CORONAVIRUS

Feds: Limit crowds to 50 to fight virus outbreak

Recommendation marks major escalation of nation's response

Employees stock products Sunday at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Omaha. Shoppers have been buying up extra quantities of produ
Employees stock products Sunday at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Omaha. Shoppers have been buying up extra quantities of products since the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

CHICAGO — Officials across the country curtailed many elements of American life Sunday to fight the coronavirus outbreak, with federal health officials recommending that groups of 50 or more don’t get together and a government expert saying a 14-day national shutdown may be needed.

Governors were closing restaurants, bars and schools as the nation sank deeper into chaos over the crisis. Travelers returning home from overseas trips were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, causing them to be crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have been urging people to avoid.

In a sign of impending economic gloom, the Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero. President Donald 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 shelves around the country. Gun stores started seeing a run on weapons and ammunition as panic intensified.

As Americans struggled to come to terms with how to change 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 for the next eight weeks. It added that, at any event, precautions should be taken including making sure people are washing their hands and not getting too close to each other.

But in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the statement from the CDC 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 looked like a ghost town, and others are about to follow as theme parks closed, Florida beaches shooed away spring breakers, Starbucks said it will accept only drive-thru and takeout orders and the governors of Ohio and Illinois ordered bars and restaurants shuttered.

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California’s governor asked the state’s bars and restaurants to do the same, but didn’t order it. New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere are considering it.

“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.”

His decision came hours after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, said he would like to see a 14-day national shutdown.

“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 is no indication, though, Trump is considering such a move.

The worldwide outbreak has sickened more than 162,000 people and left more than 6,000 dead, with thousands of new cases confirmed each day. The death toll in the United States climbed to 64, while infections passed 3,200.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lambasted the White House for allowing about 3,000 Americans returning from Europe to be stuck for hours Saturday inside the customs area at O’Hare International Airport, violating recommendations from the CDC that people use “social distancing.”

The passengers, many of them rushing home because of fears they would be stuck in Europe, were screened for coronavirus symptoms before they were allowed to leave the airport.

Long lines also formed in Boston, Dallas and others of the 13 airports that are accepting return flights from Europe.

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“People were forced into conditions that are against CDC guidance and are totally unacceptable,” Lightfoot said.

Elizabeth Pulvermacher, a University of Wisconsin student, arrived Saturday at O’Hare from Madrid, where she had been studying, and spent hours in line. The customs process made her feel “unsafe,” she said.

“The whole idea is getting rid of the spread of coronavirus.” she said, “ but there were hundreds and hundreds of people in very close proximity.”

The situation improved markedly Sunday at O’Hare and elsewhere. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said wait times are down to 30 minutes after processes have been adjusted to better handle the influx and extra personnel that are “funneling” passengers returning from overseas.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses or death.

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