By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After weeks of playing down the threat posed by the coronavirus, U.S. President Donald Trump conceded on Thursday that his re-election campaign rallies would have to be suspended, and he stopped shaking hands with foreign dignitaries.
Welcoming Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to the White House, Trump avoided the customary handshake. The two men bowed to each other instead. And the traditional handover of a bowl of shamrocks to celebrate the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day was canceled out of an abundance of caution, the White House said.
At another meeting with foreign officials last week, Trump dined with Brazil’s communications secretary, Fabio Wajngarten, who Brazilian officials say has now been tested positive for coronavirus. Trump told reporters on Thursday he was not concerned.
The U.S. president, though, has dropped his recent boasts that his campaign rallies for the Nov. 3 election would proceed as usual, acknowledging that they now need to be put off.
“We need a little a separation until such time as this goes away,” he told reporters.
The changes appeared to show that Trump is absorbing the grim reality that the coronavirus is a mounting threat.
More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The spreading contagion has forced Americans to cancel trips and large gatherings, battered the stock market, and sent shockwaves across the U.S. economy.
For weeks, Trump had said the impact from the virus would be limited within the United States and that Americans should get on with their lives, while taking common sense steps like washing hands and staying at home when sick.
In a televised address to the country on Wednesday night, he ordered travel from Europe to the United States restricted for 30 days in response to the crisis.
But he said nothing about expanding tests to determine who might have coronavirus and how to contain its spread. The speech drew criticism that Trump was not handling the crisis capably.
On Thursday morning, Trump changed focus and tweeted out guidance about ways that Americans can keep themselves safe, such as by setting aside a room in their homes to quarantine family members suspected of having the virus.
Trump, a former New York real estate tycoon, has frequently gauged the health of the U.S. economy as dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market.
But on Thursday he said human lives are more important than Wall Street losses and gains.
“I don’t want people dying, and that’s why I made these decisions. And whether it affects the stock market or not, very important, but it’s not important compared to life and death,” he said.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell)