California officials are calling for the cancellation of all gatherings with 250 or more people to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a decision that came hours after a new federal travel ban and the suspension of the NBA season.
The recommendations have the potential to touch virtually all corners of social life across the state: community meetings, sports events and school theater performances.
The move comes as President Trump suspended travel from Europe as the novel coronavirus continued its spread across the globe Wednesday, claiming its first life in Los Angeles County and causing the World Health Organization to refer to the outbreak for the first time as a pandemic.
The new policy from California Department of Public Health, which will be in effect at least through March, marks the first time the state has issued a request for all residents across California to adopt so-called “social distancing” measures and represents a new sense of urgency in the administration’s approach to fighting the virus in a state with 177 confirmed cases.
“Changing our actions for a short period of time will save the life of one or more people you know,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “That’s the choice before us. Each of us has extraordinary power to slow the spread of this disease. Not holding that concert or community event can have cascading effects — saving dozens of lives and preserving critical healthcare resources that your family may need a month from now. The people in our lives who are most at risk — seniors and those with underlying health conditions — are depending on all of us to make the right choice.”
And in an announcement that brought the spreading public health crisis to Hollywood, Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, said they have tested positive for the virus.
“Hello, folks,” Hanks said in a statement. “Rita and I are down here in Australia. We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the coronavirus and were found to be positive.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco and Seattle announced bans on large gatherings, and a growing number of universities moved to hold classes online. In a sign of how surreal the disruption of American life looks to become, NCAA tournament games for men’s and women’s basketball will be played in empty arenas.
“This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”
In a televised address to the nation Wednesday night, Trump imposed stringent new restrictions, barring foreign nationals traveling from Europe from entering the country for 30 days, beginning Friday. The ban does not include the United Kingdom and does not affect travel by U.S. citizens, permanent residents or immediate family members of U.S. citizens.
It applies to any foreign national who has been in Europe during the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival in the U.S.
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions” as the United States did in barring travel from China, he said, claiming that U.S. clusters of the disease were “seeded by travelers from Europe.”
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Trump said he is instructing the Small Business Administration to provide new low-interest loans for some businesses hurt by the outbreak and asked Congress to approve $50 billion in additional funding for that purpose. And he asked Congress again to approve payroll tax relief, a proposal that neither party on Capitol Hill has favored.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said. “I am confident by continuing to take these tough measures we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens, and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus.”
The NBA’s announcement came after a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. In a bizarre scene, the game in Oklahoma City between the Thunder and the Jazz was delayed seconds before tipoff and canceled minutes later.
“The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19,” the league said in a statement. “The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of tonight’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, tonight’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.”
Meanwhile, L.A. County health officials continued to urge people — particularly elderly residents, pregnant women and those with underlying health problems — to be cautious in large crowds or avoid them altogether, but they said the number of cases did not yet warrant closing schools or stadiums.
“We will get to a point, unfortunately, here in L.A. County, where we will be asking for events to close,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “But we’re not there yet.”
The person who died was a woman older than 60 who had underlying health conditions and was visiting Los Angeles County after extensive travel over the last month, including a long layover in South Korea.
“Shortly after being hospitalized, she unfortunately passed,” Ferrer said.
Nine new cases confirmed Wednesday brought the total to 29 in the county, officials reported — a reflection of the minimal amount of testing conducted so far. Ferrer added that one of the new cases came from community spread and that the contagion is not just in a few pockets but “scattered throughout the entire county.”
“If you are a person who is older and you have underlying health conditions or you have a serious immunocompromised system, or you are a pregnant woman or you are just aging, this is the time to avoid all nonessential travel, this is the time to stop going to events where there are large groups of people gathering, this is the time to stop going to the theater or concerts or sporting events,” Ferrer said.
Newsom said Tuesday that thousands of California residents may have been exposed to the virus. The United States has surpassed 1,300 coronavirus cases, with most in Washington state, New York and California, where the Department of Public Health reported a total of 177 positive cases.
