News Brief: COVID-19 Effects Hit Economy Hard, Biden Wins 3 Primaries

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 18, 2020 3:53 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One trillion dollars.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. That's how much money the Trump administration is asking for from Congress to help Americans right now. According to the latest NPR/PBS/Marist (ph) poll, nearly 1 in 5 American households has seen layoffs or reduced work hours as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned that without any big action, unemployment could jump to 20%.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MNUCHIN: We're looking at sending checks to Americans immediately. And what we've heard from hardworking Americans, many companies have now shut down, whether it's bars or restaurants. Americans need cash now. And the president wants to get cash now. And I mean now - in the next two weeks.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley here. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So a trillion dollars. But there are a lot of people in this country feeling the pain here, the economic pain. What exactly would this money cover?

HORSLEY: We haven't seen the exact details, but we understand it would include the lifeline that airlines had been asking for. They were looking for $50 billion to tide them over - also help for other struggling industries, like hotels. We understand there will be some support for small businesses, though we don't know what shape that might take.

And then the centerpiece of this rescue package is that direct aid to Americans. Up until yesterday, the president had been pushing a payroll tax cut. But critics said that would be too slow and wouldn't help those who've been dropped from payroll. So they've substituted this direct payment instead.

GREENE: So this would be, like, a paycheck that Americans would get from the government? I mean, does everyone qualify for that? How would this work?

HORSLEY: There might be some income limit. In conversations with reporters yesterday, the Treasury secretary said, you know, millionaires wouldn't need this money. There had been an earlier House proposal that would've set a ceiling at people making more than $130,000. So some of those details still have to be worked out. The government has taken action like this in the past. It sent direct payments to Americans back during the 2008 financial crisis, although this would be bigger.

Basically, the administration is acknowledging that the very aggressive moves it's taking to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are going to blow a really big hole in the economy. And they need to be equally aggressive in, if not filling that hole, then at least throwing a rope down to Americans so they can hold on until this passes.

GREENE: And do economists feel like the country can afford to spend that kind of money right now?

HORSLEY: Yes. The government can still borrow money for next to nothing. Certainly, this will add to the deficit. But crisis situations like this are when the government should run a deficit. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, who was one of George W. Bush's economic advisers, wrote a blog post last week where he said there are times to worry about the rising government debt, but he added, this is not one of those times.

GREENE: Scott, let me just ask you, I mean, if everyone got money in their hands - I mean, obviously, that will help in some way. But people still don't know if they're going to have a job again. Businesses are closed, so there's nowhere to really spend money right now. Like, how does this proposal actually help in the long-term?

HORSLEY: Yeah. I'm not sure anybody knows what the long-term effects are. But the sense is that, at some point, this pandemic will pass. And what you want to do is avoid having kind of an economic domino effect that makes things worse and makes it that much harder to recover when we come to the other side.

GREENE: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So we're talking about the economic pressure that has come from this coronavirus. We should say, even as we talk about that, this virus just keeps spreading.

MARTIN: Indeed. So West Virginia just announced its first case of COVID-19. And that means that coronavirus has now spread to every single state in the country. And as the number of infections grows, local and state governments keep announcing new restrictive measures - social isolation, quarantine, lockdown. What does it all mean?

GREENE: What does it all mean? I mean, I just listen to that list, and I think a lot of us wonder what these words really mean. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Greg, can you help us with those different terms and what they mean and how they can even be enforced in a situation like this?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah. Sure, David. So the way that public figures and the media has been tossing around these terms. They've almost been interchangeable...

GREENE: Yeah.

MYRE: ...And it's hard to make any real distinction. That may be starting to change a bit as political leaders impose specific restrictions. So the terms we've been hearing - self-isolation, self-quarantine - those sort of generally refer to something that individuals should do if they were somehow exposed to the coronavirus.

But now we're starting to hear terms like shelter-in-place and lockdown. And this is more a citywide or statewide, regionwide measure that authorities really do want to impose. Now, federal and state governments can do this. And they can use fines and prosecution. But so far, it's not a heavy-handed approach. It's a voluntary approach.

GREENE: But still, we're getting so many different messages from different governments, some saying you have to stay home - they're ordering businesses closed - others stressing strenuously, please stay home voluntarily. How are people reacting so far? Are people generally complying?

MYRE: Yeah, they are so far. We've had, you know - we've been looking for cases, and it's been very rare. There is one case that's been reported in Kentucky of a 53-year-old man who went to the hospital, tested positive, but then decided to just leave the hospital.

GREENE: Someone who knew that he had coronavirus and then went out into public?

MYRE: That's right. And the authorities tracked him down. And sheriff's deputies have been parked outside his house. And he is cooperating and sort of voluntarily self-quarantining now. But we're just getting started. And if this goes on for days, weeks, possibly months, are we going to see healthy people - all people, but young, healthy people in particular - stay put? Deborah Birx, who's the White House coordinator, spoke to this very issue yesterday. Let's hear what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBORAH BIRX: We're asking the younger generations to stop going out in public places, to bars and restaurants, and spreading asymptomatic virus onto countertops and knobs and grocery stores and grocery carts.

