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News Brief: Coronavirus Travel Bans, Economic Fallout, NBA Season

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump spoke to the nation from the Oval Office last night.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: After consulting with our top government health professionals, I have decided to take several strong but necessary actions to protect the health and well-being of all Americans.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump called for a ban on most travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days. That starts tomorrow night. Travelers from the U.K. and Americans trying to get back home from Europe to the U.S. will be exempted from this ban as long as they go through extra screenings. It is an extraordinary measure, and it's meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. President Trump also announced measures to shore up the economy.

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TRUMP: I will soon be taking emergency action, which is unprecedented, to provide financial relief. This will be targeted for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.

GREENE: I want to start with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who's with us. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: How far does this ban - restriction on travel from Europe - go here?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president is imposing dramatic bans on travel from Europe to the United States. It applies to foreign nationals from the 26 countries with open borders agreements. That includes France, Germany, Italy. The president said the measures were necessary to protect Americans. And at the same time, he was casting blame on Europeans.

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TRUMP: The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it was really a rare Oval Office address. You know, with his arms crossed, the president delivered, you know, his starkest comments yet after, in many ways, you know, previously downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, you know, comparing it to the flu. Last night, he called it a horrible infection.

And there's still some questions about what's going to happen. During his remarks, he said this would include goods and cargo, but the official proclamation made clear that it would not impact trade, and only people. Also exempt are Americans who have gone through proper screening, and also people from the U.K.

GREENE: I mean, Franco, I'm just struck by you mentioning that the president blaming Europeans. There are questions here about how much of a role Europeans are actually playing in the spread of coronavirus in the United States. But the president obviously trying to show his administration is on top of things after it got some criticism for how it initially handled this.

So the president goes on and talks about economic relief he might be providing to Americans. What did he say?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. He's planning to announce some emergency steps to help workers who have gotten sick or needed to be quarantined. He also said he would defer tax payments for individuals and businesses in certain impacted areas. And he's looking to provide an additional $50 billion to help with loans for small businesses. And he's calling on Congress to consider a payroll tax holiday.

GREENE: Is Congress likely to go for these kinds of measures?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, members of Congress have spoken at least twice with the Treasury secretary. They've discussed the payroll tax opportunity and all their economic measures that would involve congressional assistance. The reality is the administration has really received little buy-in from Democrats and even some Senate Republicans.

You know, the big question is, how will the administration pay for something so expensive as the suspension of payroll taxes? And House Democrats - well, they introduced their own bill late last night to combat the economic impacts of the virus, and that could be voted on as early as today. It includes free coronavirus testing, paid emergency leave for workers and, really, help for states overburdened by Medicaid costs.

GREENE: Quite a moment for both the White House and Congress to figure out what to do here. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. So the president's ban on travel from Europe seemed to catch some European leaders by surprise. Many people across Europe are waking up to this news this morning.

GREENE: And let's get to some of that reaction. We have NPR's Rob Schmitz with us from Berlin. And, Rob, how has this news been landing there?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, not very well. You know, this impacts 26 European countries with hundreds of millions of people. And what we're hearing from officials here is that they were blindsided and a little baffled by this. European ambassadors to the U.S. are saying the White House gave them no warning about this action despite having been in contact in recent days. There is also a little confusion as to why President Trump has done this when the virus is already spreading among people in the United States. It just seems like it's too little too late. So there is a fair amount of surprise and confusion on this side of the Atlantic about this ban this morning.

GREENE: Well, in terms of the nuts and bolts here, I mean, what exactly does - do these restrictions mean for Europe?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, there are around 400 flights from Europe to the U.S. per day. So if you stretch that out for the length of this 30-day ban, there will be millions of passengers impacted by this. This will have an historic impact on transatlantic travel.

But, you know, this is also impacting the markets here in Europe. You know, Germany's DAX index has already fallen to its lowest level in five years due to this news. And it's very early in trading today.

GREENE: Well, can we focus a little bit on the country where you are? I mean, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70% of Germans are likely to get this virus if things keep going the way they are, but she didn't take actions. Like, she didn't ban sporting events.

SCHMITZ: Right.

GREENE: She didn't close schools. What does this tell us about her and Germany?

SCHMITZ: You know, Germany, of course, has a tragic history with putting too much power in one leader. And I think this tells us that Merkel has a lot of faith in how her government currently operates. You know, Germany is a federal republic where much of the decision-making powers in situations like this tend to happen on a local level.

