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Biden slip painful to tourism


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POSTED: Sunday, May 03, 2009

Vice President Joe Biden's first major gaffe in his new job caused outrage in the travel industry and admonitions in the form of clarifications from every corner of the Obama administration. His remark that he would avoid virtually all public transportation to avoid the swine flu was denounced so broadly and vehemently that the net effect may actually boost tourism.

Asked during an interview on NBC's “;Today”; show on Thursday what he would advise his family members to do in response to President Barack Obama's urging of Americans not to make unnecessary trips to Mexico, Biden said he would tell them that “;I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. ... It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.”;

James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, was quick to respond that none of the government agencies had suggested that healthy people avoid air travel.

“;The fact is that the air onboard a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings,”; he said.

Jack Richardson, head of Pleasant Holidays LLC, Hawaii's largest tourism wholesaler, said Hawaii “;is definitely going to lose business”; because the statement “;comes from the vice president of the U.S.”;

Biden's office promptly issued a statement revising his remarks to explain that people should avoid airplanes, subways and other confined public spaces only if they are sick. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that is what Biden would say “;if he could say that over again,”; and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs disingenuously suggested reporters differentiate between what Biden “;said and what he meant to say.”;

Despite Biden's high position, the incident became almost comical because of its place in his legendary off-the-cuff misstatements. They still are topped by last September's reflection that in 1929, when the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt “;got on the television and ... said, 'Look, here's what happened.'”; Herbert Hoover was president in 1929, and television had yet to be invented.

Meanwhile, the panic about the flu has begun to subside with observations that H1N1, although it may become widely perilous, lacks the characteristics of the pandemic flu that devastated the world in 1918. “;It won't be severe, although there will be some deaths,”; predicted Dr. John Treanor, a professor of medicine and infectious-disease expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Ordinary flu kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year. “;Any time someone dies, it's heartbreaking for their families and friends,”; Dr. Christopher Olsen, a molecular virologist who studies swine flu at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. “;But we do need to keep this in perspective.”;