs area at O’Hare International Airport on Saturday, violating “social distancing” recommendations from the CDC.
The passengers, many of them rushing home over fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.
Long lines also formed Saturday in Boston, Dallas and others of the 13 airports accepting return flights from Europe.
“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Lightfoot said.
Robert Murphy, executive director of Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said that he was “appalled” by what he saw on Saturday at nearby O’Hare.
“If they weren’t exposed to COVID-19 before, they probably are now. From a public health perspective, this is malpractice,” Murphy said in a statement on Sunday. “The lack of preparation and concern is unfathomable.”
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