WASHINGTON — Taking drastic action Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced he is cutting off travel from Europe 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 made the announcement that he is suspending all travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days beginning late Friday — at midnight — during a rare Oval Office address to the nation. After days of playing down the threat, he blamed the European Union for not acting quickly enough to address the novel coronavirus and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.
“We made a lifesaving move with early action on China,” Trump said. “Now we must take the same action with Europe.”
Trump 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.
The mounting effort to contain the virus and financial fallout intensified on a grueling day: Communities canceled public events nationwide, universities moved to cancel in-person classes, and families grappled with the impact of disruptions to public schools. The number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S., and the World Health Organization declared that the global crisis is now a pandemic.
In a week of mixed messages and false starts, as government officials warned in increasingly urgent terms that the outbreak in the U.S. will only get worse, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act.
Congress, for its part, unveiled a multibillion-dollar aid package Wednesday that was expected to be voted on by the House as soon as Thursday.
“I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He said the virus is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
Trump spoke after days of confusion in Washington amid mounting calls on the president to demonstrate greater leadership. In the hours leading up to his remarks, White House aides struggled to determine what action the president could take unilaterally and what required congressional action, as Trump personally weighed the public and political reactions to the options before him.
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.
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 proposal was 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 Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled an economic assistance plan that was gaining bipartisan backing. Central to the package is free coronavirus testing nationwide and emergency funding to reimburse lost paychecks for those self-quarantining, missing work or losing jobs amid the outbreak.
The draft legislation would create a new federal emergency sick leave benefit for people with the virus or caring for a coronavirus victim. It would provide two-thirds of an employee’s monthly income for up to three months.
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 up money for “meals on wheels” and food for low-income elderly people.
“Right now we’re trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with Pelosi, urged Congress “to pass legislation quickly.”
“This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses,” Mnuchin said.
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.
A major disaster declaration provides additional authorities for federal agencies, including the military, to assist in responding to an emergency, including medical care, sheltering and distributing goods.
The administration also rolled out new recommendations for the communities most impacted by the virus in Washington state, New York and California, while authorizing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to take whatever steps necessary to increase the supply of face masks available to doctors and nurses by providing them with masks intended for industrial use.
Mnuchin noted that Trump’s executive authorities are “quite significant” and said the administration would be rolling out “various proposals.”
As pressure mounted for Washington to respond, the GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support for the funding package in Congress.
“We need to do something,” McCarthy said. “I think they could become very bipartisan.”
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 from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Congress’ attending physician told staff there could be 70 million to 100 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. That’s on par with other estimates. A Harvard official has estimated that 20% to 60% of adults will get the virus, noting it’s “a pretty wide range.”
Pelosi’s goal is to pass an aid package before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later.
In Washington, tourists still arrived at the U.S. Capitol, but an official unauthorized to discuss the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that tours would soon be shut down.
Gallery: How is the world responding to the coronavirus outbreak?
Update: At 9:25 a.m. Thursday, the OSSAA posted this message on their website:
"The OSSAA continues to actively monitor the public health concerns related to COVID-19. Our Staff has been in contact with the Oklahoma Department of Health this morning and based on the updates we have received, we will we proceed with all tournaments being played as scheduled. We do advise players, coaches, officials, contest workers and spectators to practice good hygiene by washing hands thoroughly and frequently; coughing and sneezing into kleenex and then immediately disposing of it are also recommended. If you have a fever or do not feel well, we ask that you not attend any games. All games today will be video live streamed on the NFHSNetwork.com."
This story appeared online Wednesday and in print Thursday
Workers were busy making sure gyms at Memorial, Owasso and Skiatook high schools were scrubbed and sterilized ahead of the Class 6A-5A state tournaments, which open Thursday in the Tulsa area.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association planned to move forward with its season-ending tournaments in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
That was despite concerns over the COVID-19 illness that have caused alterations to similar events in other parts of the country.
In a statement posted Monday on its website, the OSSAA said its staff has been in contact with the Oklahoma Department of Health, and “based on the updates we have received, at this time we will proceed with all tournaments … as scheduled.”
“We are in touch with people at each of the (venues), and we’ve seen nothing that tells us we shouldn’t go on,” OSSAA Associate Director Mike Whaley said late Wednesday.
