U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday his administration is significantly reducing travel from Europe to the United States over the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Trump made the announcement during a rare nationally televised address from the Oval Office, blaming new clusters of COVID-19 in the U.S. on travel from countries within the European Union.
The travel restrictions will last for 30 days, Trump said, and will go into effect at midnight Friday.
Exemptions will be in place for Americans who have gone through “appropriate screenings,” he added, and the restrictions will not apply to the United Kingdom. They also won’t apply to cargo and other goods, the White House confirmed, after it appeared Trump misspoke during the address.
Trump nor the White House provided details on what would count as an “appropriate screening.”
While Trump initially said all travel from Europe was being cut off, the Department of Homeland Security later announced the president had signed a proclamation barring most foreign nationals from entering the U.S. if they had visited a lengthy list of European countries within 14 days of their scheduled arrival.
The countries included in the proclamation, known as the “Schengen Area,” include Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others that have seen high numbers of cases — which in Italy’s case has led to a nationwide lockdown.
The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others “identified in the proclamation” signed by Trump. The proclamation also confirmed goods and cargo will not be affected.
“The actions President Trump is taking to deny entry to foreign nationals who have been in affected areas will keep Americans safe and save American lives,” DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement.
An unnamed European diplomat told Reuters that the Trump administration did not coordinate the travel restrictions with European officials ahead of Trump’s address.
“There was no heads up, no coordination as the president claimed,” said the diplomat, who Reuters said was not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump blamed the European Union for not acting quickly enough to clamp down on the virus, saying travellers from the continent “seeded” several new cases in the U.S. According to the proclamation itself, 201 cases have been “exported” from the Schengen Area to 53 countries around the world.
He noted the U.S. has seen “dramatically fewer cases” than Europe, in comments that marked a change in tone after days spent downplaying the threat of the virus to the country.
Trump also urged older Americans to avoid non-essential travel to crowded places. A short time later, the U.S. Department of State issued a blanket travel advisory asking all U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad.
The U.S. Department of Defense also announced its own 60-day travel restriction for service members, Pentagon officials and families travelling to, from or through highly-affected countries like China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
After Trump spoke, the White House cancelled a planned trip by the president to Nevada and Colorado this week, “out of an abundance of caution.” Trump’s re-election campaign also postponed a planned March 19 event in Milwaukee that was set to feature the president.
Travel restrictions placed on China by the U.S. earlier this year may be removed or altered early, Trump said, as cases there and in other Asian countries like South Korea begin to trend downward. He did not mention the status of similar restrictions on travel from Iran.
Earlier Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic.
Italy has become the new epicentre of the outbreak outside China with more than 12,000 cases, prompting a nationwide lockdown. France, Spain and Germany have each reported around 2,000 cases, while hundreds more are spread throughout the rest of Europe. The U.K. has confirmed over 450 cases and eight deaths.
The travel restriction was one of several measures the president announced Wednesday to fight the spread of the coronavirus in the country and limit the economic toll it has taken. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed with 38 deaths, while 23 states and Washington D.C. have declared a state of emergency.
Trump said he was also directing agencies to provide unspecified financial relief for “for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus,” and asked Congress to take action to extend it. White House aides declined to provide details on Trump’s announcement.
Trump said the U.S. will defer tax payments for some individual and business filers for three months to lessen the impacts of the virus outbreak. He said the Small Business Administration will also make low-interest loans available to businesses to help them weather the storm.
Trump also reiterated his call on Congress to pass a cut to the federal payroll tax in order to stimulate the economy, though that idea has been dismissed by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He remained silent on his previous calls to provide assistance to industries hard-hit by the pandemic like airlines and cruise ships.
“This is not a financial crisis, this is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world,” he said.
Shortly after Trump spoke, Dow futures dropped more than 1,100 points while S&P 500 futures dove from a 0.4 per cent loss to a 1.5 per cent negative.
With files from the Associated Press and Reuters