First Coronavirus Briefing In Months, V.P. Takes Center Stage, E.U. May Ban Americans : Up First The number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. hits an all time high, says the White House task force. Yet Vice President Pence defends large political rallies that could spread COVID-19. And the European Union says it may not admit Americans because the U.S. doesn't have the virus under control.
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First Coronavirus Briefing In Months, V.P. Takes Center Stage, E.U. May Ban Americans

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First Coronavirus Briefing In Months, V.P. Takes Center Stage, E.U. May Ban Americans

First Coronavirus Briefing In Months, V.P. Takes Center Stage, E.U. May Ban Americans

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The Coronavirus Task Force held its first briefing in two months.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We slowed the spread. We flattened the curve. We saved lives.


That as the number of daily new infections hit a record high. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump did not attend the task force meeting. He's focusing on campaigning, trying to shore up support as a new NPR poll his approval rating hitting a new low.

SIMON: And the European Union says American visitors aren't welcome. They're completing an agreement to bar travelers from countries that don't have the coronavirus under control. So stay with us. We'll give you the news you need to start your weekend.


SIMON: The White House Coronavirus Task Force gave a public briefing Friday for the first time in two months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump who had turned previous briefings into long and meandering sessions did not attend. Instead, Vice President Pence led the briefing, trying to paint a positive picture despite nearly 40,000 new cases a day in this country.

SIMON: We'll talk to White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez about the political dimensions of this meeting in a few minutes. But first, let's bring in NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Pleased to be with you.

SIMON: What was the central message that Vice President Pence tried to get across in this media briefing?

HARRIS: Well, it was a mixed message, actually. He asked people to slow the spread of coronavirus by following the old White House coronavirus guidelines that were drafted way back in March. Those included avoiding large groups, handwashing, staying home if you're not feeling well. But, notably, they did not include wearing masks. Pence was also trying to make the case that the scary numbers aren't as bad as they look. Here's a clip from his comments.


PENCE: There may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago, that we're in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we're in a much better place.

HARRIS: He said a lot of the surge is among people who are under 35. They're going out - especially in Southern states - after months of being cooped up. Young people - at least those in good health - are unlikely to get severe disease. So they are less likely to crowd hospitals and add to the death statistics and those are not growing as rapidly as the case numbers are - at least not right now.

SIMON: So what are local officials supposed to do in response to these mixed messages?

HARRIS: Well, if they are supposed to be reassured that everything is under control, that is not what they're seeing - particularly in some hard-hit places. For example, yesterday, the top official in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, warned that, quote, "we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation." She went on to say that the hospitals are currently full, and though they are making adjustments to accept more patients, you know, that space could run out in a matter of weeks. Likewise, officials in Florida announced Friday that bars must stop serving drinks on the premises and Miami beaches will actually be closed for the Fourth of July weekend.

SIMON: What's the Coronavirus Task Force doing about this huge resurgence of cases?

HARRIS: Well, public health officials are trying to figure out how to get people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, in particular, to take this seriously, even though it's true that their health isn't at high risk. The problem is many young people get mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so they don't even know that they're spreading the disease. And that makes it really hard for health officials to slow the epidemic. At the briefing, the nation's top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, made a plea to a group that was, frankly, probably not even tuned in to the briefing.


ANTHONY FAUCI: You have an individual responsibility to yourself, but you have a societal responsibility because if we want to end this outbreak, we've got to realize that we are part of the process.

HARRIS: And if this keeps going, it's quite possible that COVID-19 will spread into states like New York that have worked so hard to control the disease. And it would be terrible to have it reappear there - in big numbers, it's still there, of course - a little bit. Task force officials pleaded for vulnerable people with underlying health conditions - especially those older than 80 - who live in hot spots to keep sheltering as much as possible. And, you know, Scott - what I keep coming back to is all the people in the hospitals who are risking their lives to care for coronavirus patients.

SIMON: Yeah.

HARRIS: You know, doctors and nurses and so on. There's a feeling out there that wearing a mask is simply a personal choice. But, as Fauci points out, it affects the whole society. Americans, with their sense of freedom and independence, aren't really necessarily tuned in to that message.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Happy to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, as we mentioned, President Trump typically attends these task force meetings. They are also usually held at the White House.

SIMON: But there was a change of venue this time. The meeting was held at the Health and Human Services Department, leaving President Trump behind at the White House at a jobs training event where he was asked about the out-of-control coronavirus numbers.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're making a lot of progress with the whole situation that came in from a place called China, as you probably know - you probably see. But we have a little work to do and we'll get it done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez was at the task force meeting, and he joins us now to talk about the politics. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Franco, we heard the president there say that there was progress when the opposite is true. Is that why he chose not to be at the coronavirus briefing?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, President Trump is in campaign mode. He's trying to put the coronavirus pandemic behind him and he's focused on rebuilding the economy. He had planned to make the strong economy the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. That all changed after millions of people started losing their jobs because of the stay-at-home orders. And he had to shift to show how he's trying to get things back to normal. So it's not that surprising that he doesn't want to be out front on this very concerning issue about rising cases in the South. He left that uncomfortable job to the vice president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This surge in cases comes as the president and the vice president have started holding rallies and other political events. Any sign that they're going to rein those in?

ORDOÑEZ: No, the vice president actually defended those events. He says Americans have the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Here's how he explained it.


