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Big 3 automakers shuttered by COVID-19 fears

Chrysler, GM and Ford will close all plants amid the coronavirus outbreak.

By Tim Sullivan and David Rising
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday moved to invoke a federal law that allows the government to marshal the private sector to fight the coronavirus epidemic, as the economic damage mounted with word that Detroit’s Big Three automakers agreed to shut down all their factories to protect workers.

On a day of head-spinning developments, stocks tumbled again on Wall Street, falling so fast they triggered another automatic trading halt. More borders slammed shut across Europe and North America, with the U.S. and Canada agreeing to close their shared boundary to all but essential travel. And the Trump administration pressed Congress to swiftly pass a potentially $1 trillion rescue package to prop up the economy and speed relief checks to Americans in a matter of weeks.

Calling himself a “wartime president,” Trump said he would sign the Defense Production Act “in case we need it” to deal with an expected surge in cases of the virus. The law gives the president extraordinary authority to get industries to expand production and turn out vital materials.

The news came as scientists announced the virus has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,000, while the United Nations warned that the global fallout from the outbreak could cost nearly 25 million job losses around the world.

Around the globe, officials took increasingly drastic measures to fight the epidemic and the threat of a recession. California’s governor warned grimly that martial law could be imposed, while the mayor of New York said the city’s 8.6 million residents should be prepared for a near-complete lockdown. Czech authorities used emergency powers to raid a warehouse and seize hundreds of thousands of face masks.

With a growing number of Americans thrown out of work by the near-shutdown of much of the U.S. economy, Trump also said the Housing and Urban Development Department will suspend foreclosures and evictions from public housing through April.

Two people briefed on the matter said Wednesday that Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler agreed to close their factories. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because the closings had not been announced. The move would idle about 150,000 workers, who are likely to receive supplemental pay in addition to unemployment benefits.

The U.S. reported more than 6,500 cases and at least 116 deaths, almost half of them in Washington state, where dozens of residents from a suburban Seattle nursing home have died.

Meanwhile, across the European continent, desperate travelers choked border crossings after countries began shutting the doors against the coronavirus. And the Trump administration was said to be considering a plan to turn back all people who cross into the U.S. illegally from Mexico.

Some bright spots emerged: Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in late December and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case for a second straight day Wednesday.

But in a grim illustration of the epidemic’s shifting center of gravity, the death toll in Italy moved closer to overtaking China’s. Italy had more than 2,900 dead Wednesday after a record one-day total of 475 deaths; China’s toll was just over 3,200.

Iran has also been hit especially hard, with more than 17,000 cases and 1,100 deaths.

In releasing the new global infection figures, Johns Hopkins University said more than 82,000 people have recovered from the virus, which causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough in most cases, with severe illness more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.

Still, scientists have no doubt the true number of people infected is higher than the 200,000 reported by health authorities because of the possibility that many mild cases have gone unrecognized or unreported, and because of the lag in large-scale testing in the U.S., where the effort has been marked by bumbling and bureaucratic delay.

In the first-ever breakdown of its kind in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that coronavirus deaths in the United States mirror what has been reported in other countries, with about 4 out of 5 deaths occurring in people 65 and older — and no deaths in children.

The CDC looked at more than 4,200 cases reported through Monday. 

The coronavirus is present in all 50 states after West Virginia reported an infection. In far-flung Hawaii, the governor encouraged travelers to postpone their island vacations, while Nevada ordered its casinos closed.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that residents should be prepared for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order within days — a near-lockdown like the one covering almost 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay area. In the most sweeping measure of its kind in the U.S., they are allowed to leave their homes only for food, medicine or exercise.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom put the National Guard on alert for humanitarian duties like ensuring proper food distribution and public safety, as some grocery stores resorted to rationing to control panic buying. But he also said “we have the ability to do martial law” — which gives the military authority and can suspend civil liberties – “if we feel the necessity.”

The Trump administration’s plan for issuing relief checks to Americans calls for the payment of $500 billion in two installments, in April and May. The amounts have yet to be decided but would be based on income and family size.

Meanwhile, miles-long traffic jams spread across Europe, where leaders have closed borders to nonessential traffic. Tens of thousands of people across the continent were struggling to return home amid the closed borders and dramatic cuts in the number of flights. 

At one point, trucks were backed in Austria up for 28 kilometers (17 miles) and cars for 14 kilometers (nearly 9 miles).

In Southeast Asia, the causeway between Malaysia and the financial hub of Singapore was eerily quiet after Malaysia shut its borders, while the Philippines backed down on an order giving foreigners 72 hours to leave from a large part of its main island.

Taiwan said that it, too, would ban foreigners from entry and citizens would have to quarantine at home for 14 days. 

Even tourists on Ecuador’s Galapagos islands — 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the South American mainland — have been affected. Canadian Jessy Lamontaine and her family were stuck there when flights were suspended.

“I was in tears this morning,” Lamontaine said. “I couldn’t get any answers from the airline. I had no money and didn’t know whether I was going to keep my job.”

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