Trump invokes emergency authority; Big 3 automakers closing

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday moved to invoke emergency authority to marshal industry to fight the coronavirus, as the economic fallout from the crisis mounted with word that Detroit’s Big Three automakers are shutting down their North American factories to protect workers.
On a day of head-spinning developments:
— Stocks tumbled again on Wall Street on fears of a prolonged recession, falling so fast they triggered another automatic trading halt. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than 1,300 points, or over 6 percent, and has now lost nearly all the big gains it registered since Trump’s inauguration. Oil dropped below $21 per barrel for the first time since 2002.
— More borders slammed shut across Europe and North America, with the U.S. and Canada agreeing to close their shared boundary to all but essential travel, and Trump saying he plans to assert extraordinary powers to immediately turn back to Mexico anyone who crosses the border illegally.
— And the White House pressed Congress to swiftly pass a potentially $1 trillion rescue package to prop up the economy and speed relief checks to Americans in a matter of weeks.
Calling himself a “wartime president,” Trump said he would employ the Defense Production Act as needed to steer industrial output and overcome shortages of face masks, ventilators and other supplies needed against the expected onslaught of cases.
The law, which dates to 1950, during the Korean War, gives the president extraordinary authority to compel industries to expand production and turn out vital materials.
“It’s a war,” Trump said, likening the anti-coronavirus efforts to measures taken during World War II and warning of national sacrifices.
The virus has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,000. The United Nations warned that the crisis could cost lead to the loss of nearly 25 million jobs around the world.
Around the globe, officials took increasingly drastic measures to fight the epidemic and the threat of a recession, in some cases using emergency powers.
California’s governor warned that martial law could be imposed. The mayor of New York said the city’s 8.6 million residents should be prepared for a lockdown. Czech authorities used emergency powers to raid a warehouse and seize hundreds of thousands of face masks. And Hong Kong widened the use of electronic wristbands that monitor people under self-quarantine.
With a growing number of Americans thrown out of work by the near-shutdown of much of the U.S. economy, Trump also said the Housing and Urban Development Department will suspend foreclosures and evictions from public housing.
The Trump administration’s plan for issuing relief checks to Americans calls for the payment of $500 billion in two installments over the next two months. The amounts have yet to be decided but would be based on income and family size.
Ford and General Motors said they will shut down all of their factories in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and Fiat Chrysler will do the same, according to two people who were briefed on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity because the closings had not been announced.
The shutdowns would idle about 150,000 workers, who are likely to receive supplemental pay in addition to unemployment benefits.
The U.S. reported more than 6,500 coronavirus cases and at least 121 deaths, almost half of them in Washington state, where dozens of residents from a suburban Seattle nursing home have died.
Some bright spots emerged: Wuhan, the locked-down Chinese city where the virus was first detected in late December, reported just one new case for a second straight day Wednesday. The situation had improved enough that China even sent medical supplies to hard-hit France, returning a favor done by the French weeks ago.
But in a grim illustration of the epidemic’s shifting center of gravity, the death toll in Italy was close to overtaking China’s. Italy had more than 2,900 dead after a record one-day total of 475; China’s toll was just over 3,200. Iran has also been hit hard, with more than 17,000 cases and 1,100 deaths.
In releasing the new global infection figure of over 200,000, Johns Hopkins University said more than 82,000 people have recovered from the virus, which causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough in most cases, with severe illness more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.
Still, scientists have no doubt the true number of people infected is higher than reported because of the possibility that many mild cases have gone unrecognized or unreported, and because of the lag in large-scale testing in the U.S., where the effort has been marked by bumbling and bureaucratic delay.
In the first breakdown of its kind in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the nation’s coronavirus deaths so far mirror what has been reported in other countries, with about 4 out of 5 fatalities occurring in people 65 and older, and no deaths in children.
The coronavirus is present in all 50 states after West Virginia reported its first infection. In far-flung Hawaii, the governor encouraged travelers to postpone their island vacations. Las Vegas casinos were closed for the time since President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that residents should be prepared for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order within days — a near-lockdown like the one covering almost 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay area. In the most sweeping measure of its kind in the U.S., they are allowed to leave their homes only for food, medicine or exercise.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom put the National Guard on alert for humanitarian duties such as food distribution, as some grocery stores resorted to rationing to control panic buying. But he also said “we have the ability to do martial law” if necessary.
Meanwhile, miles-long traffic jams spread at border crossings around Europe after leaders closed international boundaries to nonessential traffic. Tens of thousands of people across the continent struggled to return home amid the closed land crossings and dramatic cuts in airline flights.
At one point, trucks were backed in Austria up for 28 kilometers (17 miles) and cars for 14 kilometers (nearly 9 miles).
In an unprecedented move during peacetime, the French army started evacuating critical coronavirus patients from eastern France, the country’s worst-hit region. France is Europe’s third worst-hit country in fatalities, with at least 175.
In Southeast Asia, the causeway between Malaysia and the financial hub of Singapore was eerily quiet after Malaysia shut its borders, while the Philippines backed down on an order giving foreigners 72 hours to leave from a large part of its main island.
Taiwan said that it, too, would ban foreigners from entry and citizens would have to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days.
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