PENCE: And even in a health crisis, the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights. And working with state officials, as we did in Oklahoma and as far as we did in Arizona, we're creating settings where people can choose to participate in the political process and we'll continue to do that.

ORDOÑEZ: We saw at those events in Tulsa and Phoenix that people were indoors, crowded together, and most were not wearing masks. And that goes against public health advice on stopping the spread of the virus. The messaging for Pence is a problem. On the one hand, he says we're going to continue rallies and events. On the other, he says that people should take precautions. Here's more of what he said.


PENCE: We just believe that what's most important here, is that people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance, whether that have to do with facial coverings, whether it have to do with the size of gatherings. And we'll continue to reinforce that message.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I'll just note that local health officials in Tulsa wanted the rally there postponed. In Phoenix, there was a local ordinance to wear masks but very few of the attendees did. And Pence will be traveling soon to some of these hot spots - Texas, Arizona, Florida - where he's going to meet with Republican governors. He's also going to be holding some political events while he's there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, meanwhile, there's this new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out that does not show good news for this administration.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, what it is showing is that President Trump's ratings are continuing to slide with this new spike in cases and the racial justice protests. It's showing that 40% of voters approve of the job he's doing, but 58% say they disapprove. And that's an all-time high for him. Actually, 49% say they strongly disapprove, and that's a record level for any president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

SIMON: And for more from the White House on the campaign trail, you can check out the NPR Politics Podcast.


SIMON: In just a few days, European countries will open their doors and welcome visitors from outside the EU after months of being under lockdown. The invitations are only going out to those countries that have the coronavirus under control.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the United States is not on the invite list. Teri Schultz is in Brussels, and she is following the story for us. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the United States did not make the cut. Explain what criteria they used.

SCHULTZ: Well, Lulu, I would just note that there is not yet a final list of approved countries. That could come later today or, actually, any time before Wednesday, which is the EU's self-imposed deadline. But we've known for quite a while now that it's virtually impossible the U.S. will be on it when it is adopted. And that's for two basic reasons. One is the epidemiological situation there and the other is reciprocity. So, for the most part, Europe has gotten control of its pandemic other than some local outbreaks here and there. And some countries are still a bit higher than others, but the overall infection rate here, which is what the EU is looking at, is about 16 infections per 100,000 people.

In the U.S., that number is many times higher and getting worse, not better. And something many Americans don't realize is that the U.S. is also blocking Europeans from going there. So while EU officials insist the infection rate and the trend are the most important factors, they also want European citizens to have the same travel rights as they're granting others. So that's why we do not expect the U.S. to be on this list, at least at first.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. But, apparently, China is on the list of approved countries.

SCHULTZ: Yeah, that is expected to be the case, again, given the two factors that I just explained. If there continues to be no major rise in infections in China, and if Beijing removes all travel restrictions on European Union citizens, China will be on the list. But I'd also note here - and this may give some optimism to people - that the list will be reviewed probably as often as every two weeks. So if the epidemiological situation changes, countries will be added to the list or taken off if it gets worse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Teri, last year, 7 million Americans visited Europe over the summer, bringing in much needed tourism dollars. Obviously, Europe, like the United States - like many places in the world - is not in a good economic situation. Won't this ban hurt some of the local economies?

SCHULTZ: It's going to be devastating, Lulu, not just on local economies but on the national economies on the EU's GDP overall. There's no other way to look at it. Tourism makes up about a tenth of the EU's overall economy. And remember that some of those countries that were hardest hit by coronavirus are also the most dependent on tourism. So that's really a double whammy for those countries.

But, you know, Europeans are saying, look. We spent months locked in our houses here to prevent the virus from spreading. So some of the countries that are, you know, big tourism destinations like Italy, Spain and France had some of the most stringent restrictions in that regard. So while these are very tough economic choices to make now, with regard to tourism, I think that most countries believe that preventing another outbreak will be worth it for this summer at least.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Except for one country, right? Greece, which depends upon tourism to support its economy, says it's going to ignore this ban. So does that mean Americans can go to Greece?

SCHULTZ: Let's see. Greece isn't the only country that has a problem with this proposed list, which I would note is, you know, going to be probably fewer than 15 countries to start with. But it gets very tricky because it's actually national governments and not the EU that control the borders. So for all the attention it's getting, this list is going to be just a recommendation.

So, sure, let's take Greece as an example - it could open its borders to Americans. But, as you probably know, once you get here, there's largely passport-free and border-free travel between European Union countries. So if someone came to Greece, they could travel other places, theoretically. So the neighboring countries who want to maintain more stringent restrictions could actually close their borders to Greece. So I would guess that any country - Greece or any other EU government - who is looking at possibly flouting these recommendations will have had to make some pretty serious calculations about balancing the potential for the disease versus their potential to earn more dollars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's reporter Teri Schultz speaking to us from Brussels. Thank you very much.

SCHULTZ: Pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, June 27.

SIMON: Our podcast is produced and edited by Hiba Ahmad, Samantha Balaban, Sophia Boyd, Ian Stewart, Danny Hensel, Ed McNulty, D. Parvaz, Peter Breslow and Martha Ann Overland.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the studio - director Ned Wharton and engineers Stu Rushfield, Dennis Nielsen and Patrick Boyd.

SIMON: Evie Stone is our supervising editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Lucy Oliver.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Jim Kane is our deputy managing editor. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. UP FIRST - back Monday with news to start your week. You can follow us on social media. We're @upfirst on Twitter. And stay tuned to this feed for occasional special episodes.

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