President Donald Trump on Thursday floated potentially restricting domestic travel to states such as Washington and California if the coronavirus outbreak in such areas gets “too hot.”
Trump made the comments in response to questions from reporters Thursday in the Oval Office, saying “we haven’t discussed that yet” but that it was “a possibility” if “somebody gets a little bit out of control, if an area gets too hot.”
He did not elaborate, except to cite a containment zone around New Rochelle, New York, as “good,” and no official White House announcement was made about any such restrictions. The comments came a day after Trump announced a 30-day ban on visitors from 26 European nations.
Washington state elected officials and travel-industry leaders say they have not been informed of any forthcoming restrictions — and some slammed the concept as misguided, given the widespread advance of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who on Wednesday issued an order restricting gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, dismissed Trump’s comments and said he’s heard nothing about travel restrictions during several conversations with Vice President Mike Pence about coronavirus response.
“At the moment, it sounds like a random comment by the president, rather than a thoughtful consideration,” Inslee said when asked about the comments during a news conference announcing school closures. “I will be talking with the vice president in the next day or so about several things, I don’t believe that’s going to come up.”
Inslee and Pence talked last week during a visit to the state by the vice president to address the coronavirus crisis. Despite what both characterized as a cordial meeting, one day later Trump called Inslee “a snake.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, in a written statement, said “the President needs to stop denying reality and understand that this virus is already spreading — he wasted the time we should have used to get ready.”
Murray said rather than restricting travel, the right move now is for individuals to take steps to protect themselves, for Congress to swiftly pass legislation making coronavirus tests “accessible and free,” give workers paid sick leave, and make sure health care workers have the equipment they need. “This is what experts say we need to do, urgently, and this is what I am going to keep working to get done,” she said.
Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, said he doesn’t think a domestic travel ban is necessary, though at this point he wasn’t sure how much more damage it would cause to Seattle’s already-embattled web of tourism related businesses.
“I think just psychologically it would be terrible, it would be tough,” Norwalk said. “And is it truly warranted? I don’t think so. I think not knowing how much of a bottom is left, I think it just creates more pain and suffering.”
Norwalk said tourists are still trickling into Seattle, but amid the postponement of cruise season, Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC), the Seattle Mariners’ and Seattle Sounders’ seasons and scores of concerts and other events, traffic has dropped dramatically.
Year-over-year lodging and associated tourism tax revenues dropped 20 to 50% last week, he said, and that was before most of the major postponements and cancellations. Restaurants are operating at 40-45% occupancy, and hotels around 50%.
The Washington State Convention Center, which had been full more than 45 weeks a year, lost $20 million worth of bookings in March, including ECCC, which draws close to 100,000. There have been $14 million worth of losses in April so far and 1-in-5 five major bookings for May has been canceled. Visit Seattle says $89 million worth of bookings are at risk in April and May.
That doesn’t include the ripples through the community of gig and part-time workers who support convention activity and are also losing millions of dollars as a group. “It’s just so dramatic and it was so sudden in many ways,” Norwalk said.
Major airlines operating at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had little to say about Trump’s comments.
A spokesperson for Delta Airlines said the company makes “adjustments to service, as needed, in response to government travel directive.” Alaska Airlines declined to comment.
Stephanie Formas, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief of staff, said the mayor’s office hasn’t heard anything official from the White House about a ban on travel to Washington.
“Mayor Durkan believes the President’s energies, and federal resources should be focused on declaring a national emergency to allow access to FEMA resources, ramping up wide scale testing, and ensuring local government and public official health officials have the resources to respond to the spread of COVID-19,” Formas said in an emailed statement.
Formas noted that due to a lack of testing kits “it’s likely the spread of the COVID19 has already reached hundreds of cities and states” and that the resources of the federal government should be focused on helping communities fight the pandemic’s spread.
In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday, Durkan asked for more test kits; 450,000 additional sets of personal protective equipment for King County first responders; funding for isolation, quarantine and shelter of people experiencing homelessness; assistance for lower-income workers and gig-economy workers impacted by the outbreak; direct aid to small businesses; and a relief package for Seattle’s economy.
Norwalk said Inslee’s decision to limit gatherings was a smart step that should allow Seattle more time to deal with the rapidly changing scenarios surrounding the outbreak, which has killed at least 29 in Washington. He believes a travel ban would be a step too far – at this point.
“I think some businesses now will say, ‘This is the decision I need to kind of really shut down for three months,’ or whatever it may be,” Norwalk said. “Or some that are fortunate to close with the hope of reopening, this could really be a death blow to a lot of businesses.”
Staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Daniel Beekman and Crystal Paul contributed.