Across the US, American lifestyle changed by mitigation efforts

This weekend, U.S. officials issued new orders to close schools, restaurants, bars, and cinemas, in order to limit large gatherings of people. 

Elizabeth Pulvermacher via AP
Travelers returning from Madrid wait in a coronavirus screening line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Saturday, March 14, 2020.

On Sunday, officials across the United States curtailed many elements of American lifestyle, with public health officials recommending that groups of 50 or more don't get together and a government expert saying a 14-day national shutdown may be needed.

State governors were closing restaurants, bars, and schools as the nation was coming to terms with the COVID-19 crisis. Travelers returning home from overseas trips were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, causing them to be crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have been urging people to avoid.

In a sign of the impending economic gloom on the horizon, the Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero. President Donald Trump sought to calm a jittery nation by declaring that the government has “tremendous control” over the situation and urging people to stop the panic buying of grocery staples that has depleted the shelves of stores around the country. Gun stores started seeing a similar run on weapons and ammunition.

As Americans struggled to come to terms with how to change their daily habits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new recommendation: because large events can fuel the spread of the disease, it said gatherings of 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks. It added that, at any event, proper precautions should be taken, including making sure people are washing their hands and not getting too close.

But in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the statement from the CDC also said the recommendation does not apply to “the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.”

Even before the warning, parts of the country already looked like a ghost town, and others were about to follow as theme parks closed, Florida beaches shooed away spring breakers, Starbucks said it will accept only drive-thru and takeout orders, and the governors of Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts ordered bars and restaurants shuttered or restricted to take-out only. California's governor asked the state's bars and restaurants to do the same, but didn't order it. New York City, New Jersey, and elsewhere are considering similar measures.

"The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”

His decision came hours after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top infectious disease expert, said he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown imposed to prevent the virus's spread.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Mr. Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

There is no indication that President Trump is considering such a move.

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 162,000 people and left more than 6,000 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day. The death toll in the United States climbed to 64, while infections passed 3,200.

Meanwhile, harsh criticism rained on Mr. Trump and his administration Sunday from state and local officials over long lines of returning international passengers at some U.S. airports that could have turned them into coronavirus carriers as they tried to get home.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lambasted the administration for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours inside the customs area at O'Hare International Airport on Saturday, violating federal recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people practice “social distancing."

The passengers, many of them rushing home because of fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.

Long lines also formed Saturday in Boston, Dallas, and others of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe.

“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Ms. Lightfoot said.

Elizabeth Pulvermacher, a University of Wisconsin student, arrived Saturday at O'Hare from Madrid, where she had been studying and spent hours in line. The customs process made her feel “unsafe," she said.

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said he was “appalled” by what he saw Saturday at nearby O'Hare. “From a public health perspective, this is malpractice,” Murphy said in a statement Sunday. “The lack of preparation and concern is unfathomable.”

But the situation improved markedly on Sunday at O'Hare and elsewhere. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said wait times are down to 30 minutes after processes have been adjusted to better handle the influx and extra personnel sent to the airports that are “funneling” passengers returning from overseas.

Bailey Miles, a 20-year-old sophomore at Taylor University in Indiana, arrived also from Madrid fearing the worst, but she got through customs and a health screening in about an hour. She said officials seemed to have learned their lesson from Saturday, when some of her friends returned.

"The employees were really helpful, had positive attitudes and had a lot of grace," she said. She said a woman even passed out snacks.

At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Amanda Kay said she was asked to keep her distance from other passengers when she arrived from Paris. “They wanted 50 people at a time. So the first 50 people got off, and they asked us to keep a large distance between ourselves,” she said. “We showed them the first form and then as we walk there’s a person who has the scan for your temperature. And then you go through Customs and then that was it.”

Going forward, Mr. Wolf said he could not rule out a future halt to air travel within the U.S. Mr. Fauci said earlier Sunday on television that halting domestic travel had been discussed, though not seriously.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. The vast majority of people recover. And that may have given some people false hope, causing them to venture into crowds that Mr. Fauci and others would prefer they avoid. Even if someone doesn't become visibly ill, they can still carry the disease and spread it to others, say health officials.

In New Orleans and Chicago, people clad in green for St. Patrick's Day packed bars and spilled onto crowded sidewalks on Saturday even after the cities canceled their parades.

New York City, which has the nation's largest public school district, announced that it will be closed starting Monday, joining most of the rest of the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio had originally balked, but under pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others said Sunday, "I became convinced over the course of today that there is no other choice.”

In Florida, Walt Disney World and Universal-Orlando were closing Sunday night for the rest of the month, joining their California siblings, which already closed. Farther south, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale officials announced that they are closing their beaches, where thousands of college spring breakers from around the world have flocked. The cities also ordered restaurants and bars closed by 10 p.m. and to keep crowds below 250.

“Spring break is over. The party is over,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. 

Starbucks said Sunday it is closing seating in its cafes and patio areas nationwide, but customers can still order at the counter, at drive-thrus or on the Starbucks app. It will also close or reduce hours in areas where there are a high-number of cases.

But not all government officials were as concerned. Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted a picture of himself and his children at a crowded metro restaurant Saturday night.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes had a similar message on Fox News Sunday, encouraging people to go to local restaurants and pubs despite the warnings of health officials.

This story was reported by The Associated Press with additional reporting from Mallika Sen, Vanessa Alvarez, Seth Wenig, Lisa Marie Pane, Christopher Weber, Eugene Johnson, and John Seewer.

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