PARIS, (AFP): Disneyland and Broadway are going dark, several European countries are shutting schools and stock markets cratered Thursday as fears over the spread of the coronavirus ricochet around the globe.
US President Donald Trump defended his shock decision to impose a 30-day ban on travel to the United States from mainland Europe, a move which sparked panic among travelers fearful of being stranded.
As the number of cases and fatalities surged in Europe, governments rolled out even tighter restrictions on travel and public gatherings, with sports and entertainment events cancelled around the world.
Europe’s epicenter Italy confirmed a grim milestone as its death toll passed 1,000, while neighboring France announced it would close all schools nationwide and urged people over the age of 70 to stay home.
Ireland, Belgium and Portugal also shut down schools as countries ramped up efforts to prevent a spread of the virus which has infected nearly 131,500 people in 116 countries and territories and caused 4,925 deaths, according to an AFP tally.
Four towns in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region were put under quarantine on Thursday, a first in the country.
The United States, with 1,300 cases and 38 deaths so far, was swept by a wave of cancellations and closures in sports and culture, including Broadway, the New York theater district which said it was bringing down the curtain until April 12.
Broadway fell victim to an announcement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that only schools, hospitals, nursing homes and mass transit would be allowed gatherings of more than 500 people.
New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art, which drew more than seven million visitors in 2019, also announced it was closing its doors.
California’s Disneyland, the world’s second-most visited theme park, said it will shut down on Saturday until at least the end of March.
Major League Baseball delayed the March 26 start of the season for at least two weeks and the National Hockey League suspended play indefinitely, a day after the National Basketball Association did the same.
Two Utah Jazz players have tested positive for COVID-19.
– ‘Peak’ –
The virus, which first emerged in China in December, has quickly spread around the world even as cases in Asia have leveled out in recent days.
China claimed “the peak” of the epidemic had passed its shores, but the number of infections and deaths jumped dramatically in Italy, Spain and Iran, which announced 75 new deaths on Thursday bringing the total to 429 with more than 10,000 infections.
Trump’s travel ban — which excluded Britain and Ireland — drew an angry response from EU chiefs who rebuked his “unilateral action” and called for cooperation to fight the pandemic.
Trump defended the move, saying “we had to move quickly” while conceding the measures would have a “a big impact” on the economy.
The US president also suggested delaying the Tokyo Olympics because of coronavirus, dropping a bombshell on his “good friend” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“Maybe they postpone it for a year,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, 19 weeks before the opening ceremony in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
Trump’s remarks came as news emerged that he met at the weekend with the Brazilian president’s communications chief, who has tested positive for the virus.
Stock markets nosedived on Thursday, with London, Paris and Frankfurt recording their worst day in decades as fears mounted of a global economic slowdown.
In New York, the Dow lost 10 percent, its worst session since 1987, while the S&P 500 plunged 9.5 percent and the Nasdaq shed 9.4 percent.
“Bottoming is a process, it’s not a one-day process,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist for Prudential Financial.
“Now the idea of a recession is part of the narrative. Are we going into one? And if we are, how deep will it be? Will we have a recovery in the second half?”
The European Central Bank also unveiled a host of measures to support the economy, following big-bang interventions by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England.
The chaos extended to Europe’s airports, where confused travelers scrambled to redraw their plans.
“We just got off our plane and we’re going to go straight back — we can’t believe it,” said 29-year-old Tiara Streng, queuing with three friends at London’s Heathrow Airport for a return flight to Colorado.
– Unprecedented measures –
Europe is struggling to keep a lid on the virus.
Italy clocked 189 new deaths Thursday — and more than 15,000 total infections — while Spain’s infections neared 3,000, with more than 80 fatalities.
Italy has ordered the closure of all stores except pharmacies and food shops in a move that has emptied world-famous tourist sites in Rome, Venice and Florence.
Italy is not the only country to take unprecedented measures. Slovakia and the Czech Republic banned travelers from a host of countries on Thursday.
Other countries in the region readied for the worst, including Britain which said the real number of cases on its soil could reach 10,000 — it has 590 confirmed cases.
The EU health agency warned the risk was high that healthcare systems in the bloc will be overwhelmed.
As the crisis deepened in Europe, China, where more people have been infected than anywhere else in the world, appeared to be making headway against the outbreak.
Eleven people died in China on Thursday — bringing the toll there to 3,169 deaths — the lowest daily increase since late January.
“The peak of the epidemic in China has passed,” said National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng.
The World Health Organization said the pandemic remained controllable, urging countries not to give up the fight to stop the virus spreading.
“The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
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