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News Brief: Coronavirus Effects Spread, Democratic Primary


Worries about the coronavirus are hitting the global economy hard.


And across industries - think about all the empty flights, canceled classes and conferences and canceled concerts. And then yesterday, the stock market slid so dramatically after the opening bell that it triggered circuit breakers and trading was briefly suspended. After that happened, President Trump said he has plans that will bring Americans at least some economic relief.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to be meeting with House Republicans - Mitch McConnell, everybody - and discussing a possible payroll tax cut or relief - substantial relief - very substantial relief. That's a big number.

KING: OK. What did he mean by that? NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us to help explain. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So very substantial relief, President Trump says. What is he talking about?

HORSLEY: Well, we're not entirely sure. He was kind of short on specifics yesterday. He did promise to say more about the details today after some consultation with lawmakers. But he did float some ideas. You heard him talk there about a payroll tax cut. The White House has also talked about help for industries like airlines and cruise lines that have been very hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak, also small business loans for other businesses that are being affected - and, importantly, some help for workers who don't have sick leave and otherwise might feel economic pressure to keep going to work even if they fall ill, which of course is not what you want if you're trying to slow or stop the spread of the virus.

KING: Scott, we've reported a lot about the stock market slide, as you do. But one of the things it sounds like the president is trying to address is that there are people who are not so much worried about their investments - if indeed they have them - or their 401(k)s; they're worried about their paychecks. They're worried that they're going to be laid off.

HORSLEY: That's right. And the administration seems to be trying to address Main Street here as well as Wall Street, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a swipe at the president's proposals, saying they seem more targeted propping up the Dow Jones than helping the Jones family.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are skeptical about a payroll tax cut, although it is a way to get some more money into the economy and it was done during the recovery from the Great Recession. It's relatively slow, and it only helps people who are on the payroll, not those whose jobs have been disrupted by the outbreak. The president's own advisers have also said, though, he is interested in helping people who don't have sick leave, and that's one area where you see some agreement between the administration and Democrats on the Hill.

KING: What does the president need in order to get this done? Would he have to work with Congress?

HORSLEY: He is going to have to work with Congress for much of this. There might be some steps the administration could take on its own with existing legislation - things like those small business loans, for example. But much of this would take cooperation from Congress. And interestingly, you heard the president talk about meeting with Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader, and meeting with House Republicans. He didn't talk about meeting with House Democrats, who of course are in the majority and would have to go along with many of these things.

There does seem to be some agreement at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that the economic threat posed by coronavirus is severe enough to warrant some government action - but not much agreement yet on what that action should be.

KING: It is still very early in the morning. The markets haven't opened yet. But is - are there signs that what the president said has been enough to calm investors down a bit?

HORSLEY: For the moment, it certainly seems to be helping. Stock markets in Asia and Europe were up overnight. And the futures market in this country suggests that the U.S. market's going to open up and claw back some of those big losses from yesterday.

KING: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're very welcome.


KING: All of Italy is a coronavirus red zone.

GREENE: That's right. In an effort to contain the virus, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked the nation's 60 million residents to stay home except for essential work or emergencies. More than 9,000 cases have been confirmed now in Italy, and over 450 people have died.

KING: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is covering the story from Rome. Hey, Sylvia.


KING: So a red zone for the entire country - what does it actually mean for daily life for Italians?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's not the full lockdown like the one we saw in China...


POGGIOLI: ...But it's probably the most draconian measure ever taken in a Western country - at least in peacetime. This is how Conte put it to the Italian people.



POGGIOLI: He said, "the right thing to do today is to stay home. Our future and that of Italy is in our hands." He focused primarily on young people, who tend to socialize a lot, especially in the evenings. He told them they're going to have to hunker down for the good of their families, their grandparents and the nation.

So museums, cinemas, theaters, gyms are closed through April 3. Schools and universities are closed. Bars and restaurants can stay open until 6 p.m. Soccer matches are suspended. Malls and supermarkets are closed on weekends. And freedom of movement from one municipality to another will require signing a police form self-certifying why you're traveling. And the only justifications are work, health and emergencies, and violators can risk up to three months in jail or fines of about $200.

KING: OK. That sounds quite serious. How are these restrictions going to be enforced? I mean, are you seeing, like, police out in the streets asking people where they're headed?

