WHITE HOUSE – Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government has a three-stage prescription for restarting normal life in America.
“We’re opening up our great country again,” announced President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing on Thursday where the guidelines were unveiled. “We’re going to be very vigilant and very careful.”
A 14-day downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases and widespread coronavirus and antibody testing for hospital workers are suggested for individual states before beginning the phased restart of economies that are convulsing because of the highly infectious virus.
In the first phase, schools and bars would remain closed. But places of worship, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and sports arenas could reopen with strict physical distancing. Hospitals could perform elective surgeries.
In Phase 2, schools could reopen, and nonessential travel could resume, but most employees would be encouraged to continue to telework.
The third phase recommends “unrestricted staffing of work sites,” but would see the medically vulnerable resuming public interactions, with them practicing physical distancing unless they take precautionary measures.
The guidelines are outlined in an 18-slide presentation titled “Opening Up America Again,” suggesting the use of “gating criteria.”
The medical members on the White House’s coronavirus task force — infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — endorsed the plan.
The driving element for the plan was “the safety and health of the American public,” Fauci said.
Trump previewed the plan earlier Thursday on a videoconference call with governors of the 50 U.S. states, telling them, “You’re going to call your own shots” on the economy’s reopening.
Earlier in the week, in response to a question during a White House briefing, Trump declared he “calls the shots” on such decisions. Amid some fierce bipartisan criticism that the president has no such powers over states, he backed away from his assertion of total authority.
“We did not put a timeline on any of the phases,” Birx said, explaining that would be left up to state governors.
“Not every state, not every region, is going to do it at the same time,” Fauci emphasized.
Trump expressed optimism that as many as 29 states were ready to enter Phase 1 immediately.
The president has made no secret of his impatience to revitalize the country’s economy as quickly as possible, with commerce and industry at their lowest levels of activity since the era of the Great Depression nearly a century ago.
Over the past month, more than 20 million people in the United States have filed for unemployment benefits.
“There’s death, and there are problems in staying at home, too,” Trump said Thursday.
Many health experts, business leaders and governors have been hesitant to quickly end social distancing, concerned that lifting the restrictions without widespread COVID-19 testing poses serious health risks.
Trump acknowledged there could be flare-ups, and if that occurs, “we’ll be able to suppress it, whack it.”
Decisions by states
Seven U.S. states in the Northeast have extended their shutdowns until May 15.
“What happens after that, I don’t know. We will see, depending on what the data says,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been the hardest hit in the United States, told a news briefing on Thursday before the White House outlined its proposal.
Governors of seven U.S. Midwestern states announced on Thursday a consortium of their own to coordinate a regional response.
Three governors from the West Coast have formed a similar effort on reopening their economies. Last week, Los Angeles, the second most populous city in the U.S., extended its restrictions to May 15. The District of Columbia, home of the federal government, did the same on Wednesday.
The governor of the Midwestern state of Ohio tweeted Thursday, “I am an optimist and am confident that Ohioans will also live up to the challenge of doing things differently as we open back up beginning on May 1st.”
The number of COVID-19 deaths recorded in the United States on Wednesday rose by 2,500, a second consecutive daily record. The U.S. death toll in the global pandemic exceeds 32,000, higher than any other country has reported.
The virus has also taken a toll on Trump’s job approval ratings. According to the latest Gallup poll, his public support stands at 43%.
“The six-point decline in the president’s approval rating is the sharpest drop Gallup has recorded for the Trump presidency so far, largely because Trump’s ratings have been highly stable and have yet to reach the historical average for presidents (back to 1945) of 53%,” according to the pollster.