What to Know in Washington: A ‘Spike’ in Virus Cases is Expected

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Expanding testing for the Covid-19 virus in the U.S. will result in a “spike in the curve” over the next week as more cases are uncovered, a top White House aide said yesterday.

“For those of you who watched China, and China reporting, remember when they changed their definition and all of a sudden there was a blip in their curve? We are going to see that,” Dr. Deborah Birx, virus response coordinator, said yesterday at a briefing by the White House coronavirus task force.

“We are going to see a spike as more and more people have access” to the tests, Birx said.

There have been 3,365 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Sunday evening, with 64 deaths. Cases of the highly-infectious virus are now present in every U.S. state except West Virginia. New York, Washington, California and Massachusetts have been some of the hot spots.

At least ten states now have the availability of drive-by testing for the coronavirus as tests ramp up nationwide after a slow start, said Vice President Mike Pence. Pence, head of the task force, Birx, and other officials including Trump, spoke at yesterday’s briefing. Read more from Justin Sink and Anna Waters.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve slashed rates to near zero and the Bank of Japan strengthened stimulus as central banks moved to blunt the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Airlines cut flights and a consultant warned many could go bankrupt by May.

The World Health Organization warned that Europe is reporting more new cases each day than China did at its peak and countries all over the continent are in lockdown. Cases also soared in the U.S. and Goldman Sachs Group predicted the country’s economy would shrink 5% in the second quarter. New York City and Los Angeles limited restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery service. Bloomberg is tracking the latest developments here.

Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Bloomberg
Trump and members of the Coronavirus Task Force held a briefing Sunday.

Lawmakers Work on Virus Response

The Senate this week will consider an economic relief plan to deal with the spreading coronavirus backed by Trump .

The House-passed package includes free testing for everyone who needs it, and two weeks of paid sick leave to allow people with the virus to stay home from work and avoid infecting co-workers. It also includes enhanced jobless benefits, increased food aid for children, senior citizens and food banks, and higher funding for Medicaid benefits.

Read more: BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 6201, Coronavirus Aid Deal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that while the Senate works on the House bill, her chamber’s leaders will begin working on an additional emergency response measure, Billy House, Laura Litvan and Steven T. Dennis report.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement shortly after Saturday’s vote that the Senate “will need to carefully review” the House measure. “But I believe the vast majority of senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses,” he said.

McConnell in a statement last night also said more work would likely be needed, and that he has talked to Senate committee heads about next steps. “Senate Republicans feel strongly that this bill must only be the beginning of Congress’s efforts to support our nation’s economy and stand with American families,” he said in a statement last night.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on the U.S. response to the outbreak with Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute Of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA; Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Prevention Efforts

CDC Urges Against Mass Gatherings: In the most extreme effort yet to slow the march of coronavirus in the U.S., the CDC recommended that events of 50 people or more not be held for about two months. For the next eight weeks, organizers should cancel or postpone in-person events of that size throughout the U.S., the agency said on its website yesterday. When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual. “This recommendation is made in an attempt to reduce introduction of the virus into new communities and to slow the spread of infection in communities already affected by the virus,” the CDC said. Read more from Ros Krasny and Kasia Klimasinska.

The National Security Council, in a Twitter post on a verified account, said text message rumors of a national quarantine “are fake,” adding there’s “no national lockdown.”

Mass General Chief Calls for ‘War-Like Stance’: Hospitals across the U.S. are preparing for a surge in patients seeking help as testing for the novel coronavirus becomes more prevalent, revealing the extent of Covid-19’s spread. One leading doctor called for a war-like footing to ensure resources are properly assigned. “We need to think about this in almost like a war-like stance,” Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He called for the federal government to engage in a Manhattan Project-type effort to spur the health care industry to create more surgical masks, eye protection and gowns. Read more from Susan Decker and Tom Schoenberg.

White House Urges Telework for Federal Workers: The White House is asking all federal agencies to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” to their employees in the Washington area, citing concerns about the coronavirus. “The Administration wants to ensure that department and agency leaders assertively safeguard the health and safety of their workforce while remaining open to serve the American people and conduct mission critical functions,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a memo to department heads and agencies last night. Ari Natter has more.

Chaos at Airports From New Screening: Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was among those overwhelmed over the weekend with passengers, including many returning from Europe, who faced new screening measures hastily announced last week by the White House. The throngs of anxious travelers were a stark contrast to the increasingly loud calls for people to practice “social distancing” as a way to get ahead of the spread of the coronavirus and buy time for fragile health care systems.

