Coronavirus closures in Europe raise questions in US

The growing spread of coronavirus around the globe is raising questions in the United States about the prospect of school closings, canceled events or sporting contests played to empty stadiums. 

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has closed schools, soccer teams in Italy's professional league have played games closed to spectators in the northern part of the country, and Switzerland on Friday said it was canceling all gatherings of more than 1,000 people to protect from the spread of coronavirus. 

The dangers of coronavirus in the United States are not as high at this point as those countries, but health officials have warned of an inevitable spread and White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyFauci says positive White House task force reports don't always match what he hears on the ground Bottom line White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds MORE, while insisting the administration had the situation in control, acknowledged Friday that school closings and public transportation disruptions were possible in the United States.

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Asked about possible school closings, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Friday described a “continuum” of steps that could be taken in the event of an epidemic or an outbreak that were on the table, but he cautioned that it didn’t mean those measures would be implemented.

“Those are all items on a broad continuum from least intrusive to more intrusive in terms of movement and the economy,” Azar told reporters at the White House. “Every option needs to be on the table as we assess the situation, but it depends really on what circumstances we end up facing if we end up seeing community transmission, if we end up seeing larger scale community transmission.”

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said “social distancing” measures already being taken in Europe could take place in the United States, but it would depend on the virus’s spread. He said mitigation measures could include “temporary closures of schools, major sporting events, major political events.”  

“Large-scale community spread in the U.S. is not inevitable but it's highly likely,” Gostin said. “If that were to happen, we would transition from trying to contain the virus to trying to slow it.”

Such steps would raise questions about everything from NBA and college basketball games to political rallies — on the Democratic presidential trail and for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE

Health experts describe ordering event closures as extreme and say it’s too early to determine whether they will need to be taken, pointing to the uncertainty surrounding the severity of the virus and its spread.

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“Obviously, there are thoughts about the Olympics now. I think for many of these things, it’s too soon to say,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under President Obama and president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives.

Those in political circles acknowledge the possibility of the virus shutting down campaign rallies but cautioned against stoking public fears with premature speculation.

“The speculation that is already happening about shutting things down puts an undo worry on people,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

Representatives for various presidential campaigns did not directly respond to specific questions about whether they were prepared for the possibility of the virus shuttering political events or resulting in reduced attendance.

“Americans everywhere have taken notice that we have a President who has prioritized the well-being and health of Americans and made our country safer and stronger than ever before,” Trump campaign Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement to The Hill. “What is not helpful is the politicization of the coronavirus, which is exactly what Democrats are doing on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.”

Chris Meagher, national press secretary for Democratic candidate Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan dies How Republicans can embrace environmentalism and win MORE, pointed to Buttigieg’s recent comments stressing that it is important “that the strategy of the United States government to keep us safe is guided above all by science and not by politics.”

While federal health officials could recommend school closures or limits to major public events, in most cases it would ultimately be up to state and local governments to take such steps.

Tom Bossert, who served as President Trump’s homeland security adviser until April 2018, said social distancing measures like school closures would likely be warranted in large cities eventually, though he noted that wouldn’t necessarily mean that local officials would take the same steps in rural or Midwest America.

“These would be eight-week, like two-month school closures if and when it becomes appropriate,” Bossert said Friday on a call arranged by the Atlantic Council. “I think we’re getting to that ‘when’ pretty close here. So, you might see a large metropolis do that based on data, based on actual presentation of cases.”

Pandemic guidelines updated by the CDC in 2017 propose taking efforts to limit person-to-person contact in schools, workplaces, and at “mass gatherings,” which could include ordering people to stay home from school or work or canceling large planned events.

Trump has largely downplayed concerns about the coronavirus, saying Wednesday he did not believe its spread was inevitable. His remarks have sometimes created dissonance with statements from health officials.

“It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger, it may not get bigger at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “But regardless of what happens, we are totally prepared.”

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Trump has echoed recommendations by health officials that Americans treat the virus like the flu by washing their hands, covering their coughs and staying home when they feel sick.

Mulvaney’s remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday represented the first public acknowledgement by a high-ranking White House official that school closures and other potential disturbances were likely.

At the same time, Mulvaney also diminished the threat posed by the virus, accusing the news media of covering it aggressively because they think this is going to be what brings down the president.” 

“Are you going to see some schools shut down? Probably. May you see impacts on public transportation? Sure,” Mulvaney told the crowd. “But we do this. We know how to handle this.”

Brett Samuels contributed.