Joe Biden calls for a national lockdown to contain the coronavirus

Michael Finnegan
Former Vice President Joe Biden said he agrees with Bill Gates' call for a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. <span class="copyright">(Associated Press)</span>
Former Vice President Joe Biden said he agrees with Bill Gates' call for a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. (Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden is calling for an immediate nationwide stay-at-home order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, saying the main mistake that leaders can make in a pandemic is "going too slow."

The Democratic presidential candidate told CNN on Friday that he agreed with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates that the uneven patchwork of state and local lockdowns in effect in the United States will inevitably cost lives and prolong the economic catastrophe.

"Why would we not err on the side of making sure that we are not going to have a repeat?" Biden said from his home in Wilmington, Del.

President Trump has urged Americans to practice social distancing but has declined to issue a nationwide stay-at-home order, leaving it to governors and local officials to decide whether to shut down nonessential businesses. He said this week that he'd like to have the country "opened up and just raring to go by Easter," which is just over two weeks away.

Biden said he'd watched Gates' appearance on CNN on Thursday night and found him "really insightful." "I thought Bill Gates knew what he was talking about."

Biden's hourlong town hall on CNN was part of a series of television appearances in recent days to keep himself in the news as Americans are consumed by the upheaval of the pandemic. It came as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, his lone remaining rival in the race for the Democratic nomination, was holding an online forum with healthcare workers.

Biden has built an all but insurmountable lead in the race for delegates and is trying to pivot to the general election without angering Sanders or his supporters.

Gates, a philanthropist whose family foundation has spent billions of dollars to curb the spread of malaria, AIDS and other diseases, told CNN on Thursday that the coronavirus will keep spreading out of control "anywhere you don't have a serious shutdown."

“We’re entering into a tough period that, if we do it right, we’ll only have to do it once for six to 10 weeks," he said. "But we have to do it. It has to be the whole country.”

For the lockdown to be effective, Gates said, a dramatic increase in testing for the virus is essential.

“It’s exponential growth if you’re not stopping it," he said. "The sooner you engage in the shutdown, the easier it is to get to that peak. We have not peaked. The parts of the country that aren’t shut down, in late April we should see the numbers peak there.”

Biden, who took questions recorded by viewers in their homes, faulted the Trump administration for eliminating a National Security Council directorate at the White House that was charged with preparing for a pandemic. Trump has said he knew nothing about it.

"I just don’t think he has taken this seriously from the outset,” Biden told CNN.

Biden also criticized Trump for feuding with some Democratic governors. Trump said Friday that he told Vice President Mike Pence, who leads his coronavirus task force, not to call Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, adding, "I want them to be appreciative."

"Do your job," Biden said sternly into the camera. "Stop personalizing everything.”

Responding to a question from a New Yorker who said he'd just lost his job on Broadway and couldn't pay his rent, Biden said he would support a three-month suspension of rent. "Freeze it and forgive it so you’re able to stay in that place,” he said. “No one should be evicted during this period. Period.”

Biden also called for a nationwide freeze on shutoffs of water or electricity for delinquent bills. "The vast majority of people who worry about their utilities being shut off," he said, "are people who are living hand- to-mouth."