WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Saturday he might prohibit travel in and out of the New York area to limit the spread of the coronavirus from its U.S. epicenter, but the state’s governor dubbed the idea “anti-American” and said he would not cooperate.
As the U.S. death count crossed 2,000, doubling in three days, Trump said he might impose a quarantine on New York and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut to protect other states that have yet to bear the brunt.
“They’re having problems down in Florida. A lot of New Yorkers are going down. We don’t want that,” Trump told reporters.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said a travel ban would cause chaos.
“If you started walling off areas all across the country it would be totally bizarre, counter-productive, anti-American,” he said on CNN. “It makes absolutely no sense and I don’t think any serious governmental personality or professional would support it.”
Since the virus first appeared in the United States in late January, Trump has vacillated between playing down the risks of infection and urging Americans to take steps to slow its spread.
The United States now has more than 120,000 confirmed cases, the highest figure in the world.
Trump has also been reluctant to invoke emergency powers to order U.S. companies to produce much-needed medical supplies, despite the pleas of governors and hospital workers.
On Saturday, he appeared to soften his previous comments calling for the U.S. economy to be reopened by mid-April. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.
It was not clear whether Trump would be able to block road, air and sea travel out of a region that serves as the economic engine of the eastern United States, accounting for 10 percent of the population and 12 percent of GDP.
Some states have already imposed limits. New Yorkers arriving in Florida and Rhode Island face orders to self-isolate if they intend to stay, and the governors of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have asked visiting New Yorkers to voluntarily self-quarantine.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu on Saturday asked all visitors to his state who don’t come for work reasons to voluntarily self-quarantine.
New coronavirus cases in China leveled off after the government imposed a strict lockdown of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease.
The body count continues to climb in Italy, where authorities have blocked travel across the country and prevented people from leaving their houses for all but essential reasons.
The number of cases in the United States eclipsed those of China and Italy on Thursday.
Click here for a GRAPHIC on U.S. coronavirus cases
TOO LATE FOR A LOCKDOWN?
Trump said any New York-area lockdown would only apply to people leaving the region. It would not cover truckers making deliveries or driving through the area, he said.
U.S. law gives the president the authority to restrict travel between states, legal experts said. But he would not be able to enlist local police to set up checkpoints along state lines, and it would be difficult to determine who would be allowed to get through, said Louisiana State University law professor Edward Richards.
“The logistics of deciding who is an essential person or essential cargo could shut down the ability to transport essential personnel and supplies,” he said.
Even if it were possible, a New York-area lockdown might come too late for the rest of the country.
The number of coronavirus patients in California hospitals increased by more than one-third overnight, Governor Gavin Newsom said.
Officials in Louisiana, where Mardi Gras celebrations late last month in New Orleans fueled an outbreak, reported 17 additional deaths and 569 new cases on Saturday.
The disease has proven most fatal among the elderly, but Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said on Saturday that an infant had died in his state.
American healthcare workers are appealing for more protective gear and equipment as they face a surge of patients.
Doctors are also especially concerned about a shortage of ventilators, breathing machines needed for those suffering from COVID-19, the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
Hospitals have also sounded the alarm about scarcities of drugs, oxygen tanks and trained staff.
On Saturday, nurses protested outside the Jacobi Medical Center in New York, saying supervisors asked them to reuse their masks, putting their own health at risk.
One medical trainee at New York Presbyterian Hospital said they were given just one mask.
“It’s not the people who are making these decisions that go into the patients’ rooms,” said the trainee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Click here for a GRAPHIC tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus
Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Jonathan Stempel, and Gabriella Borter in New York; Joel Schectman, Andy Sullivan and Michelle Price in Washington; and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis
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