ROME (AP) — Sweeping travel bans cascaded around the globe Thursday, walling off countries and even entire continents, keeping people inside their homes, and slowing the engines of commerce to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Markets collapsed with the growing realization that there would be no fast end to the uncertainty.
After weeks downplaying the impact of the virus, U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement of strict rules barring most Europeans from entry came as a shock across the Atlantic. Within hours, even the European Union's passport-free travel came into question, with guards in places that had been without borders for more than a decade and airports shut down.
The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, noted that the vast majority of new cases of the COVID-19 illness are linked to Europe, which he called “the new China.” Deaths in Italy topped 1,000, with more than 15,000 testing positive.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, acknowledged that the United States was lagging other countries in testing for the virus to learn how widespread it really is.
“It is a failing, let’s admit it," he told lawmakers.
The European Union quickly slammed Trump's "unilateral" decision, declaring the virus a "global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action."
The virus detected three months ago in China has produced crippling outbreaks in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, ignited global financial panic and in the last week has seen dizzying developments erupt by the hour. European soccer leagues, American basketball tournaments, school terms for millions of students, weddings, baptisms, funerals, nightlife, culture high and low — all fell by the wayside with a swiftness that was becoming increasingly difficult to grasp.
The illness edged closer to the world's power centers: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he was self-isolating at home because his wife showed flu-like symptoms after her return from Britain, while the Brazilian president's communications director tested positive just days after traveling to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
Developments in just one 24-hour period include an official designation of “pandemic” from the World Health Organization, the dramatic halt to much travel between the United States and 26 European countries, and infections being announced in rapid-fire pace by Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and political leaders as well as ordinary people on cruise ships. In Italy's Lombardy region, the virus' European epicenter, hospitals were overwhelmed with both the sick and the dead.
“It’s similar to what you might think of as an infectious disease equivalent of a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks," said Dr. Jeff Duchin a top public health official for the Seattle area, which has one of the biggest U.S. coronavirus outbreaks.
Across the board, European markets closed on one of their worst days in history, unswayed by new stimulus measures from the European Central Bank to buy up 120 billion euros ($132 billion) in bonds. An early fall of 7% on Wall Street triggered a trading halt amid the global sell-off.
Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country was spared the U.S. travel ban, called the pandemic “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and said “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
More than 127,000 people in more than 110 countries have been infected. The vast majority are in just four countries: China and South Korea — where new cases are declining —and Iran and Italy, where they are not. The spread has slowed so much in China that the government sent a medical crew to Italy and offered surplus supplies to Iran and other countries in need.
More than 4,700 people have died worldwide.
Around the world, nursing homes emptied of visitors to protect the elderly, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.
In California, the governor advised officials to cancel any gatherings of more than 250 people, as well as any smaller meetings where people must be closer than 6 feet (2 meters) — a description that includes everything from dinner parties to political rallies. Congress shut the U.S. Capitol and House and Senate office buildings to the public until April 1, and the White House canceled tours.
In Italy, new restrictions closed restaurants, cafes and retail shops Thursday after the prime minister imposed a nationwide lockdown on personal movement. Grocery stores, pharmacies and outdoor markets were allowed to operate, as were newspaper stands.
Rosanna Farina, whose family has run a newspaper kiosk in Rome’s historic center since the 19th century, was torn on whether it was worth staying open.
“So few people are out and about. People are terrorized," she said, wearing a scarf around her face. “I’d rather be home. I’m worried, even if I’m keeping a distance.”
Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania Algeria and Slovakia joined the growing list of countries shutting down their school systems, and Europe's most successful soccer team, Real Madrid, put all its players into quarantine after one tested positive. The Czech government said it would reimpose border checks and bar entry to people from 13 risk countries, including Britain and several in the European Union. Slovakia closed its international airports and ground transport hubs.
Even remote Mount Everest closed for business. Chinese mountaineering officials canceled spring climbs from their side of the mountain, while on the other side in Nepal, operators say cancellations were pouring in.
Europeans were adjusting to the American travel restrictions, which hit some of the world's most heavily traveled routes and threw travel plans into chaos.
"We were going to get married in Las Vegas, with Elvis. It was going to be epic," said Sandrine Reynaert, a Parisian who had to cancel the April 20 ceremony. Her future husband already has the date engraved in his ring.
Now Reynaert was canceling each step of the trip that, as well as Las Vegas, would have taken them to other iconic spots of Americana: Route 66, Joshua Tree National Park and the Grand Canyon.
Britain and Ireland were exempt, despite imposing far fewer restrictions in response to the virus than many EU countries, raising questions about the coherence of the U.S. policy. Trump accused Europe of not acting quickly enough to address the "foreign virus” and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.
Across the U.S., where cases now number more than 1,300, a sense of urgency was pervasive.
Schools emptied of students and workplace cubicles went vacant. A rite of spring, college basketball's NCAA tournament, was to be played without fans, while the NBA decided their pros won't play at all for now. Joyous, booze-filled, green-splashed celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day were called off across the U.S. and Ireland. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera shuttered. TV shows taped without audiences, rush-hour crowds in New York subway cars disappeared and families hunkered down, wondering what would come next.
“If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better,” said Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi of Redmond, Washington, who has two children whose schools closed Thursday.
As the pandemic grips Europe and the U.S., it continues to ebb in China, where the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in December. It reported a record low of just 15 new cases Thursday. So far more than three-fourths of China's patients have recovered.
Most people infected by the new virus have only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, though symptoms can be severe, including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Recovery for mild cases takes about two weeks, while more severe illness may take three to six weeks, according to the WHO.
Research published Wednesday found that the coronavirus can live in the air for several hours, and for as long as two to three days on some surfaces.
Among those newly testing positive were double Oscar winner Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson in Australia; Juventus defender Daniele Rugani in Italy; Iran's senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers; and Spain's equality minister.
In Greece, where the Olympic torch for the 2020 Tokyo Games was lit behind closed doors, there was an urgent call from the government for more doctors and nurses.
“The time of the battle has come,” Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said on live television.
For 83-year-old Natalina De Santis, fear of germs has led her to forgo all visits from her three adult children. She insists they leave care packages outside the door of her home in Rome, then goes to the balcony to wave.
“If I get sick, what would my children do?” she said in a telephone interview. “They’d have to come, they won’t be able to leave me alone. So, to avoid all this, I stay in my home.”
Hinnant reported from Paris. Contributing were Associated Press writers Maria Cheng and Jill Lawless in London; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Samuel Petrequin in Brussels; John Leicester in Paris; Colleen Barry in Soave, Italy; Frances D'Emilio in Rome; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Chris Grygiel and Lisa Baumann in Seattle; and Adam Geller, David B. Caruso and Theo Wayt in New York.