This is our daily update of breaking COVID-19 news for Wednesday March 18th, 2020. Previous daily updates can be found here. Our guide to preparing for the spread of coronavirus is here, and if you have lingering questions about the virus, here is our regularly updated coronavirus FAQ. Here are some local and state hotlines for more information: NYC: 311; NY State Hotline: 888-364-3065; NJ State Hotline: 800-222-1222.

6:45 p.m. Speaking on NY1 and WCBS radio, Mayor de Blasio said he was in talks with Governor Cuomo about issuing a shelter-in-place rule in New York City to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the city is now 1,871. At least 11 residents have died, one more since yesterday.

De Blasio acknowledged that it was ultimately the state's decision but he also clarified that he was looking to follow the model set by the San Francisco Bay area, where seven million people have been ordered to stay home except for "essential" work or activities.

"That's what I was talking about," he told WCBS radio. "I talked to the governor about that model. We're having a good conversation, a productive conversation."

Cuomo has said he would not issue an order that would impact essential workers such as doctors, nurses, first responders and people who work in supermarkets, groceries and pharmacies.

But as the number of recorded cases continues to climb, the mayor and at least two other elected officials are pushing for more stringent measures.

"What I see is the need to really tighten up and really try and knock down the speed with which this epidemic is emerging," de Blasio said.

He said he would keep the subways open because they are critical for essential workers.

Sydney Pereira contributed reporting

Clarisa Diaz / WNYC & Gothamist

State And National Park Fees Waived Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

4:35 p.m. New York state parks and the national park system are waiving fees and encouraging visitors to take in fresh air during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a press release Wednesday.

“Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”

In the New York region, Fire Island National Seashore and Sagamore Hill National Historic Site are both part of the national park system and the grounds are currently open.

Note that not all national park facilities are open. Some parks and monuments, including Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, have closed.

Fees at New York state parks, including trails and historic sites, have also been waived. Although some, like Shirley Chisholm Park in Brooklyn, are already free.

But because of COVID-19, all public programs and events are suspended until further notice. Indoor facilities, such as nature centers and historic houses, have also been closed to the public.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Cuomo acknowledged that New Yorkers might start to feel stir-crazy. He recalled living in the city when he was a divorced father of three girls.

"Six and seven and eight-years-old in a small apartment in Manhattan, that’s a lot of fun. And then that gets old very fast," he said.

“Get out of the house, go to a state park, we have beautiful state parks," he urged. "By the way, traffic is down, put the kids in the car, go to a state park, go to a county park, go to a city park. Shirley Chisholm Park in Brooklyn is beautiful, it’s open, it’s air, the weather is getting better. Spend the time with the kids.”

Other local state parks include Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx and the Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island.

Reporting by Sophia Chang

United States President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic alongside US Vice President Mike Pence during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.

United States President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic alongside US Vice President Mike Pence during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.

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United States President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic alongside US Vice President Mike Pence during a Coronavirus Task Force briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.
Shutterstock

3:20 p.m. Following the advice of experts, President Donald Trump on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act, a move which allows the federal government to order manufacturers to produce medical equipment in high demand for coronavirus patients.

"It can do a lot of good things if we need it," Trump said, during a press conference.

In particular, states with outbreaks have been racing to acquire ventilators, respirators and protective gear like masks. Governor Andrew Cuomo has specifically requested these items from the federal government, saying the state is unable to buy them on the open market.

There are now more than 7,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus across all 50 states in the county. At least 116 people have died.

The president also confirmed the governor's earlier announcement that an 894-foot hospital ship called the Comfort is on its way to New York harbor. The ship, which has 1,000 beds, could be used to free up hospital beds in Manhattan.

Trump said he had immediately dispatched the hospital ship. But because of maintenance, it will not arrive until next month.

Cuomo also said that the president will send in mobile hospitals, a small medical facility which can be set up quickly. Each mobile hospital contains operating rooms and can typically accommodate 200 to 250 patients. The governor said state officials were expediting their efforts to identify potential sites.

