WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States and Canada closed their mutual border to “non-essential traffic” on Wednesday while President Donald Trump moved to speed up medical equipment production and said hospital ships would be deployed in the battle against the coronavirus.
The new steps were announced as Wall Street resumed a four-week plummet as coronavirus fears deepened. The main U.S. indexes were down around 9% on Wednesday after a positive day on Tuesday, as growing signs of coronavirus damage to corporate America overshadowed optimism for sweeping official moves to protect the economy.
Stocks were down about 30% from their peak a month ago as the pandemic threatened to bring U.S. economic activity to a virtual halt.
In a struggle that Trump previously minimized but now likens to a war, the Republican president said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to let the U.S. government accelerate production of needed equipment such as masks and other protective gear during the health crisis.
“It’s a very tough situation here. You have to do things,” Trump said.
The law, enacted in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War, empowers the president to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security and other reasons.
His action came after criticism that his administration was slow in its initial response, with the United States facing shortages of testing kits and other essential medical equipment.
With cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus reported in all 50 states and the total number of known U.S. infections surging past 7,600, millions of Americans stayed at home instead of commuting to work or going to school. The U.S. death toll has climbed to at least 126.
New York, Washington state and California have the most cases of the virus, with Washington accounting for almost half of all U.S. deaths from the illness.
Some New Yorkers who were out and about seemed to be taking the new restrictions on daily life in stride. At Tompkins Square Park in lower Manhattan, Rafael Viera, a 45-year-old retail manager, said he left his house for two reasons: “exercise and coffee.”
“I take the precautions they ask me to take,” he said. “I’m not super worried. You can still find food. You may not find what you want to eat, but you won’t go hungry.”
To help alleviate an expected shortage of sick beds, Trump said two hospital ships would be pressed into service, with one going to New York and the other on the West Coast.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the Comfort, with about 1,000 rooms, would be in New York Harbor to help deal with medical needs in the most populous U.S. city.
But U.S. defense officials said the Comfort is in maintenance in Virginia and it could take weeks before the ship is ready to head to New York, while the Mercy is in San Diego and would be ready to deploy sooner on the West Coast as needed.
Trump, appearing in the White House briefing room for what has now become a daily news conference with his coronavirus task force, said he would invoke another law that would allow U.S. authorities to turn back migrants seeking to cross the southern border of the United States illegally.
Unlike the northern border, the U.S.-Mexican border will remain open, Trump said.
Trump said closure of the border with Canada was by mutual consent and would have no effect on trade. He said he expected the border to remain closed for 30 days.
The two nations share one of the world’s largest bilateral trading relationships and their economies are highly integrated.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa that travelers could no longer cross the border for recreation and tourism.
“Our governments recognize it is critical that we preserve supply chains between both countries,” Trudeau added. “These supply chains ensure that food, fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border.”
Cuomo said he would not approve a directive for residents of New York City to be confined to their homes, a “shelter-in-place” proposal that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “almost to the point” of recommending.
Cuomo said he is ordering all non-essential businesses in the state require at least half of employees to work from home or simply stay home. New organizations were exempted, he said.
“Let’s maintain the public health. We’ll figure out the economy afterwards,” Cuomo said at a news conference.
Vice President Mike Pence, leading the federal response to the virus, said the government was asking every American to delay elective medical procedures while the healthcare system deals with the threat of the fast-spreading virus.
Trump’s administration, as part of its $1 trillion stimulus and rescue proposal, on Wednesday asked Congress to approve $500 billion in cash payments to taxpayers in two rounds – on April 6 and May 18 – and $50 billion in loans to U.S. airlines, which have been pummeled by the pandemic, according to a document seen by Reuters.Some Senate Republicans have called for $1,000 checks for taxpayers, but Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said it should be higher.
The administration is seeking another $150 billion to aid severely distressed sectors of the economy for secured lending or loan guarantees and $300 billion in small business interruption loans. Officials have said that could include hotels, restaurants, aviation manufacturing and cruise lines.
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As she waited for a bus to take her home in Chicago, Carol Ladd, a 45-year-old who works part-time in food service at a senior citizens housing complex, said $1,000 would not be nearly enough, given that the disruptions could last for months.
“I have rent, lights, phone, gas and food I got to buy,” said Ladd, who said she earns about $900 a month. “That’s only going to take me through one month. They need to do more.”
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Hilary Russ, Maria Ponnezhath and David Ljunggren, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason and Idrees Ali; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Berkrot