By Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Monday said he will be taking “major” steps to gird the economy against the impact of the spreading coronavirus outbreak and will discuss a payroll tax cut with congressional Republicans on Tuesday.
“We’ll be discussing a possible payroll tax cut or relief, substantial relief, very substantial relief, that’s a big number,” Trump told reporters.
He did not provide details but said a news conference will be held on Tuesday.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the top two Democrats in Congress, told reporters that any payroll tax cut should be limited to those affected by the virus.
They also said they are crafting new legislation, on the heels of $8.3 billion coronavirus funding enacted last week, that might be ready to be introduced this week.
Among proposals that could be included are ensuring water supplies are maintained for people even if they cannot pay their bills as a result of the crisis, expanded unemployment insurance, medical leave and providing food for children who rely on school nutrition programs if schools are shut.
Vice President Mike Pence said the administration was consulting Congress on providing paid sick leave to workers, an idea that Democrats already have been trying to advance.
The stepped-up response to the coronavirus came as the number of confirmed cases in the United States hit 605, according to Johns Hopkins University. Three additional deaths in Washington state, according to officials, brought the total nationwide to 25.
Earlier Monday, Johns Hopkins said that worldwide, there are 113,584 cases, with 3,996 deaths, the majority in China.
The Trump administration moves came as stock markets plunged and top health officials urged some people to avoid cruise ships, air travel and big public gatherings.
The administration was planning to huddle in coming days with executives of the banking, hospital and health insurance industries.
While an across-the-board payroll tax cut has been under discussion, top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and others have advocated specific tax credits, loans or direct subsidies to certain industries or hard-hit areas.
A payroll tax cut could encourage consumer spending and help households that might otherwise struggle to make rent and mortgage payments on time or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the coronavirus outbreak.
‘BEYOND THE FACTS’
In Florida, state health officials said everyone returning from China, Iran, South Korea and Italy must isolate for 14 days while travelers from other countries affected by the outbreak should monitor their health.
Thirty-four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) infections of the respiratory illness COVID-19 that can lead to pneumonia. Louisiana had its first presumed coronavirus case, Governor John Bel Edwards announced on Monday.
As worries over the virus deepened, a wave of selling took over Wall Street. The Dow fell a record 2,000 points when trading opened and the S&P 500 posted its largest single-day percentage drop since December 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. A nearly 25% plunge in oil prices contributed to fears of a looming recession.
Trump, who often points to the stock market as a gauge of his economic record, criticized news media organizations’ coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and accused Democrats of hyping the situation “far beyond what the facts would warrant.”
The CDC advised colleges and universities to consider asking students studying abroad to return home and cancel or postpone upcoming travel.
Several U.S. universities were either moving to virtual instruction or considering the step and limiting gatherings on their campuses.
Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, and other health officials say older Americans, especially those with chronic medical concerns, should avoid big social gatherings, cruise ships and airline flights.
As leaders in the U.S. Congress reviewed potential plans for operating amid coronavirus, four Republican lawmakers – Senator Ted Cruz and Representatives Paul Gosar, Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz – announced that they would self-quarantine after coming in contact at a conservative political conference with an attendee who later tested positive for the virus.
Gaetz traveled with Trump aboard Air Force One on Monday.
Republican Representative Mark Meadows, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, will self-quarantine until Wednesday, a spokesman said.
Trump and Pence, who is heading the administration’s overall response to the crisis, also attended the conference. The White House said there was no indication either came into contact with the infected attendee.
The White House late Monday said that Trump had not received the coronavirus test. Pence said he has not been tested.
The coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China late last year, has spread to at least 105 countries and territories. Italy, which has the second-highest death toll, said it was extending to the rest of the country restrictions on movement imposed on much of its wealthy industrial north in an effort to contain the virus.
The hardest-hit place in the United States has been a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, and Washington state is considering mandatory measures such as banning large gatherings but not necessarily imposing massive quarantines.
The Life Care Center facility has accounted for most of the 18 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in Washington state. The three new deaths reported on Monday were all former residents of the facility.
In California, officials planned to offload 2,400 passengers on Monday and Tuesday from the Grand Princess cruise ship, which was barred from returning to San Francisco last week due to a coronavirus outbreak on board.
Most of the passengers will go into quarantine at military bases in the United States, with those requiring immediate medical attention heading to hospitals. The crew of 1,100 will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship, unless they are in need of acute care off the vessel.
California has more than 100 confirmed cases, while on the East Coast, cases in New York state rose to 142, up from 105 a day earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked employers in the nation’s most populous city to consider staggering workers’ start times to ease crowding on public transport and to allow more telecommuting where possible. De Blasio said there were 20 confirmed cases in the city as of Monday afternoon.
Graphic – Tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus: https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Alexander Alper; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Heather Timmons, Eric Beech, David Shepardson, Makini Brice, David Morgan and Susan Cornwell in Washington, Nathan Layne, Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Trevor Hunnicutt in Flint, Michigan; Writing by Paul Simao and Richard Cowan; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)