As restaurants across the country stacked chairs on tables and shut their doors to try to contain the deadly coronavirus, what would be the final visitors streamed into the Conservative Grounds coffee shop in Largo, Florida.
Fox News played on the televisions. Patrons posed for photos in a replica of the Oval Office. An 80-year-old man, defying officials' advice to stay home, beamed near a life-sized cutout of a grinning President Donald Trump.
This Trump-themed coffee shop embodies the right edge of the country's political divide. Outside its walls, state officials put in place an unprecedented shutdown of public life and Trump scrambled to fight a virus that he had accused political opponents and the media of pushing as a "new hoax." Criticism of the president's preparedness was rampant.
Inside, customers gave Trump an A-plus on his response to the spreading pandemic. "He's doing great things," the owner said Wednesday.
America has a history of unifying in trying times and rallying around the president. But after years of deep division, in the earliest, head-spinning days of the pandemic, a fractured electorate largely viewed Trump's performance through the lens they chose long ago. But the stakes are higher than they've ever been. The body count will rise; the economy will almost certainly crater. Trump's political fate may be left up to the sliver of moderates in the middle, who will choose whether to blame him for the crisis spiraling on his watch.
"This could be the coup de grace of his presidency. The way he handles this, history will judge, as well as the American people," said Brandon Brice, host of a radio show called "Straight Talk" in Detroit, who supported Trump in 2016 and is looking to how he handles this crisis before deciding if he will again. "This is the president's moment, right now."
Trump for weeks denied the seriousness of the outbreak when it first emerged in China. In January, he assured the nation that "we have it very well under control" and he compared the virus to the seasonal flu.
His supporters followed his lead: Surveys from early and mid-March found distinct differences in how Democrats and Republicans reacted. A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 36% of Democrats said they were very worried that they or family members would contract the virus, compared with 21% of Republicans.
Views on Trump's handling of the crisis are also shaded heavily by partisanship. A Gallup poll found 82% of Republicans expressed some confidence in Trump. Among Democrats, that number was just 12%.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, noted throughout Trump's presidency, his approval rating has hovered between 42% and 46%, with little change despite the endless cycle of controversy and chaos. Recent polling shows that has remained steady.
"Attitudes about the president, both pro and con, are deeply ingrained and almost impervious to the effect of news," he said. "Now, we've never had an event quite like this one."
For most people, the new virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority recover.
Globally, there have been more than 11,000 deaths from over 275,000 confirmed cases, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University. More than 200 deaths have been recorded in the U.S.
At another time, a president might have expected to see his popularity rise. Past presidents have seen their approval ratings jump in times of crisis, disaster or war. President Jimmy Carter's approval rating skyrocketed in the weeks after Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran. President George W. Bush was hailed for his unifying voice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Trump this week abruptly turned to talking about the virus as a significant threat, and himself as a steady "wartime" leader. He shifted the blame to China and tried to rebrand Covid-19 as the "China virus."
But presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said the shift from skeptic to wartime president may be difficult for Trump. He compared the president's response with that of Republican President Herbert Hoover, who oversaw the Great Depression and dismissed the collapse of the stock market as exaggerated. When it proved disastrous, shantytowns came to be known as Hoovervilles. He was trounced in the next election by the Democratic governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who then steered the nation through the depression and World War II.
"He started off a Herbert Hoover and he done a 180 trying to be FDR," Brinkley said. Voters in November will judge which one he is closer to being, he said, and some of that will be based on things now largely out of his control: how many die, how painful the economic fallout proves to be.
If the virus lingers through the summer, "he's going to be left holding the bad soundbites and being seen as the leader who failed us when the bell rang — he was missing in round one for a 10-round fight," Brinkley said.
"If it's contained, people will say he was slow out of the gate, but once he got on the job, he understood the magnitude of what was happening and did the right things, and he might skate by on a better-late-than-never approach."
David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor on risk communication, is even more skeptical of Trump's ability to reshape himself as a leader able to unify a profoundly polarized nation.
