(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump said he will significantly restrict travel from Europe to the U.S. for the next 30 days, the most far-reaching measure yet in the administration’s efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Trump, speaking Wednesday evening from the Oval Office, said the restrictions, which won’t apply to the U.K., will go into effect Friday at midnight. He blamed the European Union for not curbing travel from China in the early days of the outbreak, and credited his own measures with having limited the number of cases in the U.S.
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” Trump said. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
The president in his address laid out a series of fiscal measures to deal with the economic fallout from the rapid spread of a disease he labeled a “foreign virus.” But his remarks — in which he overstated the scope of the travel restrictions and misspoke that he was also curtailing trade — were met with a swift plunge in markets.
U.S. stock futures declined as Trump spoke and continued lower after. Contracts on the S&P 500 sank as much as 4.9%. Futures on the technology-heavy Nasdaq index dropped as much as 5%, triggering a limit-down level that doesn’t allow them to fall too much in a particular session. Stocks from Europe to Asia posted steep declines, and oil plummeted.
In a statement following Trump’s address, Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf clarified that the administration was suspending the entry of most foreign nationals who have been in any of 26 European nations in the previous two weeks.
And while Trump said that the prohibition on European travel would “not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things,” a White house official subsequently said the restrictions would only apply to people and not goods.
As markets tumbled, Trump offered further clarification in a tweet, saying “please remember, very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods.”
The restriction does not apply to legal permanent residents and immediate family members of U.S. citizens. Wolf said U.S. citizens arriving from Europe will travel through specific airports where they can undergo screening for the virus.
Two hours after Trump’s address, House Democrats released the text of a bill they said would include free coronavirus testing, paid emergency leave for workers, food security assistance and other measures to help people weather the outbreak.
“We have a public health crisis in this country and the best way to help keep the American people safe and ensure their economic security is for the president to focus on fighting the spread of the coronavirus itself,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement. “Alarmingly, the president did not say how the administration will address the lack of coronavirus testing kits throughout the United States.”
As Trump spoke, companies and public officials across the country were taking actions to deal with the rapid spread of the virus. The NBA suspended games until further notice, Twitter Inc. directed employees to work from home and governors and mayors restricted large gatherings. The State Department issued a Level 3 health advisory, urging Americans to reconsider travel abroad due to the virus.
Following the remarks, the White House announced that Trump was canceling travel to Colorado and Nevada that were scheduled for this week.
The S&P 500 closed Wednesday 19% lower than its February high, with every industry down at least 3.9% on the day.
“This is not a financial crisis,” Trump said. “This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome as a nation and as a world.”
The World Health Organization earlier Wednesday declared the outbreak is now a pandemic and urged governments to step up containment efforts as the number of worldwide cases topped 123,000 and deaths exceeded 4,500. The virus has spread particularly rapidly in Europe. In Italy, deaths jumped 31% in a single day, rising to 827 on Wednesday.
Trump claimed that his early action to restrict travel from China and other affected countries slowed the spread of the virus in the U.S. He said the administration is “monitoring the situation in China and South Korea,” and that “a possible early opening” could happen if the situation improves.
“I’m kind of astonished,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The idea that this is going to be a solution, it moves us back into this whole idea that we have an opportunity still to close off transmission to the United States and it ignores the reality that it’s already inside our borders.”
The travel industry was bracing for additional flight restrictions, but had expected them to be limited to Germany and Italy, the countries with the largest outbreaks, said Scott Solombrino, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association.
When Trump announced the ban for all of Europe, except the U.K., “everybody was totally caught off guard,” Solombrino said.
Trump also called on Congress to take action to deliver paid sick leave to hourly workers who risk their livelihoods if they stay home. House Democrats already have included that among a package of measures set for a vote tomorrow. He also recommended that nursing homes curtail non-medically necessary visits.
The president said he is deferring tax payments for certain individuals and businesses affected by the virus. He said the deferments would provide $200 billion in additional liquidity to the economy.
Business and individual taxpayers can already get automatic six-month extensions to file their tax returns, but they have to pay by the April 15 deadline or face interest and penalties on the late payments. Extending the due date is akin to the government extending those taxpayers an interest-free loan for that time.
Trump added that he is instructing the Small Business Administration to provide emergency capital to affected firms. Small businesses in areas covered by a presidential disaster declaration are eligible for federal loans of up to $2 million to provide operating funds until those companies recover. In addition, the coronavirus funding bill enacted earlier this month made small businesses negatively affected by the outbreak eligible for the loans.
Trump called on Congress to pass a payroll tax cut to soften the economic fallout and market plunge, but offered no details on a proposal. Democrats have largely scorned the idea.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said. “I am confident that by counting and continuing to take these tough measures we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus.”
–With assistance from Nick Wadhams, Laura Davison, Ryan Beene, Susan Warren, Steven T. Dennis and Erik Wasson.