The federal government's actions come after weeks of delay and attempts by President Trump to downplay the severity of the novel coronavirus, which he has now falsely claimed to have always known would become a pandemic. Proving that the assertion is a lie, a recent New York Times story included all of the president's comments on the epidemic over the last two months.

He has also referred to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” or "Chinese disease," outraging Asian Americans and public health experts who have sought to avoid repeating past mistakes of using geographical locations to describe diseases and enflaming xenophobia.

Asked why he was doing so when such terminology could fuel racism against Asian-Americans, he said, "Because it comes from China."

"It's not racist at all," he added.

Later, the White House official twitter account issued its own strong defense.

Dylan Campbell contributed reporting.

New Jersey Seeks To Expand Hospital Capacity

1:20 p.m. New Jersey is looking at reopening eight hospitals that have been closed to prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients.

The New Jersey National Guard has been asked to help. Governor Phil Murphy has also requested help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Hospitals are setting up triage tents at the doors of their emergency rooms, and solo hospital rooms are currently being converted into isolation rooms, according to Kerry McKean Kelly, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Hospitals Association.

Kelly said the spaces "will definitely need some modernization."

To date, there are a total of 427 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New Jersey. At least five people have died.

Reporting by Nancy Solomon and Karen Yi.

Cuomo Issues New Restrictions On Non-Essential Businesses

12:30 p.m. In the latest measure designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, all businesses in New York state, with the exception of "essential services," will be forced to reduce the number of employees reporting to work in person by 50 percent.

Governor Cuomo announced the policy on Wednesday as expanded testing reveals more widespread cases.

New York now has 2,382 confirmed cases of coronavirus, by far the most of any state in the country. New York City has 1,339 known infections. As of Tuesday, Washington state had 907 cases.

In another alarming statistic, 23 percent of those infected statewide are now hospitalized. Last week, that figure was 14 percent. A total of 108 people in New York have been discharged from the hospital. At least 20 people in the state have died from the disease.

Cuomo indicated that placing workforce restrictions would be his main tool of combating the spread. If the spread of the virus does not slow, he said he would further reduce the threshold of those allowed to leave the home for work. The state has also asked businesses to have as many employees as possible work from home.

The new rule would not apply to individuals who work in food, pharmacies, healthcare, shipping, and supplies. Cuomo indicated that other exceptions may come. He later tweeted that media would also be considered an "essential" business.

In coming out with his order, Cuomo reiterated that he would not allow New York City to impose a shelter-in-place rule like the one issued in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I don’t believe any policy works unless the geographic footprint is large enough," he said, arguing that New York City residents will simply flee to outlying areas to avoid the restrictions.

He has also opposed the shelter-in-place rule for its impact on healthcare and food workers. However, the order in San Francisco exempts those employees.

U.S.-Canada Border Will Close For Non-Essential Travel

U.S President Donald Trump, accompanied by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, speaks during a bilateral meeting at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France

President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France in August 2019.

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President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France in August 2019.
Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

11:40 a.m. The US-Canada border will be closed to non-essential travel, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday. 

"We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!" Trump tweeted.  

The White House did not immediately provide further information. 

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference to spell out the details Wednesday morning, including a promise that supply chains will be maintained between the countries.

"We have agreed that both Canada and the United States will temporarily restrict all non-essential travel across the Canada-US border " for recreation and tourism, Trudeau said in the press conference from Ottawa.

"In both our countries we're encouraging people to stay home. We're telling our citizens not to visit their neighbors if they don't absolutely have to. This collaborative and reciprocal measure is an extension of that prudent approach," he said. 

"I want to be clear though -- essential travel will continue. Our governments recognize it is critical we preserve supply chains between both countries. These supply chains ensure that food, fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border. Supply chains including trucking will not be affected by this new measure. Canadians and Americans cross the border every day to do essential work or for other urgent matters. That will not be impacted," Trudeau said.

He added the closures would "last as long as we feel that they need to last."

Meanwhile, a report prepared by the federal Department of Health and Human Services warned the "pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness," the New York Times reported.