On Wednesday, officials continued to allow passengers to leave the Grand Princess cruise ship, on which at least 21 people tested positive for the coronavirus. By Tuesday evening, 1,452 had been transferred to be quarantined at Air Force bases or flown to their home countries. On Wednesday, officials announced that 120 people showing signs of illness would be quarantined separately at an otherwise empty hotel in San Pablo.
The mounting side effects of the virus could be seen across the country: empty subway cars, quiet streets, a rodeo canceled in Houston, tours of the Capitol stopped in Washington, and the Dow Jones industrial average having entered bear territory after an 11-year bull market.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee banned events involving any gathering of more than 250 people in the Seattle metro area — be it Sunday church, a wedding, a concert or a political fundraiser. It does not extend to airports, grocery stores or transportation systems such as buses and ferries.
The big conundrum public officials are facing is whether to close school systems.
Seattle announced plans to shut its public schools for two weeks starting Thursday.
But Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties are holding off such closures, at least for now.
“In children, the illness has been very mild,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, health officer for San Francisco, adding that they are either showing no signs of physical illness or experiencing mild flu-like symptoms.
In a study of nearly 45,000 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases, no one under the age of 10 has died of the virus.
Colfax and other health experts raise the possibility that closing schools could actually cause more deaths, as a number of those children stay home with elderly caretakers who are much more likely to succumb to the disease.
Santa Clara County, which has the state’s largest outbreak with 48 confirmed cases, is keeping its schools open for now. But others are closing. In the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, public schools were closed after two family members of students at several campuses tested positive for the coronavirus.
Sacramento County health officials announced Tuesday that a resident at an Elk Grove senior-living facility became the county’s first fatality from COVID-19.
The woman, 90, was among about 140 patients at the facility.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, Sacramento County’s health director, said other residents of the Elk Grove facility are now subject to special protective measures, including having meals delivered to rooms and not being allowed to congregate in communal areas.
He said the county was changing its goal from trying to keep the virus contained to simply slowing its spread.
That is the approach of the World Health Organization as well.
“Even those countries with community transmission or larger clusters can turn the tide on this virus,” said Tedros, the director-general of WHO.
He said his agency’s calling the disease a pandemic — a word many experts have been using for weeks — doesn’t change the need for more aggressive government responses.
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Tedros said.
The coronavirus outbreak has now sickened at least 126,000 people on six continents and caused more than 4,600 deaths.
The objective now is to spread out the inevitable infections so that the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed with patients.
Public health officials have a name for this: flattening the curve.
Left alone, the virus would race through the population, and the number of cases would shoot skyward and then fall, resembling the shape of a mountain peak. But with containment measures, the curve can be squashed into a wide hill.
The outbreak would take longer to run its course. But if the strategy works, the number of people who are sick at any given time will be greatly reduced.
Ideally, it would fall below the threshold that would swamp hospitals, urgent care clinics and medical offices. That’s why public health officials will continue the labor-intensive work of recording and tracking new infections, ensuring that infected individuals stay home and guarding the borders against the arrival of new cases.
At the same time, they’ll expand their mitigation efforts, such as canceling events and encouraging people to work from home. Many universities are moving their classes online; on Wednesday, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State L.A., Pepperdine and Chapman universities announced such measures.
In some ways, mitigation is just containment on a larger scale. Instead of focusing on a single infected individual, officials target clusters of infected people.
Buildings, city blocks or whole neighborhoods might be identified as infected, then walled off. That’s why New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dispatched the National Guard to suburban New Rochelle to enforce a “containment zone” around a community with more than 100 infected residents.
Even when infections are unavoidable, pushing them into the future will increase the chances that a treatment will be available by the time a patient needs it. Some might even benefit from a coronavirus vaccine, though that is nearly a year away at best.
“What we have to do right now is to put a lid on this epidemic, to flatten the curve of infection and buy ourselves some time to get a vaccine,” said Georgetown University’s Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health law. “We are going to have to think about bringing all the interventions we have up to scale.”
Times staff writers Ron-Gong Lin II, Josh Rottenberg, Dan Woike and Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.