Americans warned against travel abroad as death toll hits 200

Weary travellers transit at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport amid virus-related travel restrictions. (AP pic)

NEW YORK: The United States warned Americans on Thursday to return home or stay abroad indefinitely, while Senate Republicans unveiled a US$1 trillion economic stimulus plan to provide funds directly to businesses and the American public, as the number of coronavirus death in the country hit 200.

As authorities ramped up measures to keep the virus from spreading, Washington could announce restrictions on travel across the US-Mexico border as soon as Friday, limiting crossings to essential travel, two officials briefed on the matter said. That would follow a similar measure on Wednesday closing the border with Canada.

The fast-spreading respiratory illness has shattered most patterns of American life: shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and sharply curtailing travel.

The US State Department told citizens that if they travel internationally, “your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe”.

At the same time, the Trump administration said it was not ruling out a temporary halt to all US passenger air travel.

“Everything is on the table,” Deborah Birx, White House coordinator for the coronavirus task force, told Fox News Channel.

Stimulus package

The US Senate unveiled details of a US$1 trillion-plus coronavirus bill on Thursday intended to help the US economy weather the impacts of the growing outbreak. President Donald Trump has been eagerly calling for that package.

It would be Congress’ third emergency coronavirus bill following a US$105 billion-plus plan covering free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, and an US$8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the highly contagious pathogen and develop vaccines.

Trump, speaking with several state governors by videoconference from the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the government would help out the US auto industry “a little bit”. It might also consider a relief package for the hospitality industry, he said.

The plunging stock market and surging US death toll has caused Trump to sharply change his tone on the disease this week, demanding urgent action after spending weeks downplaying the risks.

About 12,260 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the illness called Covid-19 and 200 have died, with the largest numbers so far in Washington state and New York.

‘We cannot wait’

Healthcare providers operate a drive-through testing station for patients in Virginia. (AP pic)

Los Angeles on Thursday ordered the closure of all shopping centres and non-essential businesses in the city and county, and told its 10 million residents to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

“We cannot wait. We have to act now,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

“This is not a shelter-in-place order, this is a stay-at-home order.”

Two Los Angeles Lakers players have the coronavirus, the NBA franchise said on Thursday, after four players from the Brooklyn Nets tested positive for the disease a day earlier.

Washington state on Thursday reported eight more deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the death toll there to 74, the most of any US state.

New York State tested 8,000 patients overnight and ordered three-quarters of state employees to work from home, while officials in New York and neighbouring New Jersey said they expected the number of cases in those states to spiral into the thousands.

“We don’t have the results of the 8,000 tests, but when you do 8,000 tests, the numbers are going to go up exponentially,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN.

There are no approved treatments or vaccines for Covid-19, but several options are being tested.

New York a ‘ghost city’ after dark

New York City, where many young people last weekend packed local bars and restaurants, has been eerily deserted after nightfall.

“It’s a skater’s dream,” said Dyanna Hernandez, 20, who had joined a dozen friends in Manhattan’s Union Square to enjoy the freedom of what she called a “ghost city” after three days stuck at home.

“I can’t really be quarantined.”

With the United States slow to roll out mass testing for the virus that has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, officials fear the number of known cases of the respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia lags far behind reality.

The epidemic, which has killed over 10,000 globally so far, has drawn comparisons with traumatic periods such as World War II, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged by the most since 2012 to a 2-1/2-year high last week, as companies in the services sector laid off workers with businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.

Katie Vetere, 32, general manager of One 53, a small restaurant near Princeton, New Jersey, applied for benefits for the first time in her life after the restaurant was forced to shut down when state authorities banned table service.

Vetere expects her benefits to be less than half her regular weekly paycheck.

“I go from ‘I’m sad’ to ‘I’m scared’ to ‘I’m angry,'” she said.

“Do I consider my job lost? I don’t know.”

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