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Coronavirus Updates: Jobs Report, Mask Science


This week, we learned 10 million Americans filed for unemployment just in the last two weeks of March. Then this morning, the latest jobs report came out showing 700,000 jobs had already evaporated in the first half of March. Stacked on top of the millions of unemployment claims, the new report makes clear just how precarious a situation the U.S. economy is in. Here's White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow this morning.


LARRY KUDLOW: The effects of the pandemic and the mitigation that's required to end it are taking a huge toll. We have not seen the worst of it. I don't want to sugarcoat it. And that's why we have created the largest rescue package in history.


And small businesses scrambled for that rescue today, the first day to apply for emergency loans from the relief package. Here to catch us up on all that is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, political correspondent Scott Detrow and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Sponsor Message

Hey to all three of you.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good afternoon.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

CHANG: All right. Scott Horsley...


CHANG: Let's start with you. Hey, Richard. Can you put this latest jobs report in context with the huge unemployment numbers that we have been seeing?

HORSLEY: Yeah. This monthly snapshot is based on surveys that were taken three weeks ago, and that's before the bulk of the stay-at-home orders were issued in response to the coronavirus. We know things have gotten a lot worse since then. But even three weeks ago, this pandemic was delivering a gut punch to the U.S. economy. It broke a nearly decade-long stretch of positive job growth. And while it understates the total job losses by a lot, it's still the worst jobs report since the depths of the financial crisis 11 years ago. About two-thirds of the job losses recorded in March were in bars and restaurants and the like. We knew they were hard-hit. But, really, this shows the pain was spread across nearly every industry - construction, manufacturing, retail. Even health care saw job losses, which seems odd.

CHANG: Oh, wow. Yeah.

HORSLEY: But remember. A lot of doctors and dentists have shuttered their offices to all but emergency patients.

CHANG: Right. Well, as we said, today was the first day for small business owners to apply for some $350 billion worth of loans. How's that been going? Do you know?

HORSLEY: A lot of small business owners are applying or at least trying to. You know, the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration raced to get this money out the door. And, not surprisingly, there have been some hiccups. Some of the big banks say they're not ready to accept applications yet. There were some last-minute changes to the paperwork. As of this afternoon, though, community banks had taken applications for nearly $2 billion worth of aid. And Bank of America says they got applications for another 6 billion by lunchtime today.

CHANG: Wow. All right, let's turn to the other Scott now, Scott Detrow. You know, all week as jobless numbers and the death toll have been going up, the White House has been highlighting that there is an increasing number of tests being done, that supplies are being distributed, manufacturers ramping up. What do you see in how the White House is trying to control the message?

DETROW: Well, I think it's pretty straightforward. They're wanting to show they're on top of things. They are all very aware of the criticism that testing was far too slow at first and that the president did not take this seriously for a long period of time. They're also aware of the obvious political dynamic that thousands - millions of job losses and death projections of 100,000 or more are very bad things to happen on a president's watch, to put it mildly. So a big part of these briefings each night is to deliver this message that the White House is acting fast. But governors across the country from both parties continue to say they do not have the tools they need. And many have been frustrated by the mixed messages coming from the president especially.

CHANG: I mean, maybe the most visible sign of federal assistance right now is a giant Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, that's docked right now on the West Side of Manhattan. Do you know - how much has that ship helped so far?

DETROW: Well, according to The New York Times, not much at all actually. It's a thousand-bed ship, but just 20 patients were there yesterday.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

DETROW: There are - yeah, there's a lot of restrictions on who can even be treated there. And there are complaints from hospital administrators that this is not easing the patient load at all, as the city expects this overloaded crowding to be happening within days in the hospital, this surge.

CHANG: OK. Richard, let's turn to you now. President Trump spoke tonight at the coronavirus Task Force briefing about some new voluntary guidelines for wearing face masks. I mean, at first, public health officials were telling people, you don't need to wear masks in public. But now they're changing their view, right? What's the latest with the guidance?

HARRIS: Some cities like Los Angeles and New York recently recommended that people wear a mask, a scarf or other face covering when they go to the grocery store or otherwise have to be out in public. The idea is that to the extent they're helpful, they mostly protect people around you from you. Don't assume they will protect you. And that's why public health officials had been cool on the idea. Masks and scarves could create a false sense of security. Today President Trump gave the recommendation a lukewarm introduction.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is voluntary. I don't think I'm going to be doing it.

HARRIS: The Surgeon General explained that the recommendations have changed as health officials have come to realize just how many people without symptoms can still spread the virus. And health officials say this is no substitute for social distancing. That is still vital. Now, we've seen a lot of masks in Asia, but there's a different societal vibe there. As a generalization, people are more likely to act on behalf of their community, not just in their own self-interest.

CHANG: OK. Well, Scott Detrow, the president is not requiring people to wear masks around him. But he is requiring tests, right?

DETROW: Yeah. This was a new announcement that happened today. Going forward, anyone in close proximity to either the president or the vice president will have to take a rapid COVID-19 test. Before that, everyone going into the White House had already needed to get their temperature taken. But this is a much more drastic step that's starting today.

CHANG: OK. Well, we are wrapping up another very extraordinary week. And I would just like to get a final thought from each of you. Let's start with Scott Horsley.

HORSLEY: Ailsa, I'll just pass along a little wisdom I saw stenciled on the sidewalk here in Washington. I took my dogs out for a walk earlier this week. Some grateful neighbor had spray-painted their thanks to some of the people who are still on the job and not working from home - sanitation workers, medical workers, delivery drivers and the Postal Service. And then the spray-painter added in a different color words maybe we should all remember right now, love your neighbor and wash your hands.

CHANG: I love it. Scott Detrow, how about you?

DETROW: You know, one thing I'm thinking about politically is that since his campaign began in 2015, President Trump is someone who has succeeded by creating his own realities and changing the focus through tweets, attacks, a whole bunch of tools. It's getting harder and harder for him to do, and tweets do not change 10 million jobs suddenly gone and more than 100,000 people possibly dying, a thousand people in a day alone. And that reality is just going to get more and more stark for the president and the White House in the coming weeks.

CHANG: Yeah. All right, and, Richard Harris, you have the last word.

HARRIS: OK. Well, understandably, we are focused on the tidal wave that will start to hit the United States starting next week and thinking about what a struggle it will be to meet that challenge. But let's not forget; this week, the world passed the mark of 1 million reported cases, so I'm also thinking about so many places in the world that have far fewer resources. They're behind the U.S. on the curve right now. But when it hits them, it will be a much bigger struggle.

CHANG: That is NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, political correspondent Scott Detrow and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Thanks to all three of you again.

DETROW: Sure thing.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.