WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump is slamming America’s door on most foreign nationals who were recently in Europe — a drastic step in response to an accelerating global pandemic that, should it proceed, could pose a serious threat to commerce and travel between Canada and its largest trading partner.
Trump, in a rare televised Oval Office address, sounded nervous and ill at ease Wednesday as he sought to assure Americans that his White House was taking decisive steps to slow the march of the novel coronavirus.
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” Trump declared into the camera, his fingers latticed before him on the Resolute Desk.
“There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing. These restrictions will also not apply to the United Kingdom.”
The president later tweeted, “The restriction stops people, not goods.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how much advance notice the Prime Minister’s Office received of the president’s plans, or precisely what steps Canada would be taking to deal with the potential fallout.
“We won’t comment on other countries’ approaches,” said PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad. “We will continue to base our decisions in Canada on science and the best advice from our Public Health Agency.”
A news release from the White House clarified the president’s proclamation, which was made under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.
It only applies to the movement of human beings, not goods or cargo, and to foreign nationals who in the last two weeks visited one of 26 countries in Europe that allow free and open travel between their borders, a bloc known as the Schengen Area. American citizens and permanent residents are exempt, and will be directed to “a limited number” of airports where they can be screened, the release said.
The ban is scheduled to take effect at midnight Friday night.
Trump, whose efforts to impose travel bans have been met with court challenges in the past, imposed a similar ban in January on recent foreign visitors to China — a restriction he has frequently insisted has helped to keep the outbreak at bay in the United States. A similar ban on foreign nationals who had travelled to Iran came the following month.
The president has been under fire in recent weeks for what critics have called a tepid and disorganized response to the crisis from a White House that didn’t appear to be taking the threat seriously.
But with the outbreak escalating, stock markets in free fall and the risk to the U.S. economy growing by the day, Trump — gearing up for a re-election effort later this year — appears to be taking notice.
In addition to the travel ban, he also announced a $ 50-billion, low-interest plan to improve liquidity in capital markets for small businesses, and to defer tax bills for people and businesses affected by the outbreak. And he’s pushing Congress to green-light his proposal to cut payroll taxes to help keep the country’s economic gears turning.
After China, South Korea and Iran, Europe is the new source of alarm surrounding what the World Health Organization now considers a pandemic — and Italy, where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has effectively locked down his country and shuttered restaurants, retailers, cafes and bars, is the epicentre.
Public gatherings in Italy are currently prohibited and the country’s 60 million residents have been asked to limit their travel to work or emergencies to help curb the spread of a virus that has sickened more than 12,000 people and killed 827.
Trump is closing America’s borders to foreign nationals who recently spent time in Europe, a dramatic step that illustrates both the severity of the global outbreak of COVID-19 and the president’s tendency towards drastic actions — often involving keeping foreigners off U.S. soil — that raise more questions than they answer. Here are some of the most pressing:
HOW WILL CANADA BE AFFECTED?
Within minutes of declaring on national prime-time television that the ban would apply to a “tremendous amount of trade and cargo,” the president and the White House were both walking that back, insisting the ban would only apply to relevant foreign nationals — not cargo, U.S. citizens or green-card holders, siblings or children. But the confusion suggests that bottlenecks at the Canada-U.S. border are likely as Customs and Border Protection officials seek to screen out anyone not allowed under the ban. How that could impact the flow of goods between Canada and its largest trading partner remains to be seen. “The American-Canadian border is obviously our priority, and we would want to do everything we can to protect the flow of people and goods on that border,” said Goldy Hyder, the CEO of the Canadian Business Council. “All the rules of the game are set aside here.”
WHICH COUNTRIES ARE INCLUDED?
The affected area involves 26 countries where foreign nationals are allowed to travel freely across borders: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The United Kingdom, the largest source of visitors to the U.S. after Canada and Mexico, is exempt, despite the fact it’s a country that’s easily reached from continental Europe.
SHOULD CANADA FOLLOW SUIT?
It might seem counterintuitive, but if Canada wants to ensure that trade and commerce at the border continues uninterrupted, it could well be an option on the table in what is already uncharted foreign-policy territory. “It’s important that as we look at our responses here that they’re not going to be identical what the Americans do,” said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “But we have to be concerned if we get too great a divergence that suddenly that we find problems on our border and problems doing business with our largest customer.”
HOW WILL IT WORK?
The ban is scheduled to take effect at midnight Friday night, but will not apply to U.S.-bound travellers who are airborne before the deadline. Members of the U.S. military, certain visa holders, UN officials and others would also be exempt. Anyone not subject to the ban but who nonetheless was in Europe at some point in the last 14 days is to be tested at one of 13 airports across the U.S. upon arrival. Precisely where that screening is to take place was not immediately clear; shortly after the president’s address, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf issued a statement praising the measure and promising more details about the airports where affected travellers would be directed “in the next 48 hours.” Vice-President Mike Pence said Thursday that all Americans and legal residents returning to the U.S. will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days presumably only if they have been in Europe at some point in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, the U.S. Secretary of State has issued a so-called “Global Level 3” travel advisory, urging U.S. citizens to reconsider their plans to travel abroad.
WILL IT HELP?
Critics have been quick to point out that with COVID-19 already spreading in the U.S., where a dismal rate of testing — only 11,000 tests to date, according to reports Thursday out of a briefing on Capitol Hill — has made it difficult to get a bead on the extent of the outbreak, banning travellers from European hotspots seems too little, too late. “We are flying blind,” said congressman Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois. And if the measures the president announced Wednesday were designed to calm the markets, they appeared to have the opposite effect: the Dow Jones index was already down by more than eight per cent just before midday.