"There are just a whole bunch of people who aren't going to buy that," Ropeik said. "He can't change out of a MAGA hat into a general's helmet."
Ropeik said the most important thing for a leader in crisis is to be viewed as trustworthy — and the trust gap may be a crucial divide come November.
"This race is going to be determined by a bunch of swing voters in a handful of states. Those who are not the most devoted fans, who have any kind of slight ambivalence, this could well add to their mistrust," he said.
Donald Scoggins, a retired real estate broker in Virginia who describes himself as a moderate Republican, was leaning against voting for Trump before the virus hit. He said he's seen nothing so far to change his mind. Trump was too slow to react, Scoggins said.
"He's just too divisive. We need a person at the helm that people can rally around, we need a sort of cheerleader who makes people feel confident, that can bring people together," he said.
Brian Johnson, a Democrat and semi-retired corporate executive in Boulder, Colorado, is much hotter. He's watched Trump's reaction since January, worrying about his dismissal of the disease. Now he's infuriated with the president.
"Trump's never been double-digit approval rating for me, and now it's like, can you go lower than zero?" he said.
But across the country, in states critical to the outcome of the election, Trump's ardent supporters defended his actions and followed his lead to blame China.
In Luzerne County, a historically Democratic area in eastern Pennsylvania that flipped in 2016 to vote for Trump, Lynette Villano said she thinks the economy is resilient. It started from an extraordinarily high point, she said, and Trump deserves credit for giving the country the economic strength to be able to take the punch.
Villano, a billing clerk who wears a rhinestone Trump pin, has chronic lung disease and survived cancer twice. She recognizes she's among those at highest risk. She says she's not worried, she deeply trusts the president to look out for her, and she doesn't think it's time for political posturing and finger-pointing.
"If anything, this is going to show him as a strong leader who stepped forward and took every action possible to make things better," she said from her home, where she's waiting out the pandemic.
In Florida, the owner of the Trump-themed cafe posted a message on its Facebook page: "Those on the LEFT have fought for our downfall since day 1 and now the Corona 'CHINESE' VIRUS is impacting our business."
Owner Cliff Gephart said he fully supports Trump's handling of the crisis and trusts him to steer the country to calmer waters.
"Every decision the president makes, whether it's about coronavirus or about the economy or taxation. It seems like coronavirus is just another partisan, down party lines," he said.
One of his customers, 80-year-old George Latzo, said he wasn't concerned enough about the virus to abide the public warnings to avoid gatherings.
"I've lived a long healthy life and I don't know if this is going to be worse than the flu," said Latzo, who wore a Trump 2020 hat and a black t-shirt that said, "Donald Pump," depicting a muscular President Trump doing a bicep curl. "I guess we'll have to wait and see."
After being confined to a hotel room in Peru and watching "heavily armed guards" patrolling the streets, Linda Scruggs was awash with emotions Saturday when she glimpsed out the airplane window at the Florida Everglades below.
Scruggs and her traveling companion, Mike Rustici, were among dozens of American citizens who caught a LATAM Airlines flight to Miami after being trapped for days in the Peruvian capital of Lima. Like thousands of U.S. tourists and Americans living abroad, the couple was caught in limbo as nations closed their borders to try to stop the spread of the deadly new coronavirus. For days, the couple didn't know how or when they would make it home – especially after the State Department essentially told them they were on their own.
"I never had this feeling before even after 9/11," she said after the plane landed. "I was filled with gratitude, relief, concern and sadness that our country isn't doing more."
Scruggs and Rustici, both in their 40s and from Nashville, Tennessee, had flown to Peru with plans to hike Machu Picchu's complex of Inca ruins, but within days after they landed, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra declared an emergency, ordering the country's borders closed.
They said they were only given about 24 hours' notice to leave Peru but couldn't find a flight. The virus has caused more than 12,000 deaths around the world, but the figure goes up every day as Americans in Morocco, Ecuador and other nations struggle to find a way home.
