The White House is considering imposing a temporary ban on flights to and from China amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak centered in Hubei province, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday night, citing a person familiar with situation. The Washington Post and USA Today separately verified that such a ban was under consideration, though sources said it was just one of several options and differed on whether the administration had already told airlines that it was on the table.
The coronavirus outbreak in China has continued to worsen, with official government numbers now closing in on 6,000 cases—the actual number is possibly far higher—and 132 dead. Almost all of Hubei is under some sort of lockdown, which means that tens of millions of people including many foreigners are facing restrictions on travel and could potentially supply shortages. China has suspended visas for visitors to Hubei, according to Bloomberg, while Hong Kong has imposed restrictions on travel from the mainland.
Known as 2019-nCoV, the virus is known to mostly cause severe symptoms in older or immunocompromised individuals, and for comparison, the first two weeks of flu season in the U.S. killed over 5,000 people. Yet health officials are wary of sustained global spread, with a preliminary report in the Lancet this week warning that while 2019-mCoV may be less lethal than prior novel diseases like SARS, many factors such as how infectious it is and how quickly it could spread remain unknown. While Thailand, Hong Kong, the U.S., Taiwan, Australia, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, France, Canada, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, and Germany have all reported a small number of cases, none of those countries have reported any deaths from the virus.
Airlines have already suspended large numbers of U.S.-China flights, citing in part a significant decline in demand. The Post reported that gave U.S. health officials some much-needed breathing room to focus on rerouting travelers from the region surrounding Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, to airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco for special screening.
There have been just a handful of cases in the U.S., with federal health officials emphasizing that the domestic risk remains low. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar telling reporters on Tuesday the coronavirus is a “potentially very serious public health threat, but at this point Americans should not worry for their own safety.”
The State Department has issued warnings urging U.S. citizens to reconsider traveling to China and not to travel to Hubei province, where it is evacuating non-essential staff, at all. Numerous companies with large operations interests in China, including General Motors, Honeywell, Bloomberg, and Facebook (whose signature social network is banned in the country but still sells hardware through subsidiaries there) have imposed restrictions on employee travel there, according to the New York Times.
Update 1:00 a.m. ET: This post has been updated to clarify that the ban under consideration could apply to all U.S.-China flights, not just those to China.