As pictures of crowds and horror stories from travelers were shared on social media, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) accused the White House of failing to prepare for the fallout from Trump’s new travel restrictions. Trump tweeted that the medical screenings at airports were “very precise” and moving as quickly as possible. A White House official said the administration was actively working with Pritzker’s office. Read more form Dana Hull and Tom Schoenberg.

Closures Mark America’s Big Shutdown: The biggest school system in the U.S. is closing. California is confining the elderly to their homes. Bars, restaurants, resorts and several retail chains are closing shop. Wide swaths of the American economy are entering suspended animation to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said the city’s public schools — encompassing some 1.1 million students — will close until at least April 20. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called for all of the state’s bars and wineries to close and for restaurants to cut capacity by half, while advising the state’s 5.3 million citizens above 65 to isolate themselves in their homes. Anders Melin has the latest.

Fed’s Economic Response

Fed Slashes Rates to Near Zero: The Federal Reserve swept into action yesterday to save the U.S. economy from the fallout of the coronavirus, slashing its benchmark interest rate by a full percentage point to near zero and promising to boost its bond holdings by at least $700 billion. In remarks underlining the sense of urgency, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told a hastily assembled press briefing by telephone that the disruption to lives and businesses meant second quarter U.S. growth would probably be weak and it was hard to know how long the effects would last. That left a clear role for fiscal policy to help cushion the blow.

“The thing that fiscal policy, and really only fiscal policy can do, is reach out directly to affected industries, affected workers, and we’ve seen some of that so that’s an important job,” he said. “We do know that the virus will run its course and that the U.S. economy will resume a normal level of activity. In the meantime, the Fed will continue to use our tools to support the flow of credit.” Read more from Craig Torres and Rich Miller.

Treasury SecretarySteven Mnuchin said he doesn’t expect the coronavirus to tip the U.S. economy into recession, even though growth will inevitably slow as many businesses shut down operations for a time. Mnuchin also said yesterday he wants to reinstate certain powers used during the 2008 financial crisis to help buttress the economy from the economic shock now on the way. “Later in the year, obviously the economic activity will pick up as we confront this virus,” Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week,” one of two interviews on Sunday-morning talk shows. Read more from Ros Krasny and Susan Decker.

What Central Banks Did in Past 24 Hours: The U.S. Federal Reserve began the week early, launching a series of stimulus measures, and it wasn’t alone as counterparts across the Asia-Pacific region joined in. Simon Kennedy offers a rundown of what monetary policy makers did or said over the past 24 hours.

Fear G-7 Cannot Match Past Crisis Responses: Trump, as the host of the Group of Seven, was nudged by European leaders into holding an emergency conference call to tackle the spiraling threat of the coronavirus. That does not bode well for the outcome today during trading hours.

Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, who helped orchestrate a pressure campaign behind the scenes last week, is not feeling optimistic about the call at noon Washington time, according to a German official. She was liaising with French President Emmanuel Macron before he spoke to Trump on Friday afternoon and persuaded him to organize the talks. They are already feeling bruised after Trump closed U.S. airports to flights from Europe without consulting them. Now they seek a commitment that it won’t happen again and a plan to coordinate on economic stimulus, officials said. Read more from Ben Sills, Arne Delfs and Jenny Leonard.

U.S. to Start Buying Oil: The U.S. is preparing to start buying as much as 77 million barrels of oil for its emergency stockpiles within the next two weeks, an effort by Trump to support the domestic industry and boost reserves at cheap prices. Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Stephen Cunningham and Ari Natter have more.

Grocery Group Seeks Federal Aid: A group representing U.S. consumer goods manufacturers called for federal aid to help avoid supply disruptions as customers emptied shelves on fears of the spreading coronavirus. The Consumer Brands Association, an industry trade group, asked for emergency federal funding to help mitigate any supply chain problems and manage input shortages. The group released a letter to Trump after he convened a conference call yesterday with U.S. grocery executives.

Trump later asked Americans to cut back on purchases of groceries and essential goods that are straining the system. Major cities across the U.S. have seen shelves emptied of products like canned soup and toilet paper as authorities call for citizens to stay home as much as possible to reduce the virus’s spread. Read more from Mike Dorning.

Politics & Elections

Biden, Sanders Vow to Fight Coronavirus in Debate: Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sparred over whether Medicare for All would ease the impact of the coronavirus crisis in their first one-on-one debate, a testy face-off that showed Sanders wasn’t ready to concede the nomination to Biden despite an all-but-insurmountable delegate lead.

