State and Local Officials Take a Harder Line on the Virus

Mar 17, 2020
1:50 PM

A man looks toward the skyline from Bernal Heights Hill in San Francisco, Monday, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


Nearly 7 million people in the San Francisco area were all but confined to their homes Tuesday, while Florida put a damper on spring break and St. Patrick’s Day by ordering the closing of all bars, as state and local officials took an increasingly hard line against the coronavirus.

Ohio canceled its presidential primary hours before the polls were to open, but three other states pressed ahead with their elections, recommending such precautions as putting tape on the floor to keep voters a safe distance apart.

On Wall Street, stocks bounced around in early trading, one day after the worst market loss since the Black Monday crash of 1987.

With the economy grinding to a halt, the White House proposed a roughly $850 billion rescue package —a sweeping stimulus not seen since the Great Recession of 2008— and called for its rapid approval.

It would provide relief for small businesses, $50 billion for the airline industry and a big tax cut for wage-earners, said two people familiar with the request who described it on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

“If we do this right, our country and the world, frankly, but our country can be rolling again pretty quickly,” President Donald Trump said.

Officials in six San Francisco Bay Area counties issued a “shelter-in-place” order that went into effect Tuesday, requiring most residents to stay inside and venture out only for food, medicine or exercise for three weeks—the most sweeping lockdown in the U.S. against the outbreak.

“It’s really a scary situation for us because if we don’t work, we don’t eat,” lamented Miguel Aguirre, a janitor at San Francisco’s Boys and Girls Club.

Coronavirus infections across the country reached approximately 5,200, and the death toll climbed to at least 97, with more than half of the dead from Washington state. Worldwide, more than 7,300 have died.

Over the past day, new and more urgent warnings have come from the White House, which has called on Americans not to gather in groups of more than 10 and advised older people to stay home.

Still, the response across states varied.

Tourists stand inside The Oculus at the World Trade Center transportation hub, Monday, March 16, 2020 in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

While beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast were still open, and at least one was full of spring breakers, Gov. Ron Desantis ordered all the state’s bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days and asked Florida’s university system to send students home for online instruction for the rest of the spring semester.

Desantis has said he would leave beach restrictions up to local authorities.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has left many decisions up to local governments. Unlike other governors of heavily populated states, Abbott has not made explicit calls for limiting mass gatherings.

“This is not a time to panic,” he said. “It’s not as if we have never been through this before. We’ve been through this many, many times.”

Election officials in Florida, Arizona and Illinois, all of them holding primaries, said they were taking precautions to make sure voters could safely cast their ballots. The immediate problem: Hundreds of poll workers dropped out, forcing state officials to scramble.

Medical personal prepare for the arrival of a patient at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing facility at a site in a parking lot, at Cape Cod Community College, in Barnstable, Mass., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“Please, please heed our call and volunteer,” said Marisel Hernandez, head of the election commission in Chicago. “Help us.”

Election officials in Illinois’ Cook County, home to Chicago, urged poll workers to use blue painter’s tape to mark the floor every 6 feet so voters could keep their distance while waiting in line.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans were holed up at home, many thrown out of work until further notice as offices, stores and other businesses shut down. School was canceled for tens of millions of students, forcing parents to scramble for child care or find ways to entertain their children.

The rapid work stoppage had Americans fretting about their jobs and their savings, threatened to overwhelm unemployment benefit programs, and heightened fears the country could plunge into a recession.

Most people who come down with the disease have relatively mild symptoms, but it can be deadly for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Most people infected with the virus recover in a matter of weeks.

People wear masks as they commute during rush hour on a subway, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Health officials say that “social distancing” —encouraging people to avoid close contact with others— is a key to slow the spread of the virus and keep U.S. hospitals from being overwhelmed with a sudden deluge of patients.

In Detroit, bus riders were stranded Tuesday after most drivers didn’t report to work, apparently concerned about the spread of the virus and confused as to whether Michigan’s new restrictions on gatherings included vehicles loaded with commuters.

The city canceled bus service shortly after 8 a.m. because of the shortage of drivers. Surprised riders waiting at stops across the city pulled out phones to try to get a lift from friends or family.

“Just now?” a maintenance man, Amadou Sanders, asked. “How am I going to get to work?”


Associated Press writers Ed White in Detroit, Angela Charlton in Paris; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Kelli Kennedy and Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Sophia Tareen and Tammy Webber in Chicago; John O’Connor in Springfield, Illinois; Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta; Julie Watson in San Diego and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.