AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A large percentage of Americans working from home, schoolchildren on an indefinite break - those are just a couple of the rhythms of daily life that two weeks ago seemed unthinkable. Now they seem essential.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Essential because the spread of the coronavirus in the United States is growing exponentially. There are now more than 55,000 cases.
CHANG: The widespread disease is not only wreaking havoc on daily life; it's wreaking havoc with the economy. Early this morning, the Senate leaders agreed on a $2 trillion financial package and, should it pass, it will be the third time this month the federal government has intervened to keep the U.S. economy afloat.
SHAPIRO: We're going to talk through the latest developments on all of these fronts over the next several minutes. To do that, I'm joined by NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, who covers the White House; NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley; and global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman.
Good to have all three of you here.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good to be here.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Ayesha, I'd like to start with you. The White House and Senate Republicans have been trying for days to come up with something that would pass along with Democrats. In tonight's coronavirus task force briefing, the president said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin sounded very optimistic that it would pass. What's everybody hoping that this package will do?
RASCOE: Well, they're hoping that this will boost the economy, which is really struggling at the moment. What really happened tonight is that Trump really stood behind this deal. He defended it. He said he's ready to sign it immediately. And Trump - he acknowledged that there might be some provisions that were championed by Democrats that Republicans might not like, like money going to help the Kennedy Center. But he said this is give and take.
And I think what's really important is that Trump kind of put his unequivocal support behind this bill, which will make it difficult for Republicans to put up much opposition, which makes it more likely to pass and to do what they hope it will do, which is to help the economy.
SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about what it might do. Scott, this is the biggest relief package in history, and yet New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says it's not enough for his state. What impact might it have?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is calling this emergency relief. It is not a stimulus bill, he said. The goal is not to encourage people to go out and spend money or encourage other people to go to work. On the contrary, the federal government is asking people to stay close to home and telling them not to go to work if they can avoid it.
So this is all just an effort to keep the economy afloat long enough to get to the other side of this pandemic. And it is really remarkable how far the ball has moved in less than two weeks. Two weeks ago, the White House was questioning the need for any kind of aggressive fiscal action. Now you've got them opening the floodgates with $2 trillion. And White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says if you count lending by the Federal Reserve, that number could actually be multiplied.
SHAPIRO: Well, I mean, another thing that's happened in the last two weeks is record numbers of people filing for unemployment. Is this solution big enough for the size of the problem?
HORSLEY: Yeah, we're going to get initial claims for last week's unemployment tomorrow, and it's going to be grim. Forecasters say we'll likely see more than 2 million people filing for unemployment, maybe a lot more. So this is not going to solve that problem, but it will provide more money for people who suddenly find themselves out of work. They'll get an extra $600 a week on top of what they would usually be eligible for. It will extend those payments to four months instead of the usual three. It will cover people who usually are not eligible for unemployment, like gig workers and the self-employed.
Now, there were a handful of Republican senators who objected to the way this is structured. They're worried it will discourage people from going back to work. But the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says they're trying to keep this simple.
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STEVEN MNUCHIN: We need to get this money into the American economy and American workers. That's the importance of this.
HORSLEY: In addition to the unemployment benefits, there's also those direct payments we've talked about - up to $1,200 per adult, $500 for children. And Mnuchin says that money could be going out within three weeks of the bill's passage.
SHAPIRO: To shift to the science of this disease, Nurith, Governor Cuomo said today there's some indication that the social distancing measures New York City has taken could be slowing the spread of the virus. How might that affect the trajectory of the disease?
AIZENMAN: Well, to be frank, at best, it means in several weeks, the situation will go from horrific to merely horrible because, yes, China and, most recently, Northern Italy have shown that drastic social distancing can slow down the number of new infections each day. But the bigger the number of cases you already have, the longer it takes to bring the numbers down. Also, it takes a while to see the effect in hospitals because, remember, a lot of people in New York City have already contracted this virus. It's too late for them. And so over the coming weeks, they'll still be developing symptoms, still be showing up in hospitals.
And then finally, this idea that with these extreme social distancing measures we're flattening the curve of infections - you know, we've all heard that term - it still means that people will continue to get infected over time, just not all at once.
SHAPIRO: So just to be clear, the goal here is to keep the number of people showing up in hospitals low enough that the health system can handle it.
AIZENMAN: Exactly. And for places that don't yet have outbreaks as big as New York's, the extreme social distancing right now is a temporary measure meant to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low while officials ramp up hospital and testing capacity.
And then the hope is you could pivot to a phase two-type strategy that requires less restrictions on movement - is the strategy of testing all cases, rapidly isolating people who've been in contact with them. And South Korea has had some success with that. But you do need massive testing capacity. And even though, you know, tonight Trump repeated his statement that the U.S. has now done more tests than South Korea, when you take into account how many people - how many more people live in the U.S., the U.S. is still way behind.
And so bottom line, we're still weeks from being able to make that pivot to a phase two strategy. New York is just the beginning. Cases are rising across the country right now.
SHAPIRO: Nurith, the timeline that you're describing public health officials saying is necessary is so different from what President Trump has been saying - that he wants the country up and running by Easter. He wants church pews full of people. Ayesha, is there any indication that the administration is reconsidering that position?
RASCOE: Not at the moment. Trump is still saying he would like things up and going by Easter, but he did say tonight that he's not going to do anything rash or hastily. He keeps saying that he thinks that some people may be able to go back to work and just make sure they're washing their hands and doing things like that. Here's some more of what he had to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Social distancing - such an important phrase - and we do it right now - the more lives we can save and the sooner we can eventually get people back to work, back to school and back to normal.
RASCOE: But ultimately, Trump has not been the one shutting down schools and businesses. That's been done by governors and at the state level. So it's not really clear how much he's going to be able to do even if he says, everybody, go back to work, or some people go back to work.
SHAPIRO: And finally, what about the supply of ventilators and PPE, personal protective equipment? The White House is still facing pressure from states and lawmakers over whether to use the Defense Production Act to meet gaps in medical supplies. New York says it needs 30,000 ventilators. Where is the White House on that debate?
RASCOE: So Trump is arguing that he hasn't had to use the law to force companies to do anything because just the threat of the law has been enough to get cooperation. So he's saying that he's been able to get companies to work with him. But states like New York are saying that the federal government is not doing enough. They say states are having to compete with each other for goods, and they want the government to step in and direct this process.
And even as the administration comes out at these briefings and they talk about all these numbers about ventilators and masks that they're sending out, there are still reports that hospitals don't have enough. So we're just not seeing it on the ground yet.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, Scott Horsley and Nurith Aizenman.
Thanks to all three of you.
RASCOE: Thank you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.