For most people, the new virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority recover.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that he is working to repatriate Americans. But Scruggs and Rustici said they got little help or information from the State Department, a sentiment expressed by Americans trapped in other countries. The State Department did not respond to messages seeking comment.
"I think we're still processing it," Rustici said. "A big mixture of relief and guilt, it's almost like survivor's guilt. We know that there are so many people still over there and we've been doing so much the last four or five days to get ourselves and everybody else out and we managed to do so because we're savvy travelers. We had the resources to keep moving and try a lot of things, but in the end, we just got really lucky."
Scruggs and Rustici were in the hotel room Saturday morning when they received an email from a local tour operator saying there might be seats on a flight from Lima to Miami. They paid $800 each and took a bus to the airport with other Americans trying to catch the same plane.
There were about 200 people waiting outside the airport when they arrived and a security guard took them inside, where they faced what Scruggs described as a "tense and chaotic" scene with long lines. Some Americans were accompanied by babies and children.
"When we arrived at the airport it was a bit of a chaotic scene, we were at a locked gate and it was still dark and there were some people, stranded travelers there sleeping with their luggage outside of the gate with desperate hopes, alongside some local homeless people all over there. It was a hard and little scary scene," Rustici said.
Shortly before noon, the couple boarded the plane.
Scruggs, a nurse, said some tourists in Peru are running low on life-sustaining medications like insulin and that some foreign college students trapped in the country were running out of money for food.
Desperate to get home, Scruggs and Rustici used social media to connect with hundreds of other tourists who were trapped in the country, trying to draw attention to their plight by reaching out to elected officials and reporters.
"I think everyone has been shocked at the lack of communication from the U.S.," Scruggs said.
Dora Figueiredo, 37, an American from Newark, New Jersey, was trying Friday to determine whether her flight from Argentina to the U.S. would leave as scheduled on Sunday.
She had traveled to Buenos Aires to marry her now-new Argentine husband who cannot yet move to the U.S. because he doesn't have U.S. residency, a process she said could take more than a year.
"I'm feeling a bit stressed out about how to get home now that the Argentinian president announced a lockdown as of midnight last night," she said. "I have been tweeting at my airline, my embassy at travel.gov about how to get back home."
As of Friday, her flight had not been canceled but she wasn't sure if that would still be the case Sunday and did not know how she would get to the airport.
"I really need to get home to check on my parents, who are elderly," she said.
Scruggs also needs to check on her mother, who's in a nursing home. And she's bracing herself for what's ahead. She knows America has changed so much in just the short period since she's been away. President Trump has declared a national emergency because of COVID-19. Schools have been canceled in many states. Other communities across the country are in lockdown. Still, when she got off the plane, she didn't sense the same urgency she did in Peru.
"There are more people in Peru wearing masks than here. Hotel workers, taxicab drivers, police, all airport staff. But hardly anybody in Miami had masks. There were no health checks," she said.
At least 38 people have tested positive for coronavirus in New York City jails, including at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, the board that oversees the city's jail system said Saturday.
In a letter to criminal justice leaders, Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman wrote that at least 58 other people were currently being monitored in contagious disease and quarantine units.
"It is likely these people have been in hundreds of housing areas and common areas over recent weeks and have been in close contact with many other people in custody and staff," Sherman warned, predicting a sharp rise in the number of infections.
"The best path forward to protecting the community of people housed and working in the jails is to rapidly decrease the number of people housed and working in them."
In the past six days, she wrote, the board learned that at least 12 Department of Correction employees, five Correctional Health Services employees, and 21 inmates have tested positive for the virus.
The city's jail agency and its city-run healthcare provider did not respond to messages seeking comment on the letter. On Friday, the city's Department of Corrections said just one inmate had been diagnosed with coronavirus, along with seven jail staff members.
New York has consistently downplayed the number of infections, The Associated Press has found in conversations with current and former inmates.
