- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2020

President Trump suspended federal student-loan payments Friday and waived standardized testing for younger students as the U.S. tightened its northern and southern borders and activated wartime-production powers to respond to the coronavirus panic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, decided to “close the valve” and order 100% of the state’s non-essential workforce to stay home or face civil penalties. His order follows California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to order a statewide lockdown on his 40 million residents.

Taken together, the measures reflect the uncharted waters that Mr. Trump and his blue-state rivals find themselves in as they combat a brand-new and highly contagious pathogen. The administration says they’re singing from the same hymn sheet.

“Gov. Newsom made some very important, difficult decisions. Today, Gov. Cuomo did the same thing. And I want to say, I strongly support what he’s doing,” said Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases scientist, at a White House briefing. “As a New Yorker, I know what New Yorkers can do. We’re tough.”

Administration officials said they will continue to let states take the lead in responding to an outbreak that’s impacted every state but is hitting specific states or counties particularly hard.

Mr. Trump praised coastal governors in Washington state, California, New York and Florida but said the Midwest and other places aren’t seeing a huge burden, so he’s not considering a “national lockdown” order.

The president told states to order ventilators and other supplies on their own this week but pivoted Friday, saying he’s activated the Defense Production Act to procure equipment that’s in short supply.

“We have millions of masks which are coming,” Mr. Trump said. “We have millions of masks that we’ve ordered. They will be here soon, we are shipping them directly to states.”

Mr. Trump later said he hasn’t compelled companies to make anything yet, but he might. He is being deluged by offers to provide equipment.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the tax-filing deadline would be pushed back from April 15 to July 15 and, for college borrowers, the president suspended federal loan payments and interest for 60 days.

He said elementary and high school students might be happy to find out they don’t have to take standardized tests as they hunker down at home.

“They’ve been through a lot. School’s open, school’s not open,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re not going to be enforcing that.”

Also Friday, the Scripps National Spelling Bee announced it will no longer hold its event on May 24 in suburban D.C. and will try to hold it later in the year.

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It’s infected nearly 260,000 people worldwide, resulting in over 11,200 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The U.S. has seen over 16,600 infections and 216 deaths, prompting governors to place severe limits on commerce.

Hoping to clamp down on imported cases, the U.S. will shut down its northern and southern borders Friday night to all but “essential” traffic and will immediately return all illegal immigrants before they are given a chance to gain a foothold here.

Health Secretary Alex Azar said his department is triggering a section of the Public Health Act that allows the move, declaring illegal immigration to be a dangerous avenue for COVID-19 cases, and a burden on the U.S. health system.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said essential travel is still allowed, and the definition is quite broad. Tourism and illegal immigration are the biggest areas affected.

Mr. Trump continued to defend his response broadly, scolding reporters in unusually personal terms even as he told people to “come together.”

“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” NBC’s Peter Alexander said.

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” Mr. Trump said. “I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.”

He also defended his promotion of an anti-malarial drug that might work against the coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, but hasn’t been proven in clinical trials.

“I’m probably more of a fan of that, maybe than anybody,” Mr. Trump said.

Critics say the president might be giving people false hope, though Mr. Trump said it’s important to try potential cures amid the crisis.

Mr. Trump spoke as countries across Europe continued to struggle with rising case counts. Italy has recorded over 40,000 cases and seen 3,400 fatalities, the highest death toll of any country.

Mr. Azar said the U.S. and Italy noticed cases in China around the same time but Mr. Trump was more decisive in shutting off travel from the Asian superpower, buying the U.S. time while the Italian hospital system was overrun.

In California, grocery stores will still be open amid Mr. Newsom’s sweeping lockdown. People can leave the house and take walks but should stay six feet away from others, state officials said.

Mr. Newsom’s rules are the most stringent in the nation and follow similar orders in Europe.

In New York, which has seen the most cases, Mr. Cuomo has steadily decreased the number of workers that should be going to work in the state. But as of Friday, he said 100 percent of the workforce must stay home.

People can work from home, but only essential businesses can have workers commuting to the job or be at the workplace. There will be a civil fine and mandatory closure for any business not in compliance.

The governor said plenty of local leaders don’t agree with his actions but he’s ready to be held accountable.

“Blame me. There is no one else who is responsible for this decision,” Mr. Cuomo said.

The decision to close many businesses is having sweeping economic repercussions. Congress is working on a relief package, though record numbers of people are filing for unemployment benefits.

Some have questioned whether the economic consequences are worth it, though administration officials said they cannot just “let it rip” as the virus swirls across the globe.

“I don’t understand that reasoning, at all,” Dr. Fauci said.

As businesses close or lay off workers, Walmart announced it is hiring 150,000 workers through the end of May to work in its stores, clubs and distribution centers.

“We’ve reached out to industry groups representing restaurants and hospitality to facilitate temporary roles that can be a bridge for their employees during this difficult time,” the company said.

However, it said many of the jobs may become permanent.

The company is also extending cash bonuses to workers in March and April that add up to nearly $550 million.

Stephen Dinan and Alex Swoyer contributed to this story.

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