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Disruption grows: Nations try to slow virus, help economies

BERLIN — Mass disruptions cascaded around the world Tuesday as governments struggled to slow the spread of the coronavirus while also trying to keep their economies afloat.
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BERLIN — Mass disruptions cascaded around the world Tuesday as governments struggled to slow the spread of the coronavirus while also trying to keep their economies afloat. The chaos stretched from Lithuania, where border traffic jams were 40 miles deep, to Detroit, where bus service came to a sudden stop when drivers didn't show up for work.

European Union leaders, meanwhile, agreed to shut down the bloc's external borders for 30 days.

Increasingly worried about the economic fallout of the global shutdown, the U.S., Britain and the Netherlands also announced rescue packages totalling hundreds of billions of dollars while Venezuela — long a fierce critic of the International Monetary Fund — asked the institution for a $5 billion loan.

But it was everyday people who suffered most.

Miguel Aguirre, his wife and two children were the only people on a normally bustling street near San Francisco's City Hall, one day after officials in six San Francisco Bay Area counties issued a “shelter-in-place” order that requires most residents to stay inside and venture out only for food, medicine or exercise for three weeks — the most sweeping lockdown in the U.S. against the outbreak. On Tuesday morning, only two coffee shops on the street were open. Both were empty.

Aguirre said he and his wife, both janitors at a Boys and Girls Club, had heard about the order on TV, but decided to show up to work anyway because they need the money. His supervisor texted him that he should leave.

“If we don't work, we don't eat,” said Aguirre, who brought his two daughters with him because schools were shuttered. He had already lost his second job, at a hotel, when tourism conferences began cancelling a month ago.

“There been days when I want to cry but I have to keep going,” Aguirre said.

In Brussels, meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said there had been "a unanimous and united approach,” to the decision to prohibit most foreigners from entering the EU for 30 days. She said it's now up to individual countries to implement the blockade.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European leaders had agreed in a conference call to the Commission's proposal for an entry ban to the bloc — along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Britain — with "very, very limited exceptions." Germany will implement the decision immediately.

But the countries also agreed on the need to ensure continued cross-border travel for commuters, she said.

There will be "grave, very grave consequences" for European economies as a result of the outbreak, she said, and that was one reason to safeguard the flow of goods.

Countries also agreed to co-ordinate the repatriation of EU citizens stranded outside the bloc, she said.

On Monday, the EU issued guidelines aimed at facilitating the flow of critical goods like food and medicine, while helping individual nations restrict non-essential travel.

But on Tuesday it was chaos on many borders with traffic backed up for dozens of kilometres (miles).

“We are all desperate, cold and sleepless here for a third day," said Janina Stukiene, who was stuck in Lithuania on the border with Poland with her husband and son. "We just want to go home.”

The line of cars and trucks in Lithuania was some 60 kilometres (37 miles) long after Poland closed its border, while similar traffic jams could be seen on the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, tightened internal guidelines, allowing people to leave home only to buy food, go to work or do essential tasks, saying that people hadn't complied with earlier guidelines and “we are at war.”

Spain, now the fourth-most infected country, saw the number of people with the virus rise by more than 2,000 in one day to 11,178 and virus-related deaths jump by almost 200 to 491. Only China, Italy and Iran had more infections.

With the number of cases worldwide topping 190,000, a surge of patients in Madrid's hospitals has fueled worries in Europe and elsewhere of what lies ahead.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. COVID-19 has killed over 7,300 people so far, while more than 80,000 have recovered.

In Italy, reported infections jumped to 27,980. With 2,503 deaths, Italy now accounts for a third of the global death toll.

Some bright spots emerged. Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected late last year and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case Tuesday.

In volatile international financial markets, shares reversed early losses in Asia on Tuesday and stocks pushed higher on Wall Street — one day after their worst plunge in more than three decades — as more aid appeared on the way from Washington. Many traders see a recession growing more likely.

With the U.S. economy grinding to a halt, the White House proposed a roughly $850 billion rescue package — a sweeping stimulus not seen since the Great Recession of 2008 — and called for its rapid approval. It would provide relief for small businesses, $50 billion for the airline industry and a big tax cut for wage-earners, said two people familiar with the request who described it on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

“If we do this right, our country and the world, frankly, but our country can be rolling again pretty quickly," President Donald Trump said at a press conference.

In Britain, the government unveiled a massive economic support package. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government will “act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support the economy.”

Among the measures, Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said the government would provide 330 billion pounds ($405 billion) worth of government-backed loans and guarantees for small and large businesses. He also announced a series of measures to support pubs, restaurants and other companies set to suffer.

The Dutch government also announced a multibillion-euro (dollar) series of measures to prop up businesses and workers. The support package includes paying up to 90% of the salaries at businesses hit by the virus for the next three months, financial support for the self-employed and making it easier to delay paying taxes.

Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said “many billions are available to save jobs and keep businesses afloat.”

As the pandemic expanded in Europe, the Mideast and the Americas, China and South Korea were trying to hold their hard-fought gains. China was quarantining new arrivals and South Korea was to increase screenings of all overseas arrivals.

Infections have continued to slow in South Korea's worst-hit city of Daegu. But there's concern over a steady rise of infections around Seoul, where new clusters have emerged.

In the U.S., officials urged older Americans and those with chronic health conditions to stay home, and recommended all group gatherings be capped at 10 people.

School closings in 56 countries kept more than 516 million students home, the U.N. said.

Some countries that had resisted more stringent measures snapped into action, too.

In Britain, Johnson told people to eliminate unnecessary contact with others, work from home where possible and avoid bars, restaurants, theatres and other venues. Schools remained open for the time being.

Some scientists, and many worried Britons, have said the government should have taken tough action sooner.

Britain’s dramatic escalation of restrictions was sparked by new scientific evidence suggesting that 250,000 people in the U.K. and more than 1 million in the U.S. might die if the country did not suppress its spread.

The analysis, published by Imperial College London, drew on the latest data from China and Italy. It found that a strategy of “mitigation” — slowing but not stopping the spread of the virus while protecting vulnerable groups like the elderly — would still lead to a huge number of cases that would overwhelm the health care system.

Health officials say that "social distancing" — encouraging people to avoid close contact with others — is a key to slow the spread of the virus and keep U.S. hospitals from being overwhelmed with a sudden deluge of patients.

In Detroit, bus riders were stranded Tuesday after most drivers didn't report to work, apparently concerned about the spread of the virus and confused as to whether Michigan's new restrictions on gatherings included vehicles loaded with commuters.

The city cancelled bus service shortly after 8 a.m. because of the shortage of drivers. Surprised riders waiting at stops across the city pulled out phones to try to get a lift from friends or family.

“Just now?" a maintenance man, Amadou Sanders, asked. “How am I going to get to work?”

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Sullivan reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson in Berlin; Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Ed White in Detroit, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Adam Geller in New York, Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Jill Lawless and Maria Cheng in London, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy and Karel Janicek in Prague.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

David Rising And Tim Sullivan, The Associated Press