WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday told governors that they could begin to ease stay-at-home orders, allow business to open, and begin the process of restarting economies brought to a standstill as local governments race to slow the spread of Covid-19.
The guidelines would apply only to states where coronavirus cases have been on a downward trajectory for 14 days, and where health providers have the capacity to treat all coronavirus patients, said Deborah Birx, the physician and diplomat who has helped to coordinate the Trump administration’s coronavirus response.
“A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution to preserve the health of our citizens,” Trump said. “We must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy over the long haul. You can’t do one without the other.”
The White House outlined three “phases” in which governors could begin reopening their states, Birx said. Trump added that states that have fulfilled criteria for the first phase could begin the process of easing social distancing measures tomorrow.
States that attempt to restart their economies will be responsible for setting up testing sites; tracing the contacts of individuals who test positive; and conducting “sentinel surveillance” aimed at identifying individuals infected with the coronavirus but not displaying symptoms, and then tracing their recent contacts, Birx said. Eventually, she said, states could begin to allow workplaces, gyms, and even restaurants to reopen, provided they enact appropriate physical distancing measures.
Tony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease research, warned during the press conference that states attempting to reopen their economies may experience new spikes in coronavirus cases as a result. If that were to occur, Fauci said, the states may need to revert to social distancing guidelines like the ones governors had previously lifted.
“There may be some setbacks,” Fauci said. “I mean, let’s face it, this is uncharted water. There may be some setbacks that [mean] we may have to pull back a little. And then go forward.”
To protect vulnerable citizens like people with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions, states moving to restart their economies should make accommodations for select employees and encourage working from home, Birx said. For employees required to come in, she said, workplaces should enact temperature checks, make disinfectant available in the workplace, and urge employees to avoid non-essential business travel.
States that graduate to the next phase should encourage employees to work from home and continue some social distancing measures but could begin reopening day cares, schools, and summer camps.
Fauci said that states in advanced stages of reopening could even begin to stage sporting events in front of spectators, though Trump said that some sports leagues would likely begin seasons by staging games with no fans in attendance.
Trump’s announcement after consistent rhetoric in which the president has warned against letting “the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Though Covid-19 has already claimed roughly 31,000 lives in the U.S., Trump has expressed concern about suicide rates, and the broader toll caused by 15 million newly unemployed Americans.
Conservative media figures have also publicly pressured Trump to reopen the economy. The Fox News host Laura Ingraham last week urged Trump to set a hard deadline of May 1, urging him to lean on medical experts like Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci for advice on “protocols” — but not on whether reopening the economy was medically sound.
Some health experts have cast doubt on the country’s ability to safely re-open before making dramatic improvements to testing and surveillance systems. One plan authored by Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, calls for conducting 750,000 coronavirus tests each week. Since the first reported U.S. coronavirus case three months ago, the country has conducted roughly 3.3 million tests. During Thursday’s press briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said he expects the total to surpass 5 million by the end of April, roughly matching Gottlieb’s target.
Other researchers have forecast that the U.S. may need to implement on-and-off social distancing measures through 2022 to prevent the coronavirus from fully overwhelming the health care system. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has said that public gatherings, including major sporting events and concerts, are unlikely to resume for roughly one year. Fauci has cautioned that pre-coronavirus American life, particularly large gatherings, is unlikely to resume before a coronavirus vaccine is developed — a milestone that the most optimistic guesses place at one year from now.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll on Thursday showed 81% of Americans favor continuing social distancing measures as long as is necessary to curb coronavirus spread, even despite continued economic harm. Only 10% favored a return to economic activity at the risk of further coronavirus spread.
“We’re starting [the] rejuvenation of our economy again in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion,” Trump said. “Our strategy will continue to protect senior citizens and other vulnerable populations while allowing military and other groups of incredibly talented people to go about their real business.”