POGGIOLI: Well, we're looking now at what was done in the north, where the first big restrictions were set in. And we saw police and soldiers were posted at train stations in Milan, stopping people who want to leave. They have to show the police form I mentioned giving the reasons why they want to leave. There have been cases - the newspapers today reported some cases of violators - two young women who said they had urgent need to go to Sicily but then when they got there, posted their photographs and, you know, bragged about breaking the cordon sanitaire. So they were reported to the police.

But yesterday, another town not under restriction introduced this method of keeping the population at home. We might hear more announcements like this.



POGGIOLI: This is a police van in the town of Chiavari in the Liguria region. And the police agent with the loudspeaker saying, "we call on citizens to stay home as much as possible for this coronavirus emergency."

KING: That is not entirely un-scary (ph), to just hear that voice blaring from a loudspeaker. What's been the public reaction so far? Are people freaking out? Are they doing OK?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, it's still early. But if we look at how Italians in the north reacted to the first round, I'd say they got the message. They've taken it very seriously. I think Italians are even surprised themselves at how obedient they've been. There was one big exception, and that was there were a lot of prison riots, people protesting - inmates protesting suspension of family visits. Six inmates died. Several escaped from one prison.

I happen to live next door to the Rome prison, and I heard shouting from both inmates inside and relatives outside. But I think, basically, we hear now that these restrictions have been imposed because the government, the opposition - everybody is listening to doctors' insistence that quarantine is the only way to curb the spread of the virus.

KING: And just quickly, are you going outside today?

POGGIOLI: I definitely will.


KING: You have to work. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.


KING: Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.


KING: Six states hold contests today in the Democratic presidential race.

GREENE: That's right. And the top two contenders are former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. Both men want to prove that they are the one to unite Democrats and beat President Trump in November. This is Joe Biden at a rally in Detroit, Mich.


JOE BIDEN: Folks, there's nothing we've ever failed to do when we set our mind to it. Everybody knows who Donald Trump is. Let's let him know who we are. We choose hope over fear.


BIDEN: We, Americans, choose unity over division.


GREENE: And we should say, Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who were once Biden's rivals in the race, joined him onstage.

KING: All right. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio votes next week. Hey, Asma.


KING: OK. So tonight is going to be a big night for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Right?

KHALID: It is. Joe Biden won 10 states in Super Tuesday last week, and that was just a remarkable shift in his political fortunes in, frankly, a really mind-bendingly quick amount of time. That gave Biden the lead in delegates. And our last count shows he's now up by 96 delegates. So he's really looking to solidify his front-runner status today and essentially prevent Bernie Sanders from showing that he has a path to a comeback.

I would say that the most crucial state for both of them is Michigan. It has the largest number of delegates at stake. But it's also about the political symbolism of that state. Recent polling shows Biden pretty comfortably in the lead here. But in 2016, Sanders defied the polls, and he beat Hillary Clinton there. So I would say, if he is to mount a comeback, he really needs to do that through Michigan. And I would say, you know, both of them want to show that they can boost key demographics that Democrats need in a general election because, I'm sure you recall, Trump actually won Michigan during the general election in '16.

KING: That's right. Michigan has 125 delegates, like you said, the most. So what else is at stake today? What other states are big?

KHALID: So Sanders has been doing fairly well out West and - particularly in states that have large white liberal voting bases in the Democratic primaries or caucuses. He is expected to do pretty well in North Dakota, Washington state and Idaho. We've also got Mississippi and Missouri, both states that have sizable African American voting blocs. And Biden has shown that he has a particular strength with black voters. You know, Mississippi actually has a larger percentage of African American voters than South Carolina. So he's expected to do really particularly well in that state.

KING: As you mentioned, after Super Tuesday, Joe Biden definitely looks like the front-runner. Has Bernie Sanders done anything to try to change the momentum?

KHALID: So my colleague Scott Detrow, who's been with the Vermont senator, has been reporting that these last couple of days have felt so different, that Sanders had this campaign that felt so confident in its strategy about bringing out nonvoters, and now it feels like it's scrambling. They had to cancel events to make sure that they could have more time in Michigan.

And he's been trying to present starker contrasts between himself and Biden - you know, pointing out that they have different views on trade, which, again, is a particularly salient issue in the manufacturing-heavy state of Michigan. You know, he also needs to chip away, though, at Biden's strength with black voters. And that is going to be difficult.

KING: Just quickly - how important are all these endorsements that Biden is getting, people like Senators Booker and Harris?

KHALID: You know, Noel, it's always hard to gauge the impact of endorsements. But we do know from polls that there have been a large share of late-deciding voters and that they have been going more for Joe Biden. So what I will say is it's unclear, but we will have more clarity after tonight.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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