MYRE: So let's keep a very close eye on what young people are doing. We should also keep a close eye on San Francisco. It's the first big test of this shelter-in-place. And San Francisco and the Bay Area have 7 million people who are now told to stay in for three weeks. But, boy, you run into contradictions pretty quickly. People have to go to the grocery store...

GREENE: Sure.

MYRE: ...The pharmacy. You got to keep hospitals open. You got to have people delivering food, so you got to keep gas stations open. So very quickly, the list of people who need to do stuff grows quite long.

GREENE: I really want to ask you about this, too, because on its face, this could sound very scary. But the military playing a role potentially here, what exactly would the military be doing?

MYRE: So the military is going to get involved. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that they have 5 million surgical masks, 2,000 ventilators and 14 testing labs they can offer. But they are stressing that they can't do everything. You shouldn't see this as the cavalry coming to the rescue. There's talk of field hospitals. But military medicine is really geared toward treating young troops with traumatic injuries, not older folks with infectious diseases. So Esper did make this suggestion when it comes to field hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: So ideally, what you would do is locate it somewhere maybe next to a hospital. Whereas trauma patients come in, instead of going into the hospital, they would go into the field hospital, where we could treat the broken legs, the lacerations, the falling-down-hit-your-head type of stuff.

MYRE: And Esper went on to say that this would leave a bed in the civilian hospital open for a patient coming in with the coronavirus. Now, there's also talk of even using hospital ships. One is currently in San Diego, the other in Norfolk. These can handle up to a thousand patients. But they're not geared for infectious diseases. Quarters are tight on a ship. There's not the kind of space - separation that you'd want.

And Esper says he hasn't received a formal request yet. Staffing would also be an issue. There aren't hundreds of doctors and nurses on these ships just waiting for action. They would have to be called up from other places, meaning you'd have to remove them from hospitals where they might already be needed and be used.

GREENE: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much, as always.

MYRE: Sure thing, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So how does a presidential election actually go forward in a health crisis like this?

MARTIN: Well, Arizona and Florida and Illinois all still voted yesterday. Ohio postponed its primary, though. In the states that did vote, it was Joe Biden's night again.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: So let me start by asking you just how this coronavirus pandemic has just transformed this presidential race.

LIASSON: Well, we don't know yet how it's going to transform the general election. We don't know how voters are going to judge the leadership that the president is exhibiting in this crisis. What we do know is that in terms of the primaries, it's given Joe Biden another advantage. He has been highlighting his experience, talking a lot about how he would lead in this crisis. He gave a victory speech last night by livestream from his house in Delaware. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: This is a moment where we need our leaders to lead. But it's also a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals are going to collectively impact on what happens, make a big difference in the severity of this outbreak and the ability of our medical and hospital systems to handle it.

LIASSON: Now, he didn't mention Donald Trump's name once. But it was pretty obvious the contrast that he was trying to draw.

GREENE: What about the process here? I mean, we already saw Ohio delay their polling, other states talking about it or doing it. I mean, could the general election itself be delayed if this keeps going?

LIASSON: Well, the short answer is probably not. You know, the first Tuesday in November is election day for a presidential election. Presidents don't have the power to change it. State officials don't have the power to change it. But they do have the power to delay primaries, as you've seen. It could increase the opportunity for people to vote by mail. That's something a lot of states already do. That could become more widespread.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about the voters' choices here. I mean, Joe Biden won in the states that voted yesterday. His delegate lead is growing. I mean, does that mean he could wrap up this primary sooner rather than later?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. That would depend on how long Bernie Sanders stays in the race. But the math is getting pretty difficult for Sanders. Joe Biden right now has almost an insurmountable delegate lead. The one thing that Biden is trying to do now is unify the party. Last night, he spoke directly to Sanders supporters, particularly young people.

He said, to young voters, I hear you. I know what's at stake. He talked about the existential threat of climate change, something he's said in the past. But he doesn't think young voters have necessarily heard him. He's also adopted a version of Bernie Sanders' free college proposal and Elizabeth Warren's bankruptcy plan, trying to bring in those voters.

GREENE: Let's hear from Bernie Sanders quickly. He spoke before the results were in last night, talking about the coronavirus impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: We want to hear from you. In every state, there is a different level of crisis. In every occupation, there is a different level of concern. So please communicate with us so we can - together, we can come up with some effective remedies.

GREENE: Where is Sanders right now? What's his best hope for winning this nomination?

LIASSON: His best hope is to win about 62% of all the remaining delegates. And that will be very, very hard. And then there's the question of how and when Sanders wants to wrap up? And what concessions is he hoping to get?

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.