The debate, sponsored by CNN and Univision, opened and closed with the coronavirus. Sanders has been using the attention on the virus to insist that his signature policy proposal, Medicare for All, would ease some of the financial impact of the virus on people who lack health insurance. “We are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people,” Sanders said. He said all Americans should be able to get treatment when they are sick regardless of their income.

Biden pushed back against the idea of Medicare for All as the solution, saying Italy has a similar system and it has not stopped the crisis there. “You have a single payer system in Italy,” he said. “It doesn’t work there. It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all.” Read more from Jennifer Epstein and Tyler Pager.

Biden Vows to Pick a Woman to Be His Vice President: Biden committed to choosing a woman to be his vice president if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, though Sanders didn’t make as firm a promise to do so during the debate, Emma Kinery reports. “I commit that I will, in fact, pick a woman to be vice president,” Biden said. “There are a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”

The pledge came after a voter asked via video what the candidates would do to ensure that women are represented in their administration. Sanders didn’t commit to having a female vice president, but said “in all likelihood” he would.

Biden Adopts Free Public College Plan: Biden is adopting a version of tuition-free college in an effort to reach out to Sanders’s young supporters as the former vice president attempts to unite the two wings of the Democratic Party around him, his campaign said. Biden now supports making public college and university tuition free for all students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, his campaign said yesterday. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

How Biden Came Back: Biden is now on a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination, and if tomorrow’s four primaries go as planned, that means he’ll lock it up by late April. Just three weeks ago, it looked like his campaign would end painfully, just like the two times he’d run before. Jennifer Epstein looks at Biden’s return to frontrunner status.

Biden Needs to Woo Skeptical Oil, Gas Workers: Biden’s chief claim to the Democratic nomination is that he can compete better in the Rust Belt states that Trump won in 2016 — places like Ohio and his native Pennsylvania, where he grew up in Scranton. But to win there, he’ll have to overcome his party’s baggage on energy. Many Rust Belt voters rely on oil and natural gas jobs and they’re wary of Democratic proposals, such as the “Green New Deal,” that push for “net-zero emissions” and would effectively put coal and other fossil fuels out of business. The party has also taken aim at fracking, which has become the lifeblood of many previously down-and-out rural communities in those states. Read more from Ari Natter.

Biden Leads Sanders in Arizona Poll: A poll released today shows Biden with a 20-point lead over Sanders in Arizona, a state where the Vermont senator hopes to do well in a primary tomorrow thanks to his support among a large Hispanic population. Sanders beats Biden 48% to 41% among the state’s Latinos in the Monmouth University poll. But Biden is well ahead among all likely Democratic primary voters, with 51% support compared with 31% for Sanders. Read more from Emma Kinery.

(Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Joe Biden on March 4.)

Ohio, Illinois Governors Say Primaries Still On: Ohio and Illinois will move forward with their Democrat primaries this week, even as a response aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus widens nationwide, the states governors said. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said voting will go ahead as planned despite other restrictions such as school closures imposed on their residents, Tom Schoenberg reports.

Louisiana and Georgia have delayed upcoming Democratic primaries to June and May, respectively, Anita Sharpe and Gregory Korte report.

What Else to Know

House Passes Chemical Facility Program Extension: Lawmakers early Saturday morning passed legislation that would extend the Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program. The program expires in April. The measure, passed by unanimous consent, would extend it for 18 months. The bill now heads to the Senate. For more, read earlier coverage of the bill from Fatima Hussein.

Food-Stamp Cuts Blocked: A federal judge in Washington put off much of the Trump administration’s effort to make it harder for poor Americans to get food assistance, in a blistering ruling that not only criticized the White House but chided other courts for having too often “rolled over” to the president’s demands. In an 84-page ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell issued a nationwide injunction that blocks two of the three changes the White House had made to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. “As a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Howell said. Read more from Robert Burnson.

Trump Victory Over Congressional Oversight in Doubt: A federal appeals court set aside and will review a legal victory for Trump last month that called congressional oversight of the White House into question. The court in Washington said Friday it would have a larger panel of judges rehear a Feb. 28 decision dismissing a House lawsuit seeking the testimony of former White House Counsel Don McGahn. The court said in the prior ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to decide a dispute between the executive and legislative branches. The rehearing is scheduled for April 28. Friday’s order suggests that the court’s full bench was unsettled by the earlier ruling. Read more from Erik Larson.

USAID Administrator Plans to Depart: Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development since August 2017, plans to leave his post soon, said a person familiar with the matter. The White House is compiling a list of possible alternatives to serve as acting head of the agency, the person said. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Politico first reported Green’s plan to depart, saying he’s expected to be named as president of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a Washington-based think tank. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Nick Wadhams.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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