More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States — more than anywhere in the world — and there are growing fears that an outbreak could spread rapidly through a vast network of federal and state prisons, county jails and detention centers.
It's a tightly packed, fluid population that is already grappling with high rates of health problems and, when it comes to the elderly and the infirm, elevated risks of serious complications. With limited capacity nationally to test for COVID-19, men and women inside worry that they are last in line when showing flu-like symptoms, meaning that some may be infected without knowing it.
The first positive tests from inside prisons and jails started tricking out just over a week ago, with less than two dozen officers and staff infected in other facilities from California and Michigan to Pennsylvania.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and even death.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases may take three to six weeks to recover.
When President Donald Trump speaks, financial markets gyrate and quiver in real time.
But that hasn't stopped the president from holding forth almost daily about the coronavirus pandemic and its economic implications without waiting until markets have closed for the day.
While many of his predecessors worked consciously to not affect the markets, Trump has overtly made market movements and performance a measure of his effectiveness and central to his argument for a second term.
Earlier this week, public health officials announced a surge of infections in the U.S. as leading economists predicted unemployment spiking to 10% or more. Trump, meanwhile, took the White House podium in the middle of the trading day to offer an optimistic take on his administration's response to the crisis.
"One of the elements that is being worked on very much so on the Hill is to keep the jobs going so that when we do get rid of the virus, we're going to be able to just really...go like a rocket," said Trump on Thursday as at the market spiked more than 300 points, then dove into negative territory and then inched back into positive territory over the course of his 77-minute press conference. "I think the economy is going to be fantastic."
The president headed to the same place again on Friday while the markets were open for an even longer news conference, where he vacillated between expressing optimism and lashing out about "nasty" journalists' negativity.
Amid more difficult news—the number of confirmed infections around the globe surpassed 250,000 cases—the Dow Jones industrial average closed down more than 4.5 percent on Friday.
At the end of the market's heaviest losses in more than 30 years, the market closed at 19,173.98, below where it stood on the day before Trump was inaugurated and erased the so-called "Trump bump" that he's pointed to throughout his presidency as evidence of his prowess as the economic steward.
Nevertheless, in the midst of one of the most volatile moments ever for the U.S. economy, Trump has wagered that his voice is the daily balm needed to soothe investor concerns.
Over the course of the last eight days--all on which he held extended news conferences about the coronavirus response in the midst of trading -- his comments haven't stopped the bleeding. The Dow has lost more than 17% since March 13, and has plummeted more than 34% since the market hit an all-time high Feb. 19.
The president's decision to offer daily affirmations to the health of the stock market, and the economy writ large, is not surprising. But no president has tied his fortunes to Wall Street more closely than Trump, who until the market crash bragged that the rising stock market was evidence of his success leading the economy.
"Maybe, he should take it offline,"' said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody Analytics. "But this president? He's not going to do that."
Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush avoided talking about the stock market with substance, let alone trying to impact the market in the midst of trading. Bill Clinton took to heart his economic adviser Robert Rubin's advice that markets go up and markets go down.
Barack Obama was ridiculed as the stock-picker-in-chief less than two months into office when he suggested in the midst of a market slide that it was a good time to buy undervalued stocks.
For much of his next six years in office, the 44th president was often measured when even talking about the improved health of the economy: his first term started in throes of the Great Recession but he left office with 75 straight months of job growth. By the latter part of his presidency, Obama began claiming credit for the bull market on occasion.
"The stock market is booming," Obama declared in a speech in a July 2014 speech in Kansas City.
Those close to Trump said he was fully aware that the coronavirus posed an enormous threat to the very same once-booming markets he touted as the calling card of his presidency, even as he was publicly downplaying concerns about the virus.
In the weeks that the pandemic ballooned into a public health emergency, Trump had become increasingly frustrated as he privately expressed concerns to his advisers about the effect the virus could have on the markets and ultimately his reelection effort, according to White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing.