The 6A-5A state tournaments are set to tip off Thursday in the Oral Roberts University Mabee Center and at Memorial, Owasso and Skiatook high schools.
The 4A-3A-2A tournaments also open Thursday with first-round games in Oklahoma City’s State Fair Arena and five other sites around Oklahoma City.
ORU officials said hand sanitizers will be available at every entrance to the Mabee Center, where the 6A girls tournament opens Thursday with four first-round games.
At Memorial, workers were using an atomizer filled with a disinfecting solution to treat every surface a person might conceivably contact in Memorial Veterans Arena, Athletic Director Mark Dover said.
“We’re just trying to be on the preventative side,” said Steve Friebus, Tulsa Public Schools coordinator of sports medicine.
But, Friebus added, “I think you’ve got a better chance of catching the flu at the state tournament than you have of catching the coronavirus.”
Owasso’s gym was cleaned and disinfected Wednesday night and was due for a second round of cleaning and disinfecting between Thursday’s afternoon and evening sessions, Rams Athletic Director Zach Duffield said.
The NCAA caused a stir Wednesday when it announced its men’s and women’s national basketball tournaments, starting next week, will be played in largely empty arenas in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
Most college conference basketball tournaments, including the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, followed suit later in the day Wednesday by limiting fans in the arenas during games. The Big 12 allowed fans into Wednesday’s session, which included Oklahoma State’s game against Iowa State, but planned to limit crowds the rest of the weekend.
Late Wednesday, the NBA suspended its season after postponing the game between Utah and Oklahoma City at Chesapeake Arena. The league confirmed a player for the Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA said the player wasn’t in the arena.
Closer to home, two University of Tulsa football players were quarantined as a precaution after potential exposure to the disease, sources told the Tulsa World.
A relative of one of the players is the second confirmed case in Tulsa County, a woman in her 20s who recently returned from Italy.
Holland Hall School closed Wednesday through Friday after reported contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 as a pandemic, with more than 126,000 cases in 120 countries and more than 4,600 deaths worldwide.
While Oklahoma has only two confirmed cases — both in Tulsa County — some wondered if the OSSAA was wise to move forward, when there are so many warnings about avoiding large public gatherings.
“It’s a tough time. Everyone’s on edge. We’re all concerned,” Skiatook Superintendent Rick Thomas said. “We want to do what’s best for the fans and kids. There are a lot of tough decisions that have to be made in these types of deals.”
Gallery: U.S. death toll at 29: How is the world responding to the coronavirus outbreak?
Featured video: Tuesday update from the Tulsa Health Department on the COVID-19 virus
SAND SPRINGS — Some audible groans came with the news National Weather Service meteorologist Nicole McGavock brought to residents of the Town and Country neighborhood at Sand Springs on Wednesday evening.
The chance of the Arkansas River’s reaching flood stage between March and June this year is about 18%, she said. The chance for a repeat of flooding similar to last year’s is 6%.
In an average year, the chance that the river will reach flood stage is less than 2%.
McGavock put this year’s potential into perspective.
“That’s higher than normal, but it is not an extreme probability,” she said.
McGavock was among a lineup of officials at the Case Community Center who gave residents of the still-recovering neighborhood hit hard in the May flood answers and advice on everything from watching the weather and updated warning systems to housing permits and insurance.
Each of the residents received a survey that asked about basics people might still need to know about, such as road and access issues, if there is an abandoned house next door, whether they have a building permit to rebuild, if they had flood insurance, if they have a mortgage, if their home is occupied, even if they are interested in sending their children to a summer camp.
“We have brought everyone here to help you move forward with your lives,” Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith said in opening the meeting.
McGavock’s role was to lay out the forecast and show residents how they can watch the river levels online and inform themselves about possible risks.
The forecast for the possibility of flooding is increased because the ground is so wet in the Tulsa area, as well as in most of the Arkansas River drainage area to the north and west all the way to Wichita, Kansas, from above-normal rainfall in the past month to 90 days.
“If you think of the ground like a sponge, and when it rains the ground soaks it up like a sponge. Well, once that sponge is full, any additional rain that falls is going to go straight into the rivers and lakes,” McGavock said.
The immediate question to the next speaker, Bill Smiley, Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District chief of emergency management and security, harkened to a 2019 complaint.
