White House looks to bolster economy as coronavirus worries batter markets

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration scrambled on Monday to assure Americans it was responding to a growing coronavirus outbreak as stock markets plunged and top health officials urged some people to avoid cruise ships, air travel and big public gatherings.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly played down the threat posed by the flu-like virus sweeping the globe, was planning to meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other members of his economic team to weigh possible action, an administration official told Reuters.

Paid sick leave is among policy steps being considered, the official said on condition of anonymity.

One camp in the White House, which includes Trump, backs an across-the-board payroll tax cut, said an economist advising the administration, while top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and others advocate specific tax credits, loans or direct subsidies to certain industries or hard-hit areas.

A payroll tax cut could encourage consumer spending and help households that might otherwise struggle to make rent and mortgage payments on time or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during a coronavirus outbreak.

Senate Finance Committee Chuck Grassley, a Republican, told reporters that a range of options for responding to the crisis are being explored in his tax-writing committee.

Florida health officials said everyone returning from China, Iran, South Korea and Italy must isolate for 14 days while travelers from other countries affected by the outbreak should monitor their health.

The number of confirmed U.S. cases reached 566, including 22 deaths, according to state public health authorities and a running national tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University.

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Thirty-four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) infections of the respiratory illness COVID-19 that can lead to pneumonia. Louisiana had the state’s first presumed coronavirus case, Governor John Bel Edwards announced on Monday.

As worries over the virus deepened, the Dow fell a record 2,000 points when trading opened and the S&P 500 posted its largest single-day percentage drop since December 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. A plunge in oil prices contributed to fears of a looming recession.

Trump, who often points to the stock market as a gauge of his economic record, criticized news media organizations’ coverage of the outbreak in a tweet and accused Democrats of hyping the situation “far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

The CDC advised colleges and universities to consider asking students studying abroad to return home and cancel or postpone upcoming travel.

Several U.S. universities were either moving to virtual instruction or considering the step and limiting gatherings on their campuses.

Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, and other health officials say older Americans, especially those with chronic medical concerns, should avoid big social gatherings, cruise ships and airline flights.

Warnings from Fauci and others about the need for greater “social distancing” – the practice of minimizing unnecessary contact in public settings – came amid a high-profile example of risks now inherent in large gatherings.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Representatives Paul Gosar, Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz have announced that they would self-quarantine after coming in contact at a conservative political conference with an attendee who later tested positive for the virus.

Gaetz traveled with Trump aboard Air Force One on Monday.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the administration’s overall response to the crisis, also attended the conference. The White House said there was no indication they came into contact with the infected attendee.

CRUISE SHIP

More than 110,000 people have been infected and about 3,800 have died in the outbreak, which originated in China late last year and has spread to at least 105 countries and territories. Italy, which has the second-highest death toll, said it was extending to the rest of the country restrictions on movement imposed on much of its wealthy industrial north in an effort to contain spread of the virus.

The hardest-hit place in the United States has been a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, and Washington state is considering mandatory measures such as banning large gatherings but not necessarily imposing massive quarantines.

The Life Care Center facility has accounted for most of the 18 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in Washington state.

In California, officials planned to offload 2,400 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship, which was barred from returning to San Francisco last week due to a coronavirus outbreak on board.

Most of the passengers will go into quarantine at four military bases across the country, with those requiring immediate medical attention heading to hospitals. The crew of 1,100 will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship, unless they are in need of acute care off the vessel.

California has more than 100 confirmed cases, while on the East Coast, cases in New York state rose to 142, up from 105 a day earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

One of them was Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that controls airports and other major travel hubs. He will be quarantined and work from home, Cuomo said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked employers in the nation’s most populous city to consider staggering workers’ start times to ease crowding on public transport and to allow more telecommuting where possible. De Blasio said there were 20 confirmed cases there as of Monday afternoon.

(Graphic: Tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus – here)

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