Washington | Donald Trump’s promise to announce “major” economic relief on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT) was delayed as he visited Capitol Hill to press reluctant Senate Republicans on a plan to support the economy.
“It was a great meeting,” he said, without providing any details. The President also urged Americans to stay calm, saying the coronavirus “will go away”.
Mr Trump further sought to diminish the health threat from the virus, saying: “Right now we’re at 26 deaths and if you look at the flu for this year we’re looking at 8000 deaths.” It’s the second time he’s made that direct comparison in the last few days.
“With all of that being said we’re taking this unbelievably seriously.”
Mr Trump said he himself has not been tested for the virus. “Spoke to the White House doctor… he said there’s no reason to. There are no symptoms.”
Delays in unveiling details of any potential stimulus plan sent Wall Street on another rollercoaster.
Initially rebounding in optimism from Monday’s 2000-point plunge, the biggest in history, the Dow Jones Industrial Average began the day up more than 3 per cent. The index was back into the red two hours later. Since then, it has mostly held in positive territory.
As of 2.20 pm New York time, the index was up 318 points or 1.3 per cent on the day.
The lack of an immediate fiscal breakthrough comes on an ongoing drumbeat of bad news about the corornavirus outbreak and signs the country could soon be facing more pronounced measures.
As many as 64,000 people could be infected in Washington state – the nation’s hardest hit region – within a few weeks if “we don’t somehow slow down this epidemic”, said governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday.
“We need to look foward and get ahead of the curve in Washington state,” he said. “We need to focus on what’s coming – not on what’s here today.
The state, which is one of several “mini Tuesday” primary states on Tuesday, may already have more than 1000 cases, the governor has said.
Across the country New York state governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced a 1-mile (1.6 kilometre) “containment” zone around a Westchester County suburb where a flood of infections have been reported. The National Guard will help with food distribution and cleaning.
Westchester County is home to about 1 million people; it is north of New York city to where many residents commute for work.
New York state now has 197 cases, 14 of which are in hospitals, the governor said. A total of 108 are in the New Rochelle, the suburb now under lockdown.
As officials scramble to track infections, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Robert Redfield told reporters that the country is now “in a containment, blended mitigation” phase.
“In some ares we’re in high mitigation.”
Mr Redfield also confirmed the US healthcare system could struggle with a full-blown outbreak, with hospitals already at 95 per cent capacity or higher because of a late flu season.
“We really don’t have a lot of resilience in the capacity of our health-care system,” he said on Tuesday.
The bleak assessment comes amid ongoing mixed signals from the administration about its fiscal plan and Democratic opposition to a package that only supports corporate America.
Mr Trump, who alongside Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economics adviser Larry Kudlow headed to Congress for a lunch with Senate Republicans.
Earlier in the day, the President said there would be support for the hotel, airline and cruise industries, but gave no details.
“We are working very, very closely with the cruise industry,” he said, and added the airline industry could also get some help. “We’ll be helping through this patch.”
Hopes of payroll-tax cut relief were hit after Democrats – who control the House of Representatives and will need to support any package – questioned why the administration wasn’t targeting measures at hard-hit households.
“The administration seems to believe that the answer to any problem is another tax cut,” said Democrat Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.
Investors are bracing for a potentially protracted period of political wrangling before a clear plan is unveiled to support the world’s biggest economy.
“A decisive and coordinated policy action is key to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak,” said BlackRock chief investment strategist Mike Pyle.
While monetary policy will help, it is effectiveness is “diminished” and there will need to be explicitly fiscal policy as part of the emergency support, he said.
“US officials are likely to take up greater fiscal action if events warrant it – beyond the $US8.3 billion ($12.8 billion) in emergency spending approved last week – even in an election year with a divided government.”
Mr Trump is expected to hold a press conference at the White House later in the day, Washington time.
As the country waits, shut downs continue to be announced by institutions, businesses and schools.
Harvard University told its students to leave their campus dorms by Sunday and were told not to return after spring break. Classes are being moved online.