Now, Merkel has been criticized for not issuing far-reaching mandates in the face of this crisis, and she addressed this criticism yesterday. Here's what she said.

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CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) German federalism works. It allows decisions to be made in a decentralized and targeted manner. And that's a good thing. But it also means that everybody at each level bears responsibility. On many matters, the federal government cannot issue orders or ban something; it can only make recommendations. And we work very well like that.

SCHMITZ: And, David, her health minister was sitting right beside her, and he added that he keeps reading about how it would be better if Germany acted more like China and issued orders from the central government with a heavy hand, but he said he'd like to think that each German citizen is able to show that they can act responsibly of their own record and would expect that in a pluralistic and democratic society.

GREENE: OK, so largely relying on individuals, local governments to make the right decisions. Is the German government doing anything right now?

SCHMITZ: Well, critics would say they're not, especially when compared with Italy and, of course, China. Merkel's government has focused, though, on hospitals. You know, the country is second only to the U.S. worldwide in how many intensive care beds it has per capita. It's spending more than a billion dollars to try and secure more of them.

Merkel's government is also spending its budget surplus from last year to help companies deal with the impact of this. On a city level, local stakeholders are doing a lot more. Berlin, where I am, has banned big gatherings, theaters, concert venues. And the Bundesliga, Germany's national soccer league, played its first game ever last night to an empty stadium.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Rob, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

GREENE: All right. And speaking of, you know, that empty stadium in Germany, more news from the sports world last night. The NBA has now suspended its season because of coronavirus.

MARTIN: Right. So this decision came after a Utah Jazz player preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. And that happened as some NBA games were already underway. Fans were in the stands. The whole thing was happening. Others were postponed last-minute before the opening tip.

GREENE: Yeah, this was amazing. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman was following all of this. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So talk us through the drama of last night, as Rachel was alluding to.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Drama, indeed. Utah All-Star center Rudy Gobert had been sick. He had symptoms that led to tests for influenza, strep throat, an upper respiratory infection. And those tests were negative. And as a precaution, he was tested for COVID-19. That came back positive. Now, according to The Athletic, he's feeling good. And even though he said he thought he could play last night before Utah's game against Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City - but the game, instead, was called off right before the opening tip right after his test result came back.

There was another game called off when it was learned that one of the refs had worked a Utah game recently, meaning, you know, potentially exposed to coronavirus. So soon after all this, the NBA said, that's it; we're suspending the season.

GREENE: Which is a bigger move than a lot of other organizations in the sports world. I mean, Rob mentioned that empty stadium that a team - teams were playing in in Germany. Why just suspend the entire season here? How's the NBA explaining this?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, good question (laughter). They're not yet. They haven't answered directly why they jumped from these games to suspending everything. But, you know, what we know, David, about the coronavirus spread person to person - it's people who are in close proximity to others. Basketball players, obviously, fit that description. And according to ESPN, 34 players shared the floor with Gobert since last Friday. So lots of questions and concerns about who came into contact and who might've gotten the virus as a result - not just the players, but, you know, all the people they might've been in contact with.

GREENE: Sure.

GOLDMAN: So you can see, obviously, this potentially mushrooms quickly. So the season is suspended. The NBA says it'll use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.

GREENE: How is the sports world responding to this?

GOLDMAN: Well, outside the NBA, we've heard from at least one professional sport - one other major pro sports league, the National Hockey League. And in a statement, the NHL said it's aware of the NBA's decision to indefinitely suspend its season. The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. And the NHL expects to have a further update Thursday - today.

But, you know, inside the NBA, the words you're hearing are stunned. Several people we heard quoted last night said this is surreal. It's like a movie. You know, this whole thing escalated so quickly in the past few days. First, you had a ban on media in locker rooms. Then it was a step beyond that - the possibility of not letting fans watch games in person. And, actually, the Golden State Warriors announced yesterday they were going to do that in a game originally scheduled for tonight. And you even had some players who were joking about the coronavirus concerns. Rudy Gobert, in fact, finished a news conference this week - couple days ago - by touching all the reporters' microphones, what he thought in jest, before leaving the room.

GREENE: It's a sign of how things we don't even think about could cause real problems. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman on the NBA's decision to suspend its season over coronavirus. Tom, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.