The report also forecasted that "supply chain and transportation impacts due to ongoing COVID-19 outbreak will likely result in significant shortages for government, private sector, and individual U.S. consumers." The Times pointed out the report also floated the possibility of invoking the "Defense Production Act of 1950, a Korean War-era law that authorizes a president to take extraordinary action to force American industry to ramp up production of critical equipment and supplies such as ventilators, respirators and protective gear for health care workers."

Reporting by Sophia Chang

Calls For Unemployment Insurance Spike Amid Business Shutdowns

11:10 a.m. The New York State Department of Labor is reporting an "unprecedented increase" in calls and web traffic due to job losses suffered due to the coronavirus.

The agency said that by noon Tuesday it had received more than 21,000 calls, compared to the 2,000 in total last Tuesday. The same surge was reflected in website visits, 110,000 on Tuesday compared to 42,000 a week ago.

On Friday, the state waived the seven-day waiting period for unemployment claims for those under quarantine or laid off as result of the virus. To meet the increased demand and spread out the applications, the Department of Labor has now introduced a new filing procedure based on the first letter of an applicant's last name. The agency said that filing later in the week will not delay payments or affect the date of an individual's claim.

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the city's economy, prompting the shutdown of Broadway and large sporting venues with a capacity over 500 people. Gatherings of 50 people or more are prohibited. This week, gyms, movie theaters, concert venues, and nightclubs were forced to close, while restaurants, cafes and bars are now limited to take-out service only.

According to James Parrott, an economist at the New School, as many as 500,000 people could lose their jobs in NYC. He said that the accumulated loss of wages for one month would "easily $1 billion."

"This is different from any economic slowdown before," he told Gothamist. "It has a concentrated impact on certain industries: predominately low-paid workers."

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced an $850 billion stimulus package which would include $500 billion for direct checks to all taxpayers. According to an early proposal, the payments would be based on income and family size. The checks would go out twice, once in April and May.

Parrott said he endorsed such a plan, but preferred that it be targeted to low-income individuals and displaced low-wage workers. Salaried employees, like himself, or those who can work from home, he argued, don't need a check.

"We can’t afford to send people unlimited sums of money," he said.

De Blasio And Cuomo Spar Over Shelter-In-Place Order

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo are once again battling over the running of New York City, this time on how best to slow the spread of a viral outbreak that is on pace to overwhelm hospitals and kill the most medically vulnerable New Yorkers.

New York City now has 923 confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 10 people have died.

Since Tuesday morning, the two elected officials have engaged in a public spat, with de Blasio saying that he was considering a shelter-in-place rule, which would further halt activity in a city of 8.6 million people.

Cuomo, however, immediately said that any plan for further restrictions would need to be implemented statewide and approved by him.

"We have a lot of ideas that are being floated across the state," he said on CNN. "My job is that the state has a coordinated plan and it works everywhere."

De Blasio has refused to back down, although he has conceded that he needs the state's approval. Speaking several hours later on MSNBC several hours after Cuomo on Tuesday night, he said, "Shelter-in-place has to be considered."

"Get ready for the possibility, because it's not so distant an idea," he added.

It is not clear how such a rule would be implemented in New York City. Short of a quarantine, shelter-in-place orders seek to restrict people from leaving their home except for "essential" work or activities. Six counties in the San Francisco Bay area have ordered seven million residents to shelter-in-place, with a failure to comply punishable as a misdemeanor offense.

The concept has gained support among at least two New York City elected officials.

Bronx Councilmember Ritche Torres, who announced on Twitter that he had contracted the virus, told Gothamist/WNYC that he was in favor of a shelter-in-place rule.

"I'd rather they are on the side of overreacting," he said. "The data is clear: either slow the spread of the virus through aggressive social distancing or else the sheer number of coronavirus cases will overwhelm the health care system. That's the stark choice that presents itself to the city."

Late Tuesday, Jumaane Williams, the city's public advocate, issued a statement calling on Cuomo and de Blasio to immediately come up with a defined "shelter-in-place" policy, but not a quarantine.

"While I know that these decisions take much consideration, the truth is that we have been behind when it comes to these restrictive citywide policies," he said.

Jen Chung and Brigid Bergin contributed reporting.