The United States found itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the world Tuesday as COVID-19 continued to spread relentlessly across Southern and Western states.
With the U.S. coronavirus death toll having climbed to nearly 127,000, the European Union lifted travel restrictions for 15 countries but not the U.S.
Even China, where the deadly pandemic is believed to have started in December, made the EU’s cut of countries where the rate of infection is deemed low enough to allow people to travel into the bloc.
“The way in which the current American administration has dealt with the virus, I don’t think it would be responsible for any European leader to basically let Americans in at the moment,” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told NBC News.
President Donald Trump waited until March 13 to declare a national emergency, and he has been pushing aggressively to get the country’s economy moving again, even as health experts warn that the pandemic could still get worse.
“We can’t just focus on those areas that are having the surge. It puts the entire country at risk,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday in testimony before Congress. “We’re now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around, and so I’m very concerned.”
Young people, in particular, are at risk, Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“What we saw were a lot of people who maybe felt that because they think they are invulnerable, and we know many young people are not because they’re getting serious disease, that therefore they’re getting infected has nothing at all to do with anyone else, when in fact it does,” he said
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the U.S. has only itself to blame for the continuing contagion.
“We can continue to reopen, to get back to work, get back to school, get back to health care, but we have to act responsibly as individuals,” Azar said on Fox Business Network. “If we simply do three things: practice social distancing, wear facial coverings when we can’t social distance and practice proper personal hygiene. If we do those three things, we can turn around the tide of these new cases and continue to reopen.”
Trump and his allies have previously blamed the rise in numbers on an increase in testing — a claim many health experts have dismissed as untrue.
As states like Alabama, Texas, Florida and California continued to report huge numbers of new cases, other states that have been able to flatten the curve, like New York and New Jersey, were putting off plans to reopen bars and restaurants.
“This virus indoors is a whole different beast than it is outdoors,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on NBC’s “Today.” “Our numbers have come way down, probably as much as any American state, but we paid a huge price, as you mentioned, 15,000 fatalities. We’ve gone through hell. The last thing we want to do is go through hell again.”
Health experts agree that closing down bars and restaurants was wise.
“I’m delighted they’re closing some of them,” John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, told NBC News on Monday. “I’m disappointed they’re not closing more. The reason I’m delighted is because the highest risk for people is being in an enclosed area for a prolonged period of time. Bars are a perfect setup for that.”
In Washington D.C., powerful Republicans who had been reluctant to require Americans to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were suddenly donning them and urging everyone else to do the same.
“Wearing the mask is the best opportunity for us to keep this economy open, keep us working, keep us safe, and help us as we build towards that vaccine” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.), said Tuesday on Fox News.
California has recorded 223,684 coronavirus infections and 5,979 deaths since the pandemic started, according to the latest NBC News tally. And a Los Angeles Times analysis found the state was on track to nearly double the amount of cases it had in May, which was 61,666.
Vice President Mike Pence, who was harshly criticized for not wearing a mask during meetings and photo ops, has also started wearing one while out in public.
So has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“We must have no stigma –- none –- about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people,” the Kentucky Republican said on Monday. “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander ( R-Tenn.), opened Monday’s Senate Committee Hearing on the Coronavirus Pandemic by recommending again that Trump set an example for the nation by wearing a face mask.
“The president has plenty of admirers,” Alexander said. “They would follow his lead.”
Trump, however, has refused to regularly wear one, as have many of his supporters. And as the issue has become politically polarized, there have been confrontations between businesses that require them and citizens who say their rights are being infringed upon.
Pressed about the president’s reluctance to wear a mask, McCarthy said he has seen Trump wear one at times and agreed that him doing so would send a patriotic message.
“It would. I mean, for the 4th of July we could show our patriotism with a red, white and blue mask,” McCarthy said on Fox.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will don one Friday when he travels to South Dakota for an Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, said they will be handing out masks but not requiring people to social distance.
South Dakota reported no coronavirus deaths overnight, but 91 people have died in the state from the virus and 6,716 cases have been reported, according to NBC News figures.
In other developments, Texas Gov. Gregg Abott banned elective surgeries in four south Texas counties to ensure that there are enough hospital beds for coronavirus cases. That brings to eight the number of counties where these elective surgeries are suspended.
Texas is another state where the governor, a staunch Trump supporter, had been pushing hard to reopen the state’s economy quickly.
Overnight, there were 5,755 new cases and 22 more deaths, according to NBC’s figures. In total, Texas has reported 158,766 cases and 2,427 fatalities.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey issued a shutdown order for bars, gyms, theaters, water parks and other venues as the numbers of COVID-19 infections continues to skyrocket. There were 4,682 cases reported Tuesday — a new record — and 44 more deaths.
Ducey, who also is a top Trump ally, lifted his state’s stay-at-home order in May and continued to insist this was “not a crisis situation” even as the grim arithmetic said otherwise. About 400 of the total 1,632 coronavirus deaths in Arizona came in the last two weeks, NBC News’ figures show.