US political leaders are grappling with a public health and economic maelstrom — as well as concerns for their own safety – as fears about the coronavirus outbreak escalated.
The White House said it was “conducting business as usual”, and Donald Trump sought to project calm as the epidemic poses one of the greatest tests yet to his administration.
Trump officials argued that they had the matter in hand, and claimed political opponents were rooting for an economic collapse.
On Capitol Hill, at least three legislators were in self-quarantine as discussions were under way on how to address the outbreak and economic volatility and keep the government functioning.
The president shook hands with supporters on Monday morning when he arrived to headline a fundraiser in Longwood, Florida, that raised approximately $4 million (£3.04 million) for his re-election campaign and the Republican Party.
He ignored shouted questions about the plunging stock market as he boarded Air Force One for the flight back to Washington.
In Monday morning tweets, he lashed out at the steep market drop and news that large public gatherings were being called off because of the virus.
“At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths,” he tweeted, comparing it to seasonal influenza and the thousands of deaths that causes. “Think about that!”
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
Later on Monday, however, Mr Trump said his administration would ask Congress to pass payroll tax relief and other swift measures.
Intending to calm the fears of financial markets over the impact of the epidemic, Mr Trump told reporters he was seeking “very substantial relief” to the payroll tax, as well as help for casual workers.
Mr Trump said he would hold a press conference on Tuesday to outline the proposals, saying his administration and Congress would be “discussing a possible payroll tax cut or relief, substantial relief, very substantial relief, that’s big, that’s a big number”.
Scientists at this stage do not know what the death rate of the new coronavirus is and whether it will be about the same as flu or worse.
At the same time, administration officials were insistent that they were not trying to dismiss public concerns.
At the Pentagon, officials have begun “social distancing” measures. On Monday, defence secretary Mark Esper’s regular meeting with senior staff, which would normally be held face-to-face in a single room with 40 to 50 participants, was broken up into three rooms, with video-teleconferencing among the rooms, according to the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman.
He said Mr Esper and the 15 to 20 people in his room, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat at least 6ft apart, in line with health guidance.
Mr Trump is delegating much of the virus response to vice president Mike Pence, who convened a video teleconference to give an update on the federal government’s response with the nation’s governors.
Mr Pence was also leading a meeting of the administration’s taskforce on Monday before holding a press briefing.
On Capitol Hill, where many legislators are older and have frequent constant contact with the public, leaders were fielding questions from members and staff about how the complex will be secured.
Leaders have shown little willingness to close the Capitol, but meetings are scheduled throughout the day to discuss preparations.
On Monday, House representatives Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz put themselves in voluntary quarantine after exposure to a person who tested positive for the virus at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
Both said they did not have any symptoms but would wait out the remainder of the 14 days since the contact at home.
Mr Gaetz had travelled to Washington with Mr Trump on Air Force One on Monday.
Mr Collins met Mr Trump on Tuesday night at the White House and shook hands with him on Friday when the president visited the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters.
A day earlier, senator Ted Cruz and representative Paul Gosar placed themselves in quarantine after coming in contact with the same person at the conservative conference.
Another representative, Julia Brownley, said she met last week with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus. She closed her office and said she and her staff are “self-monitoring and maintaining social distancing practices”.
Vast numbers of visitors visit Capitol Hill, especially at this time of year when advocacy groups arrange “fly-in” trips to lobby and speak to legislators and school groups descend for tours.