Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Americans snap to attention on virus

A basketball tournament, with no fans. A St Patrick's Day, with no parades. College campuses, with no students. Corporate headquarters, with barren cubicles.

The nation snapped to attention on Wednesday as the new coronavirus was declared a pandemic, stocks slid into bear market territory and the American public finally began to come to grips with the outbreak.

President Donald Trump held a rare prime-time address from the Oval Office to calm the public.

Health and government officials have been sounding the alarm about the virus for nearly two months as it infected and killed thousands of people, pinballing from China to Iran to Italy and beyond before striking Seattle in the first deadly outbreak in the US.

But Wednesday was the moment the larger American public came to the dawning realisation that the toll of the virus would be unavoidable for months to come, perhaps longer.

In the matter of hours Wednesday afternoon, the signs were everywhere. The NCAA announced that the rite of spring for so many Americans - its college basketball tournament - would be played before largely empty arenas.

About the same time, the White House scheduled a nationally televised address. News feeds lit up with cancellations of St Patrick's Day parades, major university systems in California, New York and elsewhere ending classes for the term and late-night comedians making plans to film without live studio audiences.

CBS Evening News anchor Norah O'Donnell declared during Wednesday evening's broadcast that two network employees had tested positive and those who worked closely with them had been asked to self-quarantine.

Later in the day, Hollywood icon Tom Hanks announced he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus. Just as the Hanks news bounced around the internet, the NBA said it was suspending its season until further notice.

In his prime-time address, Trump declared he was sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the US beginning late Friday, at midnight.

Trump said the month-long restrictions would not apply to the United Kingdom and there would be exemptions for "Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings".

He said the US would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.

The Oval Office address was an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to play down the severity of the threat, telling people: "It will go away, just stay calm."

Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks but the events of Wednesday changed the mood.

Officials in some American cities, including the hot spots of Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, banned large gatherings of people, while celebrations including Chicago's St Patrick's Day parade were cancelled.

The World Health Organisation called the crisis a pandemic. Stocks plunged, with the S&P; 500 on the cusp of falling into bear territory at nearly 20 per cent lower than the record set just last month.

In Washington state, after Governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on events of more than 250 people in the greater Seattle area, the Seattle Public School system said it would close for at least two weeks for its 53,000 students. COVID-19 has killed more than two dozen in the Seattle area.

As of Wednesday evening, 38 people had died in the US, while more than 1300 people had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

That is far less than the toll in other parts of the globe: in Italy, where more than 12,000 people have tested positive and 800 people have died, the situation was so dire that all stores except pharmacies and food markets were ordered closed.

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.

Meanwhile, from UCLA to the University of Vermont, the number of colleges and universities cancelling in-person classes and moving the rest of the semester online mounted.

In New York City, there have only been a few dozen people diagnosed with COVID-19 but the virus is still all that anyone was talking about.

Subway trains, usually jam-packed at rush hour, were unusually uncrowded on Wednesday. City transportation officials reported the number of people cycling to work in Manhattan over the East River bridges has soared 55 per cent during the past few days as people have heeded the mayor's suggestion to avoid public transportation during peak hours.

Some grocery stores across the city, which ran out of hand sanitiser days ago, have seen shelves empty of other items, such as bottled water.

Public places have seemed a little less teeming, though tourist hubs such as Times Square are still attracting plenty of people.

Late-night comedians made plans to start filming without live audiences. NBC's Late Night With Seth Myers tweeted it was following guidance by New York City officials.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo asked residents not to organise or attend gatherings of more than 250 people but stopped short of an outright ban.

Still, at an afternoon news conference, she pleaded for people sick even with just aches and pains to stay home.

"We understand that people have to live their lives and and business has to continue," she said. "However, we only have one chance to contain this."



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