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As US coronavirus death toll surpasses 2,000, Trump retracts quarantine proposal for hard-hit New York metro area

An emergency services worker in protective gear, as a precaution against the coronavirus, in Paterson, N.J., March 24, 2020.
An emergency services worker in protective gear, as a precaution against the coronavirus, in Paterson, N.J., March 24, 2020.CHANG W. LEE/NYT

WASHINGTON - The United States reached a grim milestone Saturday, doubling the number of coronavirus-related deaths over two days to more than 2,000 people as the rate of infected Americans surpassed every country in the world.

New York remained the hardest hit, a devastating toll compounded Saturday by President Trump’s day-long dance over whether he’d order a federal quarantine of the New York metro region - a proposal he ultimately retracted.

The president spent most of the day teasing a travel restriction on the New York metro area, confounding public officials who were blindsided by the suggestion. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called the idea "preposterous" and equated it to imprisonment and "a declaration of war."


Then, a little after 8 p.m., the president tweeted that a quarantine wouldn’t be necessary after all, and instead, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue a “strong travel advisory” for the New York tri-state area, the details of which were not immediately available.

By Saturday, more than 116,000 people in the United States were confirmed to have the virus. In the month since the first confirmed death on Feb. 29, the United States surpassed 1,000 coronavirus-related fatalities. The number of confirmed deaths has since doubled in two days to more than 2,000.

Fatalities also continued to climb in Italy, where there have been more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths. About 889 people died in a 24-hour period, officials announced Saturday. The country's case count, which rose Saturday to 92,472, is second only to that of the United States.

With the country now leading the world in coronavirus cases, Trump suggested earlier in the day that a mandatory quarantine on parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut - the nation's hit-hardest region - could be forthcoming.

"Some people would like to see New York quarantined because it's a hot spot," Trump told reporters outside the White House. "I'm thinking about that right now, we might not have to do it, but there's a possibility that sometime today we'll do a quarantine, short-term, two weeks, on New York."


Trump later clarified that if enacted, the quarantine would affect "the New York metropolitan area," but he did not specify exactly what parts of that tri-state region.

It was unclear whether Trump was seriously considering the move or whether it was an off-the-cuff pronouncement. Acting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters, "We're evaluating all the options right now."

Two White House officials said the idea was spurred by a conversation that morning with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who had complained to Trump about people from New York pouring into the Sunshine State. Aides spent the day warning the president against it, explaining that it would be impossible to enforce and could create more complications, the officials said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Trump first raised the idea as he headed to Norfolk, where a medical ship meant to ease the burden on New York City hospitals waited to depart. He said governors from other states had asked him to consider a domestic travel ban from the New York area. He dangled the possibility of a quarantine during two gaggles with reporters, in his speech in Norfolk and in a tweet.

Cuomo, who said he spoke with the president early Saturday about medical supplies, hospital beds and additional aid for New York, called a regional lockdown "a civil war kind of discussion."


"I don't think it's plausible, I don't think it's legal. It would be total mayhem, I don't have another word for it," Cuomo said during a blistering interview on CNN. "Why you would want to create total pandemonium on top of a pandemic, I have no idea."

He said the move would be a slippery slope as coronavirus cases continue to rise in other states.

"It wouldn't just be New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. Next week it would be Louisiana with New Orleans, then the next week after that, Detroit, Michigan and so on across the nation," he said. "I don't think the president is looking to start a lot of wars with a lot of states just about now, for a lot of reasons."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he saw the president's suggestion "as I was walking into this room" to hold a news conference Saturday afternoon. Though he had spoken with the president as recently as Friday, Murphy said, "nothing like a quarantine came up."

Trump did not indicate how he foresaw a regional lockdown being enforced. The president has the power under the Constitution's commerce clause to issue a quarantine by executive order to protect the public from communicable diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.

"We're looking at it, and we'll be making a decision," Trump said. "A lot of the states that aren't infected that don't have a big problem, they've asked me if I'd look at it so we're going to look at it. It'll be for a short period of time if we do it at all."


Earlier in the week, the White House coronavirus task force implored people traveling from the New York metro area to self*-isolate for 14 days upon arriving in their new location.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that the rate of infection in New York City is eight to 10 times higher than in other areas, "which means when they go to another place for their own safety, they've got to be careful."

The next day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, announced that travelers flying into the state from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or New Orleans - where infections jumped to nearly 1,300 Saturday following Louisiana's highest single-day increase - would be required to self-quarantine upon arrival.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued a similar order and set up checkpoints at airports and along interstates with routes through the Northeast and Louisiana.

Both states have said that refusing to cooperate with quarantine orders could result in jail time.

At a news conference Saturday, DeSantis threw his support behind the president's possible lockdown of the New York metro area. The president had raised the idea during a phone call that morning about rapid testing for the coronavirus, he said.


"Whatever works, I think we need to do," DeSantis said at a news briefing. "How is it fair for them to just be airdropping in people from the hot zones? . . . It's not fair to the people of Florida."

DeSantis said a traveler from New York who had tested positive for the coronavirus was picked up after he got off a plane Friday in Jacksonville, Florida. The man had temporarily stopped showing symptoms and believed it was safe to fly, DeSantis said. Florida officials escorted him to a hospital.

Florida on Saturday reported 565 new cases of covid-19, bringing the state's total to more than 3,600. According to the Florida Department of Health, about 4 percent of the state's cases involve non-Florida residents.

Governors around the country have for days been begging the federal government for additional aid.

In New York, the hardest-hit state in the nation with more than 52,000 confirmed cases and at least 728 deaths, Cuomo redoubled his call for more personal protective gear for medical providers and ventilators for the ill.

Cuomo has said New York would likely hit its peak of cases in "14 to 21 days" and may need as many as 40,000 ventilators to treat critically sick patients. Trump has openly questioned that estimate, but on Saturday, Cuomo said he was planning for "that worst-case scenario."

"I have no desire to procure more ventilators than we need," Cuomo said.

The governor shared his frustration that the cost of ventilators has risen in some cases by as much as $20,000 from their normal price because of scarcity and increased demand. He has previously called for the federal government to nationalize the procurement of emergency equipment.

In Kansas, where the governor on Saturday joined 22 other states in issuing a mandatory stay-home order, hospitals were running out of supplies and struggling to compete with other states and the federal government for equipment like ventilators and personal protective gear for hospital workers, including gowns and masks.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, on Thursday made a request for a federal disaster declaration, stating that "we're still not getting what we need from the federal government." It took days for the Trump administration to grant her request, which the White House announced it had done Saturday.

Trump heralded the departure of the USNS Comfort on Saturday as proof that the federal government was working hard and fast to get help to states in need.

The 1,000-bed medical ship is expected to arrive in New York City on Monday and begin treating patients Tuesday. The beds will be reserved for patients with conditions other than covid-19 to free up hospital beds and emergency rooms throughout the city for coronavirus patients, Trump said.

"This great ship behind me is a 70,000-ton message of hope and solidarity to the incredible people of New York, a place I know very well, a place I love," he said. "You have the unwavering support of the entire nation."

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The Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles, Kim Bellware and Josh Dawsey in Washington and Shayna Jacobs in New York contributed to this report.