U.S. travelers returning from Madrid are seen waiting to be...

U.S. travelers returning from Madrid are seen waiting to be screened for coronavirus Saturday at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Credit: Elizabeth Pulvermacher via AP

'Just relax'

As America faces ever-more-drastic measures to "flatten the curve" of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, President Donald Trump made a try at calming the nerves of the nation and the financial markets.

Before Vice President Mike Pence and his coronavirus task force took turns Sunday afternoon at the White House podium to deliver an update on the crisis, Trump walked in to hail the latest emergency actions by the Federal Reserve, including a stunning cut in interest rates to near zero. "I'm very happy … I think that people in the market should be very thrilled," Trump said.

The president assured Americans, after speaking with leading grocery chain executives, that grocers would remain open and that the supply chain remained healthy. “You don't have to buy so much," Trump said, alluding to the shelf-emptying runs on supermarkets around the country. "Take it easy. Just relax.” He acknowledged the virus that causes COVID-19 was “very contagious,” but “it’s something we have tremendous control of.”

Trump left the briefing room, and the officials remaining at the news conference made it clear that control was a goal, likely months from reality. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the U.S. is now at a “critical point” and the response will determine the “endpoint” of the outbreak.

“The worst is yet ahead for us,” Fauci said. “It is how we respond to that challenge that is going to determine what the ultimate endpoint is going to be.”

Earlier, making the round of the Sunday talk shows, Fauci warned, “People need to understand that things will get worse before they get better.” While not specifically endorsing ideas for a 14-day national shutdown, he said, "Americans should be prepared that they're going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing." For more from Fauci's appearances, see Scott Eidler's story for Newsday.

Pence said there were 2,900 confirmed coronavirus cases in 49 states, up from 2,200 on Saturday. The vice president said testing was becoming more widely available and that he and the president would brief the nation’s governors on Monday “specifically about our expanding testing to the American people.” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, predicted a spike in known cases as more people gain access to tests. To see Newsday's complete coronavirus coverage, click here.

A health debate with new urgency

At podiums 6 feet apart, with no live audience, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders met in a one-on-one debate Sunday night. The coronavirus threat provided a new and urgent context to the otherwise familiar argument between the two Democratic 2020 contenders over Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan versus Biden's push for universal coverage that keeps private health insurance.

After Sanders said the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak laid bare the weaknesses of the nation’s current health care system, Biden countered that Italy — where COVID-19 infections essentially quarantined the country and resulted in a frightful mortality rate — has a government-run health care system that "doesn't work there" during this epidemic.

Sanders ripped Trump's management of the crisis. “The first thing we’ve got to do, whether I’m president or not, is to shut this president up right now,” said Sanders, charging the president's rhetoric is “confusing the American people.” Biden spoke of measures to address the feared gap in handling a surge in serious cases, such as planning where to put temporary hospitals and stepping up drive-thru testing.

In normal times, the biggest news out of the debate would have been this: Biden pledged to name a woman as his running mate. Sanders said he would “in all likelihood” pick a woman but stopped short of an ironclad commitment. Biden also said he would name a black woman to the Supreme Court. For more, see takeaways from Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Janison: He alone couldn't tank this

Just as Trump may have grabbed excessive credit when the economy and stock market were going great guns, holding him alone to blame for the shocks of recent weeks might not be fair, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Many financial analysts see the markets as having been overpriced for years. Presidents can influence, but cannot dictate, market activity. No elected official created coronavirus, which cratered manufacturing in China before setting off the global sell-off.

But there are grounds to argue that Trump has made it worse. His prime-time address last week caused confusion because it was chock full of misleading details on the U.S. ban on travel from Europe and whether it would affect cargo. Those quickly got walked back.

There also was the lag in federal response that gave fodder to critics while Trump was blurting out blithe claims of getting the threat under control, falling numbers of cases, the availability of testing and the imminence of vaccines.

Worse than a middle seat

Trump's orders restricting travel from Europe had a disturbing side effect: Americans who rushed home were stuck in airport terminals in Chicago, Boston, Dallas and elsewhere for hours, many jammed shoulder to shoulder in violation of social-distancing guidelines, to await mandatory screening for coronavirus by federal customs and homeland security agents.

