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Trump seeks big economic stimulus as coronavirus threat forces U.S. cities to go quiet

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By Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, March 17 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Tuesday pursued a massive $850 billion stimulus package to buttress a U.S. economy reeling from the coronavirus threat, while the streets of major American cities emptied in response to stepped-up warnings about the pandemic.

Millions of Americans hunkered down in their homes instead of commuting to work or school as New York and other major cities escalated "social distancing" policies by closing schools, bars, restaurants and theaters. The number of reported U.S. cases of the respiratory illness surged and U.S. deaths from the coronavirus climbed to at least 89.

In one of the most restrictive policies enacted in the United States to date, officials in six San Francisco Bay Area counties ordered residents to stay at home beginning on Tuesday for all but the most crucial outings until April 7. The order applies to some 6.7 million people.

The six counties account for about 30% of the output in California's economy, the biggest in the United States.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN he would consider imposing a similar shelter-in-place directive for the most populous U.S. city.

It was St. Patrick's Day but the mood was sober, not joyous, after traditional parades and parties celebrating the Irish heritage of many Americans were canceled across the country and usually crowded pubs were shuttered.

Even so, de Blasio used the occasion to rally his city, hailing the "indomitable spirit" of America's Irish immigrants, many of whom have settled in New York.

"New York City's streets may be empty this St. Patrick's Day, but thanks to that very same spirit, our hearts are full," he wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday planned to discuss the proposed $850 billion stimulus package when he meets with Senate Republicans at the Capitol, according to a U.S. government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The package would include $50 billion for airlines - hard hit by the pandemic - and $250 billion for small business loans.

The Senate on Tuesday prepared to weigh a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday.

Wall Street's main indexes rose on Tuesday, a day after recording their biggest tumble since the crash of 1987 over fears of the economic toll of the fast-spreading outbreak. The broad S&P 500 was up 4% in late morning trading


The coronavirus also affected politics as three states hold primary elections on Tuesday in the state-by-state process of selecting a Democratic candidate to challenge President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 U.S. election.

Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders square off in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, but Ohio officials canceled that state's primary due to coronavirus fears hours before the vote was to begin.

The tally of confirmed U.S. cases has multiplied quickly over the past few weeks as testing increased, surpassing 4,600 and prompting fears American hospitals might soon be overwhelmed, as Italian medical centers have been strained to the breaking point by the pandemic.

New York, Washington state and California have the most confirmed cases with Washington accounting for the majority of fatalities, many linked to an outbreak at a nursing home in the Seattle area.

The United States has lagged behind other industrialized nations in its ability to test for the novel coronavirus.

After previously downplaying the danger and declaring the situation under control, the White House urged Americans on Monday to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and called for closing bars, restaurants and other venues in states where local virus transmission exists.

Trump's change in tone followed newly urgent messaging from governors and mayors across the country who have taken their own drastic measures to slow the virus' spread.

The states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut struck a regional agreement to close all movie theaters, casinos and gyms on Monday. Restaurants and bars in the three states - where more than 22 million people live - will serve takeout and delivery only.

Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, would not say whether the Trump administration was close to issuing some sort of domestic travel restriction.

"We're looking very carefully at the data every day and that's why you see this escalation in guidelines from the president," she said on Fox News.

Integrating data and understanding how the new outbreaks are occurring - from travel between states, or within states - is crucial to formulating the response and updating guidelines, Birx said.

"As we track down these outbreaks, if we see that that is happening from flight travel, then I think the president will react, but we don't have enough information right now to suggest that," she said.

Asked if people were getting sick on airplanes, Birx said, "We don't know."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Maria Caspani in New York. Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Lisa Lambert, David Shepardson and Susan Heavey, Joseph Ax, Gabriella Borter, Barbara Goldberg, Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Berkrot )

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