ROME — Sweeping travel bans accelerated around the globe Thursday, walling regions apart, keeping people inside their homes and slowing the engines of commerce to try to stem the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump, who had downplayed the virus for weeks, suddenly struck a different tone, delivering a sombre Oval Office address announcing strict rules on travel from much of Europe to begin this weekend. The State Department followed with an extraordinary warning to Americans to “reconsider travel abroad” as well.
The European Union quickly slammed Trump’s “unilateral” decision, declaring the virus a “global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires co-operation rather than unilateral action.”
The virus detected three months ago in China has produced crippling outbreaks in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, ignited global financial panic and in the last week has seen dizzying developments that are erupting by the hour.
Those include an official designation of “pandemic” from the World Health Organization, a dramatic halt to much travel between the United States and 26 European countries, and infections being announced in rapid-fire pace by Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and political leaders as well as ordinary folks on cruise ships.
“It’s similar to what you might think of as an infectious disease equivalent of a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin a top public health official for the Seattle area, which has one of the biggest U.S. coronavirus outbreaks.
Around the world, nursing homes emptied of visitors to protect the elderly, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.
More than 126,000 people in more than 110 countries have been infected. The vast majority are in just four countries: China and South Korea — where new cases are declining —and Iran and Italy, where they are not. More than 4,600 people have died worldwide.
In California, the governor advised officials to cancel any gatherings of more than 250 people, as well as any smaller meetings where people must be closer than 6 feet (2 metres) — a description that includes everything from dinner parties to political rallies.
In Italy, the centre of Europe’s epidemic, new restrictions closed restaurants, cafes and retail shops Thursday after the prime minister imposed a nationwide lockdown on personal movement earlier in the week. Grocery stores, pharmacies and outdoor markets were allowed to operate, as were newspaper stands.
Rosanna Farina, whose family has run a newspaper kiosk in Rome’s historic centre since the 19th century, was torn on whether it was worth staying open.
“So few people are out and about. People are terrorized,” she said, wearing a scarf around her face. “I’d rather be home. I’m worried, even if I’m keeping a distance.”
Ireland joined the growing list of countries shutting down their school systems, and Europe’s most successful soccer team, Real Madrid, put all its players into quarantine after one tested positive.
Even remote Mount Everest closed for business. Chinese mountaineering officials cancelled spring climbs from their side of the mountain, while on the other side in Nepal, operators say cancellations were pouring in.
Europeans were adjusting to the American travel restrictions, which hit some of the world’s most heavily travelled routes and threw travel plans into chaos.
“We were going to get married in Las Vegas, with Elvis. It was going to be epic,” said Sandrine Reynaert, a Parisian who had to cancel the April 20 ceremony. Her future husband already has the date engraved in his ring.
Now Reynaert was cancelling each step of the trip that, as well as Las Vegas, also would have taken them to other iconic spots of Americana: Route 66, Joshua Tree National Park and the Grand Canyon.
Britain and Ireland were exempt, despite imposing far fewer restrictions in response to the virus than many EU countries, raising questions about the coherence of the U.S. policy. Trump has properties in both nations.
Trump accused Europe of not acting quickly enough to address the “foreign virus” and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travellers.
Across the U.S., where cases now number more than 1,300, a sense of urgency was pervasive.
Schools emptied of students and workplace cubicles went vacant. A rite of spring, college basketball’s NCAA tournament, was to be played in empty arenas, while in the NBA decided their pros won’t play at all for now. Joyous, booze-filled, green-splashed celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day were called off across the U.S. and Ireland. TV shows taped without audiences, rush-hour crowds in New York subway cars disappeared and families hunkered down, wondering what would come next.
“If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better,” said Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi of Redmond, Washington, who has two children whose schools closed Thursday.
As the pandemic grips Europe and the U.S., it continues to ebb in China, where the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in December. It reported a record low of just 15 new cases Thursday. So far more than three-fourths of China’s patients have recovered.
Most people infected by the new virus have only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, though symptoms can be severe, including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Recovery for mild cases takes about two weeks, while more severe illness may take three to six weeks, according to the WHO.
Research published Wednesday found that the coronavirus can live in the air for several hours, and for as long as two to three days on some surfaces.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned her nation that, over time, two-thirds of the country could become infected since people do not have immunity to COVID-19.
“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action,” said WHO’s leader, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”
Double Oscar winner Tom Hanks said he and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive. Australian officials say the couple are in a Queensland hospital and their close contacts need to self-quarantine.
In Italy, soccer club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani tested positive. In Iran, the senior vice-president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with it. In Spain, the equality minister was diagnosed, and her husband, a deputy prime minister, was in quarantine.
In Greece, where the Olympic torch for the 2020 Tokyo Games was lit behind closed doors, there was an urgent call from the government for more doctors and nurses.
“The time of the battle has come,” Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said on live television. “The battle will be determined by how we respond as citizens.”
European and Asian markets plunged Thursday, following a drop of 1,464 points of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, putting the index 20% below its record set last month and into fearsome territory Wall Street calls a “bear market.”
“There’s a real feeling that we don’t know where this ends,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network.
For 83-year-old Natalina De Santis, fear of germs has led her to forgo all visits from her three adult children. She insists they leave care packages outside the door of her home in Rome, then goes to the balcony to wave.
“If I get sick, what would my children do?” she said in a telephone interview. “They’d have to come, they won’t be able to leave me alone. So, to avoid all this, I stay in my home.”
By The Associated Press