“Why aren’t we drawing the lakes down now?”
Smiley deferred to Corps hydrologists and a meeting sure to come at another time, but he did lay out an improved communications and warning plan for any future event. That plan involves a lowered “trigger point” for concern and the addition of community liaisons to help spread a consistent message as a flood threatens.
He cautioned that not all disasters are the same and that many factors can change what happens if another flood hits. Some people in 2019 expected that they would be OK based on their experience in the 1984 flood and were surprised when they weren’t. People shouldn’t think they know what will happen next time based on 2019, either, and clear communication still will be key, he said.
“We have a saying that if you’ve been to one disaster you’ve been to one disaster,” he said. “No two are the same.”
Emergency plans hit a high point when releases at Keystone Dam last year hit 150,000 cubic feet per second, and that was late, Smiley said. The first “trigger” now is at 85,000. At that point community meetings would be called and community liaisons would be called in. By the time releases hit 150,000 cfs, emergency actions would be in full swing, according to the new plan.
“We will go big early,” Smiley said.
Experts also addressed insurance needs, FEMA assistance and potential property buyouts stymied by a paltry $7 million available statewide and a long process that could take years to complete.
Derek Osborn of Sen. James Lankford’s office said the senator is addressing funding available and the long process involved with bills.
County officials assured residents they are working through individual issues on such things as building permits and certificates of occupancy with as much leniency as possible.
Teresa Tosh, director of Tulsa County inspections and zoning, said 217 remodeling permits were issued in the neighborhood, along with 500 more related trade permits. Of the initial 217 permits, 39 have completed construction, with final inspections done, she said.
Confusion ran wide on insurance, with some saying they were told they could not get flood insurance because they live in a flood plain and others saying the opposite. Some said they were getting flood insurance for between $400 and $500 a year; others said their insurance was $2,000 a year. One man said his was $4,000.
“Everyone can get flood insurance,” said Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner Glen Mulready. “I tell everyone to get flood insurance. If it rains where you live, it can flood where you live.”
Gallery: 12 photos that show the story of the Oklahoma flood
Gallery: After flood, residents and officials inspect Town & Country neighborhood in Sand Springs
State health officials hope to have a process in place soon that can be used to determine whether large public events should be held, Dr. Bruce Dart with Tulsa City Health Department said Wednesday.
“You can see cancellations going on all over the country,” Dart told Tulsa city councilors. “So we are right now creating in conjunction with the state Department of Health and the Oklahoma City/County Health Department a three-tiered approach to do a decision tree that will allow us to make those decisions if we need to cancel or postpone events.
“It’s going to be based on the penetration of coronavirus in our community.”
As of Wednesday evening, the state had one confirmed case of COVID-19 and another “presumptive” positive case. A total of 17 tests have been conducted so far with 15 of those coming back negative, according to a results page maintained by the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The state is awaiting the results of testing on 11 other “persons under investigation.”
Dart said health officials are also working on guidelines for schools to follow in advising students who travel to places where the virus is widespread.
“There are no guidelines for that,” he said. “We are trying to come up with a decision tree for the schools as well.”
Dart also clarified how testing is being handled. Although the perception is that anyone can be tested for the virus, health officials are testing based on a person’s exposure to the virus and his or her symptoms, he said.
“There is no reason to test everybody right now, unless there is widespread community penetration,” he said.
Reports that the state has the ability to do 300 tests a day are not accurate, Dart told councilors.
“It takes six hours to set up each test kit, so we are not doing 300 tests a day,” he said.
There has been no community spread of the virus, but Dart said he expects that it will eventually spread throughout Oklahoma.
“We are telling people that have been in endemic areas where we know there is a virus to self-quarantine when they come back,” Dart said.
Dart suggested that people who believe they need to be tested should call their health care provider or the Tulsa Health Department.
Dart told city councilors the best thing they can do to help the situation is to do everything in their power to provide accurate information to the public.
“Part of the biggest problem we are seeing now is a lot of fear and anger,” Dart said. “As much as we think we are putting out information, well, unfortunately, there is lots of bad information going out, too.”
Gallery: How is the world responding to the coronavirus outbreak?
Video: Tulsa Health Department provides an update on COVID-19