Officials across the country curtailed elements of American life to fight the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, with governors closing restaurants, bars, and schools and a government expert saying a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. At the same time, long airport lines for virus screenings raised doubts that the government is prepared to respond to the crisis.
Parts of America already looks like a ghost town, and others are about to follow as theme parks closed, Florida beaches shooed away spring breakers, Starbucks said it will accept only drive-thru and takeout orders and the governors of Ohio and Illinois ordered bars and restaurants shuttered. New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere are considering similar measures.
“The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”
His decision came hours after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, said he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown imposed to prevent the virus’s spread.
“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
There is no indication President Donald Trump is considering such a move.
The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 156,000 people and left more than 5,800 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day. The death toll in the United States climbed to 64, while infections neared 3,000.
Meanwhile, harsh criticism rained on Trump and his administration Sunday from state and local officials over long lines of returning international passengers at some U.S. airports that could have turned them into coronavirus carriers as they tried to get home.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lambasted the administration for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours inside the customs area at O’Hare International Airport on Saturday, violating federal recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people practice “social distancing.”
The passengers, many of them rushing home because of fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened by federal customs and homeland security agents for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.
Long lines also formed Saturday in Boston, Dallas and others of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe.
“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Lightfoot said. Conditions appeared better Sunday nationwide, though at O’Hare passengers were being kept on their planes to better manage the flow through customs.
Elizabeth Pulvermacher, a University of Wisconsin student, arrived Saturday at O’Hare from Madrid, where she had been studying. The customs process made her feel “unsafe,” she said.
“The whole idea is getting rid of the spread of coronavirus, but there were hundreds and hundreds of people in very close proximity,” Pulvermacher said.
Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said he was “appalled” by what he saw Saturday at nearby O’Hare.
“If they weren’t exposed to COVID-19 before, they probably are now. From a public health perspective, this is malpractice,” Murphy said in a statement Sunday. “The lack of preparation and concern is unfathomable. This is not ‘poor planning.’ This is ‘no planning.’”
Acting Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a written statement Sunday that the agency is making improvements to its procedures, but that it must “balance our efficiencies with ensuring the health and safety of all American citizens through enhanced medical screening.”
Not every U.S. airport experienced overcrowding, and conditions were better Sunday.
Amanda Kay, who returned Sunday from Paris, said she was asked to keep her distance from other passengers when she arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.
“They wanted 50 people at a time. So the first 50 people got off, and they asked us to keep a large distance between ourselves,” she said. “We showed them the first form and then as we walk there’s a person who has the scan for your temperature. And then you go through Customs and then that was it.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
And that may have given some people false hope, causing them to venture into crowds that Fauci and others would prefer they avoid. Even if someone doesn’t become visibly ill, they can still carry the disease and spread it to others.
In New Orleans and Chicago, people clad in green for St. Patrick’s Day packed bars and spilled onto crowded sidewalks on Saturday even after the cities canceled their parades.
“I’m not about to put my life on hold because this is going around,” Kyle Thomas told the Chicago Sun-Times. Thomas, a nurse from Colorado, said he had flown to Chicago to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with friends and thought people might be ”overreacting.”
In New Orleans, Syd Knight, 86, celebrated despite the public health warnings and the higher risk she faced because of her age.
“The Lord will take care of us all,” Knight told The Times-Picayune-New Orleans Advocate.
New York City, which has the nation’s largest public school district, announced that it will be closed starting Monday, joining most of the rest of the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio had originally balked, but under pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others he said Sunday, “I became convinced over the course of today that there is no other choice.”
In Florida, Walt Disney World and Universal-Orlando were closing Sunday night for the rest of the month, joining their California siblings, which already closed. Farther south, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale officials announced that they are closing their beaches, where thousands of college spring breakers from around the world have flocked. The cities also ordered restaurants and bars closed by 10 p.m. and to keep crowds below 250.
“We cannot become a petri dish for a very dangerous virus,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “Spring break is over. The party is over.”
Starbucks said Sunday it is closing seating in its cafes and patio areas nationwide, but customers can still order at the counter, at drive-thrus or on the Starbucks app. It will also close or reduce hours in areas where there are a high-number of cases.
But not all government officials were as concerned. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted a picture of himself and his children at a crowded metro restaurant Saturday night.
“The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear, and encourages Oklahomans to do the same,” Charlie Hannema, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes had a similar message on Fox News Sunday, encouraging people to go to local restaurants and pubs despite the warnings of health officials.
“There’s a lot of concerns with the economy here because people are scared to go out, but I will just say one of the things you can do — if you’re healthy, you and your family it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in easily,” he said. “Let’s not hurt the working people in this country that are relying on wages and tips to keep their small business going.”
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Associated Press journalists Mallika Sen, Vanessa Alvarez, Christopher Weber, Eugene Johnson and John Seewer contributed.
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