The Night the Coronavirus Broke Through to the American Consciousness

Photo: Doug Mills/Getty Images

The significance of the coronavirus had not yet broken through to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert on Monday, when he made an effort to touch every microphone in front of him at a press conference on the team’s response to the outbreak. But by Wednesday, based on that contact or countless other interactions over the past fortnight, Gobert was questionable for a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder due to “illness.” Seconds before tip-off, the Thunder’s head medical staffer rushed the court: The game was suspended, the players for both teams quarantined. Gobert had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, and soon after, the NBA announced an indefinite suspension. The 2019 defensive player of the year had shut down the 2020 season.

The incident in Oklahoma City was one of three jarring events on Wednesday night that appear to have shocked the American consciousness into a higher level of concern about the threat of the coronavirus. (According to the president’s sturdy approval rating it hadn’t happened yet, despite his administration’s egregious handling of the crisis.) Right on target, two of the episodes were related to entertainment: On the day that the World Health Organization upgraded the global outbreak to a pandemic, actor Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus after traveling to Australia to shoot an Elvis biopic. “We Hanks’s will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires,” the Oscar winner wrote, projecting a sense of calm. “Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?” (Their son Chet delivered the news a little differently to his online following — with his shirt off. “What’s up everyone, um yeah, it’s true, my parents got coronavirus. Crazy.”)

Calm — and basic competence — were not projected in President Trump’s address to the nation, in which he announced the suspension of travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days, beginning Friday. In the speech, the president did not account for the main reason that the government’s response to the “foreign virus” has been so inept (multiple testing failures), and instead suggested a xenophobic and effectively worthless response, considering pandemic levels of community spread already inside the United States. Adding to the policy’s lack of direction, Trump announced that the United Kingdom would be excluded — though the U.S. has 1,311 confirmed cases, compared to the U.K.’s 459, compared to banned Poland’s 31.

Though the president has never appeared to enjoy reading addresses as much as he cherishes his rallies, he still managed to include several major mistakes, despite the aid of the teleprompter. Trump said all cargo from the continent would be banned; White House officials later clarified otherwise. Trump said health-insurance companies would waive co-payments on COVID-19 treatments; White House officials clarified that would only apply to testing, a much more limited offering. Trump said all travel from Europe, except the United Kingdom, would be banned; White House officials later clarified that American nationals could return, and that the list was only limited to 26 countries (of the continent’s 44) known as the Schengen Area.

As Americans start to notice a substantial dip in traffic and a near-exponential uptick in confirmed cases, the president appears to be falling back on comforting habits. When Jim Acosta asked him about concerns that “you’re not taking this seriously enough and that some of your statements don’t match what your health experts are saying,” Trump dismissed the correspondent, saying, “That’s CNN, fake news.” Though Trump is accepting no accountability for the federal government’s failures, at least he is maintaining a level of solidarity with the bulk of Americans who cannot access coronavirus testing: Despite multiple contacts with people exposed to coronavirus patients, as of Tuesday, he had still not taken a test.

The Night COVID-19 Broke Into the American Consciousness