Donald Trump has announced he will invoke emergency powers that allow the US government to marshal the private sector in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Trump, describing himself as a “wartime president”, said he was employing the Defence Production Act “in case we need it” as the government bolsters resources for an expected surge in cases.
He also said he will expand the nation’s testing capacity and deploy a navy hospital ship to New York City, which is rapidly becoming the US epicentre of a worldwide pandemic. A second ship will be deployed to the West Coast.
The president also said the Housing and Urban Development Department will suspend foreclosures and evictions until April as a growing number of Americans face losing jobs and missing rent and mortgage payments.
The announcements came on a fast-moving day of developments. The Senate was taking up a financial aid package while the administration pushed forward its economic relief plan, which proposes 500 billion dollars in payments to millions of Americans, with the first cheques to come on April 6 if Congress approves the plan.
Mr Trump and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau jointly announced that the US-Canada border would be closed, except for essential personnel and for trade.
The US president dismissed talk from his own treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who suggested the nation could face 20% unemployment at least in the short term.
That’s an “absolute total worst case scenario”, Mr Trump said. “We’re no way near it.”
The administration has told Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 people and the elderly to stay home while a pointed reminder was given to millennials to follow the guidelines and avoid social gatherings.
Mr Trump likened the effort to the measures taken during the Second World War and said it would require national “sacrifice”.
“It’s a war,” he said. “I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president. It’s a very tough situation.”
The Defence Production Act gives the president a broad set of authorities to shape the domestic industrial base so it is capable of providing essential materials and goods needed in a national security crisis.
The law allows the president to require businesses and corporations to prioritise and accept contracts for materials and services. It also allows the president to provide incentives for the domestic industrial base to expand the production and supply of critical materials and goods, according to a March 2 report by the Congressional Research Service.
The president, at the briefing, also continued his recent habit of referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, which has been sharply criticised as racially inflammatory.
“It’s not racist at all,” he said. “It comes from China, that’s all.”
More than eight weeks after the first US case was detected, the federal government is still struggling to conduct widescale testing for the virus. Compounding the problem, laboratories are reporting shortages of key supplies needed to run tests.