WASHINGTON – Almost half the US population on Monday was living in states or cities that have decreed lockdowns or quarantines over the coronavirus, while the Federal Reserve announced extraordinary measures to protect the US economy and the Senate remained mired in a tense debate over how to invest almost $2 trillion in economic stimulus funds.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has been giving signs of impatience with the plunging markets and suggesting that he could rethink or roll back his recommendation that the public take measures to socially distance themselves from others.
Six states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia – on Monday joined the other eight that in recent days have ordered their citizens to remain in their homes, except for vitally necessary trips, measures that are affecting about 137 million people, almost 42 percent of the population.
That percentage would rise to 46 percent if one includes the more than five million residents in the areas that have ordered local lockdowns, including Dallas County in Texas and the city of Philadelphia, as well as St. Louis and Kansas City in Missouri.
Not all the quarantines have gone into effect yet and some of the most recent moves in that direction will not begin until Tuesday or Wednesday to give people time to prepare for their period of confinement.
The measures coincide with an acceleration in the spread of coronavirus cases in the US, where more than 33,000 people have tested positive for the virus and at least 500 have died.
“I want America to understand: This week it’s going to get bad,” US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on the NBC television network on Monday morning, adding: “Right now there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”
Meanwhile, the US Federal Reserve said Monday that it will purchase Treasury bills and mortgage-backed securities “in the amounts needed to support smooth market functioning and effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions” amid the strains caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Known as quantitative easing (QE), asset purchases by central banks were a major part of the response to the global financial meltdown in 2008, but the move was interpreted by the markets as a sign that Fed officials consider the current economic crisis to be worse than the 2008 recession and want to prevent it from morphing into a depression.
“The Federal Reserve is committed to use its full range of tools to support the US economy in this challenging time and thereby promote its maximum employment and price stability goals,” the Fed Board of Governors said in a statement.
The signs of alarm over the economy have begun to make a decisive impression on the White House and Trump suggested on Monday that he may well be planning to eliminate or mitigate his recommendation that Americans avoid as much social contact as possible.
“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!” tweeted Trump just before midnight on Sunday, repeating word for word the message that Fox News present Steve Hilton had broadcast two hours earlier, Hilton’s program being one of the president’s favorites and one which often appears to influence his policy decisions.
Trump said that he will decide if a course change must be made once the 15-day period affected by his recommendation – that is, through March 30 – ends.
The president’s main economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said during an interview with Fox News that “difficult trade-offs” will have to be made in terms of the measures being taken to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has been killing about 2 percent of the people it infects.
Although the US government model provides considerable flexibility to states to impose their own regulations, a shift in the White House stance could cause a noteworthy slowdown in the response to the coronavirus and create a scenario in which some areas impose severe measures while others barely do anything.
In the Senate, Democrats blocked the second attempt by the Republican majority to bring to a vote a stimulus package totaling almost $2 trillion to alleviate the effect of the coronavirus on the economy, arguing that the plan focuses too much on helping big companies and not enough on helping workers.
Saying that “The markets are tanking once again because this body can’t get its act together. This has to stop,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained about the Democrats’ strategy shortly before a procedural vote on the bill failed when it obtained just 49 of the 60 votes it needed to pass.
Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer said he was certain that lawmakers could come to an agreement to modify the stimulus package on Monday after spending several hours negotiating potential changes with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
At the daily White House coronavirus briefing on Monday, Trump said he hopes to reassess the administration’s instructions for people to remain at home
“We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem. At the end of the 15-day period, we’ll make a decision as to which way we want to go,” Trump said, adding that he hopes the US will soon be “open for business.”
“We’re referring to the timing of the opening, essentially, the opening of our country. Because we have it pretty well shut-down in order to get rid of this invisible enemy,” the president said.