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March 11, 2020: The Day Everything Changed

Before there were masks, there were elbow bumps. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and Dr. Anthony Fauci greet each other before a House Oversight And Reform Committee hearing on March 11, 2020.
Before there were masks, there were elbow bumps. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and Dr. Anthony Fauci greet each other before a House Oversight And Reform Committee hearing on March 11, 2020.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, the enormous changes in our lives have become unremarkable: The collection of fabric masks. Visits with friends or family only in small outdoor gatherings. Working or learning from home. Downtowns deserted at noon on a weekday.

While some changes happened gradually, there was one day that marked the beginning of the new normal.

March 11, 2020.

On that day in the United States, the pandemic future arrived all at once.

A historic day begins with other news

March 11 was a Wednesday. Joe Biden had won primaries the night before in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri, putting him on a path toward clinching the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders said he was staying in the race, despite his disappointing results.

The big news in the morning — and what was expected to be the top headline of the day — was the sentencing of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Sitting in a Manhattan courtroom, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual abuse.

Two days earlier, stocks had tumbled in reaction to Saudi Arabia cutting the price of oil, spurring the market's worst drop since 2008.

And the coronavirus — which had already sparked lockdowns in China and Italy — had become a major concern in the U.S. The first case in the U.S. was announced on Jan. 21 in Everett, Wash. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency.

Some schools in the U.S. had already closed, affecting about 850,000 students. And some Americans were trying to figure out whether to cancel the expensive cruises they had booked — days earlier, the State Department had put out a warning against such travel, following outbreaks on several ships.

The CDC had issued guidance on getting tested for the virus, but it was hard to figure out where such tests might be available. And there were — as there continue to be – instances of racism and xenophobia targeting Asian Americans as fears of the virus spread through the U.S.

Dr. Fauci testifies: "It's going to get worse"

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had been called to testify about the coronavirus on March 11 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Observers in the chamber sat shoulder to shoulder, and there was not a mask in sight.

"Is the worst yet to come, Dr. Fauci?" asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the committee chairwoman.

"Yes, it is," Fauci replied. He explained that the U.S. was seeing more cases from both community spread and international travel.

"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now," Fauci said. "How much worse we'll get will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside, and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country."

The virus had by then infected more than 1,000 people in 40 states. At least 31 people in the U.S. had died from COVID-19, most of them in Washington state.

"Bottom line," Fauci said, "it's going to get worse."

Workers from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing protective suits and respirators enter the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., to begin cleaning and disinfecting the facility on March 11, 2020.
Ted S. Warren / AP
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Workers from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing protective suits and respirators enter the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., to begin cleaning and disinfecting the facility on March 11, 2020.

WHO declares a pandemic — and stocks plunge

In Geneva, the WHO was holding a briefing. Eight countries, including the U.S., now had more than 1,000 cases.

"In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," he said.

"We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic."

The global health emergency was now officially a pandemic — the first one to be caused by a coronavirus.

The stock market reacted quickly to the new designation: the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,200 points.

By the end of the day, the Dow was down more than 20% from its peak in February – and had entered bear market territory. An 11-year bull market had come to an end.

In prime-time Oval Office address, Trump bans travel from Europe

At 3:18 p.m., with the pandemic now official and stocks cratering, President Donald Trump sent out : "I am fully prepared to use the full power of the Federal Government to deal with our current challenge of the CoronaVirus!" He said he would address the nation from the Oval Office that evening.

At 9:02 p.m., Trump began his remarks: "My fellow Americans: Tonight, I want to speak with you about our nation's unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak that started in China and is now spreading throughout the world."

"This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history," he continued. "I am confident that by counting and continuing to take these tough measures, we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens, and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus," he said.

Then he made a stunning announcement: a 30-day ban on travel from European countries to the U.S., beginning on Friday at midnight — just two days later — "to keep new cases from entering our shores."

Experts were skeptical the ban would make much of a difference. "It may have political value, but [it] has zero public health value," Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, told NPR.

"Most of Europe has the same or fewer cases than the U.S. Restricting travel certainly won't make America safer," Gostin said.

Confusion followed the speech, about who and what would be affected by the ban. Trump soon tweeted a clarification: "trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods."

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson test positive for the virus

Shortly after 9 p.m. ET, Tom Hanks posted a photo to Instagram of a surgical glove in a trash can, along with an announcement: He and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, were sick with the coronavirus.

"We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too," he wrote. The two were in Australia for preproduction on a film starring Hanks.

"Well, now. What to do next?" Hanks continued. "The Medical Officials have protocols that must be followed. We Hanks' will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?"

An NBA game is halted just before tipoff

In Oklahoma City, the Thunder were about to take on the visiting Utah Jazz. Around 8 p.m. ET, shortly before tipoff, the referees and coaches conferred about an unsettling development: Jazz center Rudy Gobert's coronavirus test had just come back —positive.

The teams returned to their locker rooms. The halftime act, Frankie J, was brought out to perform for the packed arena, where fans were stirring in confusion. "Wild times," said an ESPN commentator on the game's broadcast. "The fans here in the arena don't know what's going on, we don't know what's going on."

A moment later, the public address announcer took to the microphone. "The game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe," he said. Cries of dismay rang out from the stands. "Take your time in leaving the arena tonight, and do so in an orderly fashion."

The Jazz tested the rest of its players and traveling party and found that a second player, Donovan Mitchell, was also positive for the virus.

Word soon got out of even bigger news: The NBA would be postponing its entire season. In Dallas, ESPN trained a camera on Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as he got the news on his phone.

He reacted in shock: His jaw dropped, and he leaned way back in his chair. "Now it's much more personal. You've seen what's happening in other countries," he told a reporter a few minutes later. "But just the whole idea that it's come this close, potentially a couple players have it ... just stunning isn't the right word. It's crazy."

The players on the Mavericks bench were aware of the news and talking about it, Cuban said — the only ones who didn't know were the players still in the game.

At 9:46 p.m., the NBA made it official: The season was suspended until further notice.

"This is much bigger than just the NBA," Cuban told the reporter.

"Do we send our kids to school tomorrow? Is it that big?" he mused. "It's like out of a movie. It doesn't seem real."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.