Uncertainty deepens in the United States on eve of Tuesday Democratic primaries

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Democratic presidential primaries in three of four states are set for Tuesday despite growing worries about the coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted other states to postpone or consider delaying future voting .
A masked voter casts his early ballot in Dayton, Ohio, on March 16, 2020, one day ahead of the state's presidential primary. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON - Uncertainty has deepened in the United States as the coronavirus pandemic casts a cloud over Tuesday's (March 17) Democratic Party primaries.

Of the states due to vote on Tuesday, Ohio is being forced to postpone, leaving Arizona, Florida and Illinois to their primaries. Earlier, Georgia and Louisiana, due to vote on March 24 and April 4, respectively, announced that they were also postponing their primaries, to May 19 and June 20 respectively.

On Monday Ohio's Governor Mike DeWine said Tuesday's primaries in the state should also be postponed, to June 2, but late on Monday evening a judge ruled it was too late. Still later however, Ohio's health authorities said they would ignore the court ruling and force postponement on public health grounds.

By Monday afternoon here in Washington, 4,158 people across the country had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, and 74 deaths had been confirmed.

And President Donald Trump, facing another stock market plunge despite aggressive Federal Reserve intervention, told journalists the crisis may last until July or August.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force issued new guidelines, among them a 15-day period in which there should not be gatherings of over 10 people.

Asked if the US was considering a lockdown, President Trump answered with a cryptic "hopefully this will pass" but added "we may have to enhance some decisions".

This level of disruption to life in the US from the pandemic has not been seen since just after the 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001) terrorist attacks - and the stock market collapse has not been seen since the notorious crash of 1987.

The market plunge came even after the Federal Reserve dropped its interest rate to near zero in a Sunday announcement.

"No amount of monetary easing can prevent a sharp decline in economic activity in the near term," Dr Joseph E. Gagnon, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), said in an article on the PIIE website.

In an e-mail, Dr Adam Posen, president of PIIE, said: "There is nothing else left to do on the monetary side. No one should expect that the monetary stimulus will fix things. It will help some, and may put a floor under inflation and interest rates. But fiscal stimulus and direct help for affected sectors is necessary to get recovery."

The House of Representatives late on Monday passed a multibillion-dollar assistance package for the fight against Covid-19 and to assist Americans affected by it. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

Asked at the daily White House coronavirus briefing if the US economy was headed for a recession, President Trump said: "It may be."

"I don't, number one, determine recession," he said. "I just say this: We have an invisible enemy. We have a problem that, a month ago, nobody ever thought about."

But he added: "I think there's a tremendous pent-up demand both in terms of the stock market and in terms of the economy. Once this goes away, once it goes through and we're done with it, I think you're going to see a tremendous surge."

The state of Ohio over the weekend ordered all bars and restaurants to close. The cities of New York and Los Angeles did the same, while Washington DC ordered spatial separation in bars and restaurants.

But by Monday afternoon as the case count in DC and neighbouring Virginia and Maryland rose to more than 100, and cases in New York skyrocketed to 700, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser had had enough, and ordered all bars and restaurants closed.

And across the continent in California's Bay Area, six counties announced a virtual lockdown affecting nearly 7 million people.

Health officers in Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and the city of Berkeley, which has its own independent public health authority, announced new "shelter in place" restrictions - meaning residents should stay at home for three weeks beginning at midnight on Tuesday March 17.

"Temporarily changing our routine is absolutely necessary to slow the spread of this pandemic," said Dr Sara Cody, Santa Clara County Public Health Officer.

"The health officers from the largest jurisdictions in the San Francisco Bay Area are united and we are taking this step together to offer the best protection to our respective communities."

The order limits activity, travel and business functions to only the most essential needs - and could be amended to end sooner or later, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said.

Tuesday's primaries in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio are expected to at the least cement if not significantly extend former vice-president Joe Biden's delegate lead over rival Senator Bernie Sanders.

In another sign of the unprecedented times in the US, Mr Sanders and Mr Biden held their first live head to head debate in an empty studio in Washington on Sunday.

The debate itself was not much of a game changer, concluded the website FiveThirtyEight based on the results of a poll it conducted with Ipsos. But the Florida primary may be; the state offers 219 delegates.

"Biden is favoured to defeat Sanders by large margins in both Florida and Arizona," FiveThirtyEight said. "He has a greater than 99 per cent chance of winning the most votes in Florida… and a 98 per cent chance in Arizona."

If the polls are right, the writing is on the wall for Mr Sanders: Mr Biden, 77, is on course to be the Democratic Party's candidate to take on Mr Trump in November.

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