U.S. eyes aid for airlines; sees no domestic travel curbs for now

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday said he was in close touch with Congress about helping U.S. airlines weather a massive downturn in business due to sweeping travel restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.

Mnuchin told ABC News’ “This Week” program he was talking with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi about measures this week to help airlines and other heavily affected industries.

“We need to focus on the airline industry. This is an unprecedented situation,” he told the ABC program. “The president is going to use all the tools that are in the toolbox, and we will work with Congress on a bipartisan basis.”

“The Speaker and I are already in conversations about airlines, which (are) critical to us, hotels, cruise ships, more SBA lending, more liquidity, some type of stimulus,” he added.

American Airlines Inc (AAL.O) on Saturday said it plans to cut 75% of its international flights through May 6 and ground nearly all its widebody fleet, as airlines reel from a global collapse in travel demand due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The dramatic announcement by the largest U.S. airline came hours after the White House said the United States would widen new travel restrictions on Europeans to include travelers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, starting Monday night.

Top U.S. infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci on Sunday warned Americans that the coronavirus outbreak could get worse before it gets better, but said he did not expect the United States to restrict domestic travel in the near future.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News’ “This Week” program he was confident the U.S. government was doing everything needed to contain the outbreak and avert a worst-case scenario.

The disease has infected some 156,465 people have been around the world, and 5,838 have died, according to a Reuters tally. The United States has reported at least 59 deaths.

Fauci told ABC that early U.S. moves to block travel from China had helped, as would new restrictions on travel from Europe. He said there had been some discussion on the president’s coronavirus task force about limiting travel within the United States, but he did not see that happening for now.

“They’ve been discussed, but not seriously,” he said. “I don’t see that right now in the immediate future. But remember, we are very open-minded about whatever it takes.”

Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” the government would focus on shoring up the airline, hotel and cruise ship industries, but denied that amounted to any kind of “bailout.”

“If you’re providing liquidity to good businesses that just need liquidity for three to six months, where you’re taking collateral and you have security, that’s not a bailout,” he said.

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