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White House To Provide Economic Relief To Counter Coronavirus's Effects

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The World Health Organization has now characterized the coronavirus as a global pandemic. After initially downplaying the threat posed by COVID-19, President Trump announced a number of new measures last night to address the outbreak, but he made some serious errors while doing so.

First, he said that all travel from Europe to the U.S. would be banned. That is not correct. American citizens are exempt, so are permanent residents and some other groups. And it doesn't apply to all European countries. Then, another crucial mistake - in his address, the president said that the ban would include goods coming from Europe. That is not true. He had to issue a correction in a tweet later, saying trade would not be affected and that the restriction, quote, "stops people, not goods."

The president also used his speech from the Oval Office to promise emergency aid to workers and small businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will soon be taking emergency action, which is unprecedented, to provide financial relief. This will be targeted for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.

MARTIN: So what exactly is that financial relief going to look like? Let's ask NPR's chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us more about the economic measures introduced by the president last night.

HORSLEY: Well, we don't know exactly what that aid is going to look like, but you heard the president there talking about emergency action to help workers who don't have sick leave. The idea is to make up for that lost pay if they're forced to stay home. And the president says he'll act on an emergency basis on his own, and then he's asking Congress for help to extend that relief.

He's also instructing the Small Business Administration to offer more low-cost loans to businesses affected by the outbreak, much as the SBA would do in the case of a natural disaster. And again, he's asking Congress for more money - $50 billion more - to expand that assistance. He suggested that the April 15 tax filing deadline could be postponed to give affected workers and businesses more time and also just to keep more money out there flowing around the economy. And he renewed his call for a payroll tax cut.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a sense of the president's tone? I mean, was there enough certainty in this address last night to ease concerns of Americans who are concerned about their livelihoods because of the outbreak?

HORSLEY: There wasn't a lot of certainty. This is still more of an outline than an actual plan. If the idea was meant to reassure financial markets, it had the opposite effect. The futures market is indicating another big drop in U.S. stocks today. It does look as if both Congress and the administration are now taking the economic threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak seriously, but they don't yet have a coordinated plan to address it.

And at the same time, some of the additional public health measures that are being adopted around the country - you know, all the increases in school closings, the work-from-home orders, things as dramatic as the NBA suspending, it sends (ph) - all of that means more economic disruption. It may very well be the right move to take for a public health - from a public health standpoint to slow the spread the virus, but it does come with a short-term economic price tag.

MARTIN: You alluded to some of them, but what are some of the biggest outstanding questions when it comes to the administration's response?

HORSLEY: Well, the biggest question is, can they get it together, and can they do it quickly? And House Democrats appear to be moving on one track; the White House on another. The president continued to press last night for a payroll tax cut. There seems to be very little appetite on Capitol Hill for that. Certainly, Democrats don't like the idea, and Republicans aren't very keen on it either.

There likely will be some agreement on other measures, like those small business loans. And they certainly - both lawmakers and the White House certainly share the goal of helping workers who don't have sick leave and are forced to stay home because of the outbreak, although it's not clear that they're on the same page when it comes to how to accomplish that.

MARTIN: Can we just finally turn to that travel ban? The president limiting travel - banning travel from foreign nationals from Europe to the United States, exempting American citizens trying to get back home if they go through extra screening - but what would be the impact? What could be the impact on international trade?

HORSLEY: Well, when it comes to trading goods, we should say, it has no effect. The president's speech was a little bit garbled, and some people were left with the impression that exports from Europe might be affected. The White House clarified in a tweet that the travel ban taking effect at midnight Friday applies only to visitors from Europe, not cargo.

But it's still another big blow for the tourist industry. Europeans account for about 30% of international visitors at this time of year. So it's going to be another hit for airlines, hotels, tourist attractions and the notion of international commerce.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's chief economic correspondent Scott Horsley.

Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.