Millions of Americans began their work week holed up at home Monday against the coronavirus outside their doors, as the escalating outbreak shifted the nation’s daily routines in ways never before seen in U.S. history.
As wide swaths of the economy began shuddering to a halt, the financial markets opened with stocks dropping on Wall Street by nearly 10 percent, triggering an automatic 15-minute halt to trading. That came despite emergency Federal Reserve action late Sunday that cut the key interest rate to near zero.
The best-case scenario for many investors now is that the economic shock will be steep but short, with growth recovering later this year as stores and businesses open back up. Pessimists, though, are preparing for a longer haul.
The U.S. surgeon general, meanwhile, said the number of coronavirus cases in the United States has reached the level that disease-battered Italy recorded two weeks ago — a signal that infections are expected to rise in America.
“We are at a critical inflection point in this country, people,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told Fox News. “When you look at the projections, there’s every chance that we could be Italy.”
Two weeks ago, there were 1,700 cases of coronavirus in Italy and the country had reported 34 deaths. Now, Italy is reporting an estimated 25,000 cases and more than 1,800 people have died.
The U.S. has recorded about 3,800 infections and at least 65 deaths, two-thirds of them in hard-hit Washington state.
The first participant in a clinical trial for a vaccine to protect against the virus was set to receive an experimental dose at a research institute in Washington state. Public officials cautioned, however, that it will still take from a year to 18 months to fully test and approve any potential vaccine
The wheels of justice slowed too, as the U.S. Supreme Court put oral arguments on hold, including fights over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records.
Over the weekend, governors and mayors closed restaurants, bars, and schools as the nation sank deeper into crisis.. Travelers returning home from abroad were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have urged people to avoid.
Around the country, people rushed to make arrangements to work from home or tried to figure out how to entertain themselves now that nearly all social gatherings have been banned, canceled or strongly discouraged. Some people planned to binge-watch TV, catch up on chores such as cleaning out the basement, exercise at home instead of the gym, do more cooking or read more.
“We’re catching up on our reading. I just started `Love in the Time of Cholera.′ It seemed appropriate,” said Beverly Pfeiffer in Silver Spring, Maryland, of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic.
Trump sought to calm a jittery nation by declaring the government has “tremendous control” over the situation and urging people to stop the panic-buying of grocery staples that has depleted store shelves nationwide. Gun stores started seeing a similar run on weapons and ammunition as the fear intensified.
As Americans struggled with changing their daily habits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dramatic recommendation: Because large events can fuel the spread of the disease, it said gatherings of 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed throughout the country for the next eight weeks. It added that, at any event, people should take proper precautions, including handwashing and keeping one’s distance.
But in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the CDC statement also said the recommendation does not apply to “the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.”
Even before the warning, parts of the country already look like ghost towns, and others are about to follow as theme parks closed, beaches shooed away spring breakers and states and large cities ordered bars and restaurants shuttered.
“The time for persuasion and public appeals is over,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “This is not a joke. No one is immune to this.”
New York City said eateries could only accept takeout and delivery orders. Mayor Bill de Blasio also ordered nightclubs, movie theaters and other entertainment venues closed.
“These places are part of the heart and soul of our city. They are part of what it means to be a New Yorker,” he said in a statement Sunday night. “But our city is facing an unprecedented threat, and we must respond with a wartime mentality.”
His decision came after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious-disease expert, said he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown imposed to prevent the virus’s spread.
“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” said Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
There was no indication Trump is considering such a move.
The worldwide outbreak has sickened nearly 170,000 people and left more than 6,500 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day.