Trump throughout his presidency has viewed the market's performance as his "daily report card" of his job performance, Zandi said. With the pandemic thrusting the economy toward a recession, Zandi said that Trump now appears to be turning to the market for an "hourly report card" to gauge the effectiveness of his response.
"In the past, sometimes it worked and sometimes it doesn't," Zandi said of the president's years-long cheerleading of the market. "Recently, it hasn't. He's in fact, as of late, done less to instill confidence and more to upset investors. They don't view his actions as very productive in terms of this crisis. It's worked against him."
Throughout his presidency, Trump has used off-the-cuff diatribes to try to shame major, publicly-traded companies whose business dealings are at odds with his political interests, tapped out timely, friendly tweets about China's Xi Jinping to calm market concerns about trade wars, and repeatedly berated Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell about the central bank's policies during market dips.
Trump has repeatedly made clear that the battered market is top of his mind, as trillions of dollars in wealth and nearly all the gains for the Dow Jones Industrial tallied since his inauguration have been erased. He has sought to will a comeback with his daily updates about his administration's efforts to contain the virus in the midst of trading day, Zandi said.
It mostly hasn't worked.
Trump held a Rose Garden press conference on March 13, just before the New York Stock Exchange closed for the weekend, to declare a national emergency, to announce greater availability of virus testing kits were in the pipeline, and to declare he was ordering the purchase of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Later that weekend, he boasted during another news conference that the market responded to his performance with its biggest single-day gain ever. Left unsaid by the president was the fact that market had its single-worst day since the 1987 Black Monday the day before the record gain.
"I think we should do one of them every day, perhaps. How about five times a day?" Trump remarked. "We'll do one five times a day. But that was something to watch and — I had no idea."
The huge Friday gains that Trump bragged came from his market-whispering were followed by a wipe-out Monday that saw a historic, nearly 3,000-point slide for the Dow.
Investors dumped stocks after the Fed's surprise move on Sunday evening to cut interest rates to near zero, a move that appeared to only exacerbate investor worries about a global recession. The Fed rate cut came the day after Trump again publicly berated Powell over lending rates.
Jason Furman, a Harvard University economist who served as Obama's chief economic adviser, said Trump should provide important coronavirus updates whenever he and his team sees fit. But Furman also advised that Trump should "let the stock market take care of itself."
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said the "genie is out of the bottle" with Trump's consistent attempts to shape the market through Twitter and the media. And with the global nature of the marketplace, when Trump makes his comments remains less important than the substance of his remarks, she said..
"This is where facts matter, information matters and very focused communication matters," Swonk said. "His experts should be all the focus. His job should be to be the steward right now. Often, the alpha dog isn't the first one in the pack."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new measures Friday morning to mobilize manufacturers to quickly produce vital life-saving medical supplies against the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
"We are launching Canada's plan to mobilize industry to fight COVID-19 to ensure that we can quickly produce here in Canada the things we need," Trudeau told a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, where he has been self-isolating after his wife tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
"This initiative will help companies that are already making things like masks, ventilators and hand sanitizer to massively scale up production," he said.
He stressed that his government will provide support for those who want to re-tool their manufacturing facilities to contribute to this fight against the COVID-19 outbreak.
Trudeau said his government is also creating new innovative procurement streams to allow more businesses to develop solutions and products Canadians need because of COVID-19. "We will expedite these streams so firms can get to work quickly and these products are ready to use as soon as possible."
Under the new measures, Canadian companies will be able to access funds through the Strategic Innovation Fund to retool to produce medical equipment and supplies. The National Research Council will also work with small- and medium-sized companies on health research to fight the COVID-19.
Trudeau also announced that the Canada-U.S. border will close to non-essential travel at midnight Friday and both countries will turn back asylum seekers crossing the border.
He said that Canadian airlines are working to help Canadians stranded abroad get home. The first flight will be picking up Canadians from Morocco this weekend.
As of Friday noon, Canada has confirmed 924 COVID-19 cases and 13 people died of the coronavirus.