It didn't help that Trump's Wednesday night speech said "all travel" from Europe would be stopped. (Later it was clarified that Americans could still come back.) A health systems analyst who waited three hours at Dulles Airport outside Washington wrote in The Washington Post that many fellow passengers returning from abroad "were coughing, sneezing and looking unwell."

The crowding Saturday night at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport prompted Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to tweet: "The federal government needs to get its [expletive] together NOW." Pritzker said that in response, "I got a call at about 11 o'clock last night after that tweet from a White House staffer who yelled at me about the tweet."

In a tweet posted after midnight Sunday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the DHS was trying to add screening capacity and help airlines expedite the process.

Trump tweeted later Sunday: "We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!"

The mind wanders

Sitting atop a federal government managing a public health crisis of epic proportions didn't stop Trump on Sunday from tweeting about other stuff on his mind. A sampler:

He congratulated a right-wing legal group investigating Hillary Clinton's emails and Benghazi. He's "strongly considering a Full Pardon!" for convicted former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Why aren't "they" going after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for attacking the two Supreme Court justices Trump picked?


The virus visits Mar-a-Lago

At least four guests who were at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on the weekend of March 7-8 have tested positive for coronavirus, and others have put themselves into quarantine, The New York Times reported.

Trump was tested for the virus Friday night around the same time the White House said he wasn't being tested. The White House physician, Navy Cmdr. Sean P. Conley, announced on Saturday night that the president's test was negative.

One of the guests at a Trump meeting with GOP donors during the Mar-a-Lago visit relayed to The Washington Post what the president told them:

"They’re trying to scare everybody, from meetings, cancel the meetings, close the schools — you know, destroy the country. And that’s OK, as long as we can win the election. But I really believe that if they see that the Trump administration is handling this virus in a professional, competent way, I don’t believe that’s going to hurt us.”

Biden in the lead

Heading into Sunday's debate, Biden held a 2-1 lead over Sanders in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The survey found that 61% of Democratic voters support Biden to 32% for Sanders.

Looking to placate progressives who back Sanders or ex-candidate Elizabeth Warren, Biden said he'll support a policy to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students with family incomes under $125,000.

Biden also endorsed Warren's proposal to bolster bankruptcy protections for those struggling financially, including restoring some that were eliminated in a 2005 law that Biden championed when he was a senator from Delaware, home to a number of major credit card companies.

What else is happening:

  • A 53% majority of American voters say they’re worried that someone in their immediate family might catch COVID-19, and 6 in 10 believe the worst is yet to come, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. But Republicans express less worry than Democrats, and overall, 45% of voters approve of the president’s handling of the crisis while 51% disapprove.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the coronavirus pandemic was producing a "slowdown" in the American economy but that he did not expect a full-blown recession. "The real issue is what economic tools are we going to use to make sure we get through this. Because this is a unique situation," he said on ABC's "This Week."
  • Mnuchin was the administration's point man negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the coronavirus economic relief bill, which the House passed early Saturday. Pelosi and Trump essentially are not on speaking terms, but Pelosi respects Mnuchin's competence and no-drama style, The Washington Post reported. “We listen to each other," she said.
  • The White House has notified federal departments and agencies that only "mission-critical" travel is recommended for federal employees now because of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Georgia and Louisiana have postponed primaries that were scheduled for March 24 and April 4, respectively, because of coronavirus. Primaries for Tuesday are still on in Florida, Arizona, Illinois and Ohio. (See more from Newsday's Tom Brune.) New York officials are considering plans to postpone the state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 23, The New York Times reported.
  • Fauci said he's been trying to get Trump to stop give up handshakes for the duration. “I’m working on getting the boss to do this,” he said on ABC's "This Week," making an elbow-knocking motion. “I may not be successful, but we’re working on it.”
  • Trump tweeted a complaint that the "Fake News" hasn't covered his waiving of interest on student loans. Actually, it's been all over the place, like here, here and here. An important point: The monthly payments won't be reduced. What changed is that the entire payment will go toward paying down the principal amount on the loan.
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