In a speech to the nation on Wednesday night, President Donald Trump partially blamed the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic to the United States on Europe, announcing that the White House will take the unprecedented step of suspending travel by most foreign nationals who have been in Europe’s Schengen Zone to the U.S. for 30 days, effective March 13. The United Kingdom is not included in the ban.
Trump finally seemed to acknowledge how perilous the situation in the U.S. has become, with over 1,300 documented cases of the disease (and certainly many more uncounted) and 38 deaths reported. But he also harshly criticized Europe, which he claimed “seeded” a “large number of new clusters” in the U.S. by not shutting down travel from China in response to the “foreign” virus quickly enough. (As to where the xenophobic tone of the speech may have came from, it was reportedly prepared in part by Stephen Miller, a White House aide with ideological ties to the white nationalist movement.) The White House has faced immense criticism for its early response to the pandemic in the U.S., such as failure to adequately test for suspected cases, mishandling of known cases and safety protocols, and Trump’s insistence that criticism of his oversight of the situation was part of a Democratic “hoax.”
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” Trump said tonight. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe. After consulting with our top government health professionals I have decided to take several strong but necessary actions to protect the health and well being of all Americans.”
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” Trump said. “The new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight. These restrictions will be adjusted subject to conditions on the ground. There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.”
Note that while Trump said during the speech that the entry suspensions will also apply to trade and cargo, he later clarified in a tweet that he misspoke. The CDC’s own guidance page on the virus states “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.” The president also claimed in the speech that the restrictions applied to “all travel from Europe to the United States” other than from the UK, but the White House was also forced to clarify that it only applied to most foreign nationals (excepting those with special exceptions, such as those married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident) who had been in the Schengen Area in the past 14 days.
The Schengen Area is a collection of 26 European countries, covering most of Europe, that have abolished passport and movement controls at their mutual borders. It’s not immediately clear that the Schengen Area was actually selected on the basis of risk, but Trump has made opposition to open borders a centerpiece of his ideological agenda.
Trump also insisted during the address that for the “vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low,” reiterating assurances that have been shot down by his own health officials. There remain many unknowns about the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, which could possibly spread far and wide in the U.S. and overwhelm health systems. While studies so far have found over 80 percent of cases result in only minor symptoms, the fatality rate is subject to numerous factors and has ranged from between 0.5 percent in South Korea to 3.4 percent worldwide. Trump accurately noted that the “highest risk is for elderly population with underlying health conditions” and that they should be “very, very careful,” saying the White House is advising nursing homes to shut down unnecessary visits and that older Americans should avoid unnecessary travel.
It’s not clear whether stopping most travel from Europe will actually do anything to halt the spread of the virus stateside, since the virus is already spreading locally here and likely has been for weeks. Even assuming that travelers don’t simply reroute through airports without restrictions or that cases won’t come in from outside Europe, the suspensions could prove meaningless in the face of sustained local outbreaks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield said on Wednesday that the virus is in at least 38 states and Washington, DC. Halting the spread of the virus will now rely more on social distancing, in which Americans take steps to limit contact others, including working from home, canceling events with large numbers of expected attendees, and ramping up testing, which the U.S. is still lagging far behind on.
“When you’re dealing with an influenza virus-like transmissions, it’s like trying to control the wind,” Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota director Michael Osterholm told Fortune. “People may want to try to limit their time in large crowds, but I don’t think that a domestic limitation on travel is going to help at all.”
“This virus is already all around the country,” Osterholm added. “Think of this like seasonal influenza. We have regions that in any given week have more activity than other regions, but by the time the entire season is done, it’s covered the entire country. And when was the last time anyone thought of quarantining the United States for seasonal influenza?”
Trump also announced measures to try to prop up the economy in response to the coronavirus, though they mostly centered around Republicans’ laser-focus on tax cuts. Those included Treasury Department tax payment deferments, plans to introduce a payroll tax cut, and increasing the Small Business Administration’s loan program by $50 billion.
“The virus will not have a chance against us,” Trump said. “No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States. We have the best economy, the most advanced health care, and the most talented doctors, scientists and researchers anywhere in the world. We are all in this together.”
Update: 3/12/2020 at 12:55 a.m. ET: This post has been updated to clarify that the travel suspension only applies to those non-exempted foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area in the last 14 days, not “all” travel as the president explicitly said in his speech.
We’re sure it is possible the White House regrets the error.