WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday urged the public to avoid “discretionary” travel, frequenting restaurants or bars, attending school in person, and gathering in groups of 10 or more — a dramatic message meant to curb the spread of the pandemic coronavirus that has sickened thousands of Americans and ground daily life to a halt in countries across the globe.
“My administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible, avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, avoid discretionary travel, and avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants and public food courts,” Trump said.
The president warned that such social distancing measures could be necessary until mid-summer, until the pandemic “washes through.” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, later clarified that the federal government expected the virus would continue to pose a major threat through mid-summer, though the administration’s recommendations were only applicable for the next 15 days.
The virus, which has killed 7,000 people worldwide and sickened over 4,000 Americans, has spread rapidly throughout the United States in recent weeks. Hundreds of local governments had already banned public gatherings and shuttered schools, restaurants, and bars. Public health officials have uniformly urged residents to practice social distancing — all in an effort to slow the rate of new infections and ensure the nation’s health care system maintains capacity to care for the severely ill.
The move still falls short of other countries’ responses to the pandemic. As the outbreak spread, China imposed a lockdown on rail and air travel out of Wuhan, the virus’s epicenter; Italy and Spain have imposed near-total lockdowns and heavily restricted domestic travel; and numerous countries including the United States have largely closed their borders to foreigners from hard-hit nations.
Deborah Birx, the physician and longtime diplomat who the White House has tapped to lead its coronavirus response, singled out millennials — largely Americans in their 20s and 30s — calling them the “core group” capable of stopping the virus from spreading.
“They’re the group that communicates successfully independent of picking up a phone,” Birx said. “They intuitively know how to contact each other without being in large social gatherings. We’re asking all of them to hold their gatherings to under 10 people, not just in bars and restaurants, but in homes. We really want people to be separated at this time.”
Fauci said the public should view the measures as necessary steps even if they appear extreme. If Americans later come to see the responses as overreactions, he said, it would signify success.
“Take a look at the guidelines, read them carefully,” Fauci said. “We hope that the people of the United States will take them very seriously, because they will fail if people don’t adhere to them.”
Trump administration officials, however, were unable to provide an estimate of how many Americans have been tested for the coronavirus. Brett Giroir, a top health department official overseeing testing efforts, said that many “home-grown” tests developed by small labs and hospitals, as opposed to those manufactured by large commercial laboratories, were not yet reporting results to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal government has been heavily criticized for failing to adequately ramp up testing capacity and for declining to use an existing test developed months ago by the World Health Organization.
Asked how he would rate his administration’s response on a scale of one to 10, Trump nonetheless responded confidently.
“I’d rate it at 10,” he said. “I think we’ve done a great job.”