Donald Trump addresses the Nation from the Oval Office about the widening novel coronavirus crisis in Washington. AFP
Taking dramatic action, President Donald Trump sharply restricted passenger travel from 26 European nations to the US and moving to ease the economic cost of a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting the daily lives of Americans.
Trump, in a rare Oval Office address to the nation on Wednesday night, said the month-long restriction on travel would begin late on 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 US clusters were "seeded” by European travellers.
"We made a lifesaving move with early action on China," Trump said. "Now we must take the same action with Europe.”
Trump said the restrictions won't apply to the United Kingdom, and there would be exemptions for "Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings." He said the US would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.
The State Department followed Trump's remarks by issuing an extraordinary global health advisory cautioning US 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, German, 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 US citizens or others "identified in the proclamation" signed by Trump.
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 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 US and the World Health Organisation declared the global crisis is now a pandemic.
Even as Trump spoke from behind the Resolute Desk, the pandemic’s ferocious rewriting of American daily life continued. The National Basketball Association suspended its season, and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for COVID-19. The first confirmed case on Capitol Hill was reported in a legislative staffer.
In Washington, tourists still arrived at the US Capitol, but an official unauthorised to discuss the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that tours would soon be shut down.
Hopes have been rising that the worst of the global catastrophe, which has killed more than 270,000 people, has passed, and the United States on Friday approved a new at-home saliva test to speed up diagnosis for COVID-19.
Trump, who flew back to Washington after a weekend golfing at his Florida resort and having dinner with Brazil's right-wing president, has spent weeks dismissing the seriousness of the threat.
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