Taking dramatic action, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he is sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the U.S. 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, said the month-long restriction on travel would begin late Friday, at midnight. He 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 U.S. would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.
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 U.S. 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.
Trump said he was also directing agencies to provide unspecified financial relief "for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus," and asked Congress to take action to extend it. White House aides declined to provide details on Trump's announcement.
Trump said the U.S. will defer tax payments for some individual and business filers for three months to lessen the impacts of the virus outbreak. He said the Small Business Administration will also make low-interest loans available to businesses to help them weather the storm.
"This is not a financial crisis," he said. "This just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world."
Trump also reiterated his call on Congress to pass a cut to the federal payroll tax in order to stimulate the economy, though that idea has been dismissed by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He remained silent on his previous calls to provide assistance to industries hard-hit by the pandemic like airlines and cruise ships.
On Capitol Hill, House Democrats late Wednesday introduced an economic assistance plan that would provide free coronavirus testing nationwide and emergency funding to reimburse lost paychecks for those in self-quarantine, missing work or losing jobs amid the outbreak.
The draft legislation contains a new, temporary federal sick leave benefit for coronavirus victims and caregivers--two-thirds of an employee's monthly income for up to three months--as well as a permanent mandate for employers to provide up to seven days of sick leave for their workers and 14 days leave in case of public health emergencies.
Facing a likely surge in unemployment claims, the package would also give states money for the newly jobless. It would provide additional funding for food and nutrition benefits for pregnant women, mothers, and young children.
It also would increase money for "meals on wheels" and food for low-income elderly people, as well as additional Medicaid funding for states facing a fiscal crunch.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urged Congress "to pass legislation quickly." But while the ambitious package should breeze through the House on Thursday, Senate Republicans are likely to seek changes.
The administration had floated several other strategies, including the rare idea of declaring a national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the planning and granted anonymity. But Trump ultimately opted against taking that step Wednesday. -- Associated Press
Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Martin Crutsinger, Laurie Kellman and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
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