The federal government has issued constantly evolving criteria for Americans to return to work safely during the coronavirus crisis, while various governors this week began adding their own layers of rules for reopening states for business — a process increasingly leading to partisan disputes in state capitals.
The guidance has ranged from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying on March 7 that “contact tracing” — finding every sick person and figuring out who they’ve interacted with — was recommended but “not practical or achievable in all situations,” to Tuesday, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom said contact tracing will be a key benchmark for reopening his state’s businesses and schools.
In the Northeast, seven governors led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are crafting their own rules for determining how and when it’s safe to reopen. All but one of them are Democrats, and some of them are talking about keeping stay-at-home restrictions in place well into June.
Face masks are another example. The CDC changed its guidance on April 3 to recommend that people wear masks in public to slow the spread of the virus, especially when social distancing isn’t possible.
President Trump said he won’t wear one, because he feels fine. But on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo issued an executive order making it mandatory for New York residents to wear masks in public or face a possible civil fine.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, on Wednesday also ordered the wearing of masks in stores and on public transportation, effective Saturday.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden criticized Mr. Trump for not wearing a mask.
“I wish he would stop talking and let the scientists speak. I don’t walk out of this house without a mask on,” the former vice president said.
The stakes for the economy continued to grow Wednesday. The Commerce Department reported that March retail sales fell 8.7%, the most since the government began keeping track in 1992. Auto sales fell 25.6%, while clothing purchases were down 50.5%.
New York regional manufacturing activity hit a record low, plunging a whopping 78.2%.
Major U.S. banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America increased the amount of funds set aside for bad loans by nearly $20 billion in the first quarter, earnings reports showed this week, as banks prepared for a spike in loan defaults by households and businesses.
A $350 billion emergency federal fund to help small businesses keep paying their employees was to run out of money Wednesday, just 12 days after the money became available. Congressional Democrats were continuing to block an extra $250 billion for the fund, seeking to add hundreds of billions of dollars for their own priorities.
Mr. Trump, who held conference calls with industry leaders on Wednesday, said he’ll announce new guidelines on Thursday for states to reopen.
“We’ll be talking about various states and it’s very exciting,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s been a horrible time to see such death and destruction.”
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican from Chambersburg, expressed a frustration heard in many parts of the country as he recorded a video of himself on Wednesday walking through empty corridors of the state capitol in Harrisburg.
“We need common sense back,” Mr. Mastriano told his constituents on Facebook. “And we need that power back in your hands, and not in the hands of some bureaucrats in Harrisburg.”
Republican state legislators are battling with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has joined forces with Mr. Cuomo and the other Northeastern governors to craft their own rules independently of the federal government. The state GOP is pushing a proposal that would allow Pennsylvania’s county commissioners to decide when to reopen their 67 counties, following guidelines from the CDC and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“The bottom line is we need to get back to work,” Mr. Mastriano said. “It’s a crisis exacerbated by terrible decisions from our governor. He’d rather work with state leaders across the border that he agrees with ideologically, than he would his own Senate or House elected by the people.”
Mr. Cuomo said Wednesday that any ramping back up of businesses in the state will require a significant increase in COVID-19 testing capabilities and contact tracing. He said it can’t be done without more federal assistance, and that a phased reopening of the state must be done in concert with additional testing and contact tracing.
The District of Columbia on Wednesday extended its stay-at-home order until May 15. It had been due to expire on April 24. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she could extend restrictions on businesses and schools even longer.
Another factor that could affect states’ decisions is that there are two or three strains of the virus, according to studies. The stronger type A strain from Europe hit the East Coast, while a weaker version is on the West Coast.
The debate over what’s prudent and practical is taking place in other states such as Michigan, where a conservative-led “gridlock rally” at the state capitol on Wednesday demonstrated opposition to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order.
“Citizens are frankly tired of being treated like babies,” said Marian Sheridan, Michigan Conservative Coalition co-founder, in a statement. “As adults, we now know what needs to be done to stay safe.”
Most demonstrators stayed in their vehicles to follow social-distancing guidelines, but many others could be seen congregating on the grounds of the capitol while not wearing masks.
In North Carolina, a group called “ReopenNC” has created a Facebook page that has attracted more than 35,000 members in the past week. They’re demanding that officials reopen the state by April 29.
“We are losing our small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy,” the group said. “The shutdown is not warranted, nor sustainable for our area. The vulnerable can be isolated or protected in other ways, without sacrificing our entire state economy.”
In Raleigh Tuesday, about 100 people organized by the group protested Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order. One woman was arrested for violating it. On Wednesday, the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law offered its “assistance” to Mr. Cooper and local governments in “rescinding or revising orders unconstitutionally restricting the rights of the people to free speech and to assembly.”
“We understand the seriousness of the situation, not just in terms of COVID-19 itself but also in terms of how government is violating the Constitution during the crisis,” said Jeanette Doran, the institute’s president and general counsel.
The first known case of the virus in the U.S. arrived in Washington state from China in mid-January. Since March, federal guidelines on ensuring workplace safety have evolved.
On March 21, the CDC issued new guidance on cleaning and disinfecting to prevent workplace exposures in non-health-care settings.
On April 8, in a first step toward reopening the country, the CDC issued new guidelines to make it easier for essential workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 to get back to work. CDC Director Robert Redfield said essential employees such as health care and food supply workers, who had been within 6 feet of a confirmed or suspected case of the virus, could return to work if they had no symptoms.
The guidance advised exposed workers to take their temperatures before going to work, wear a face mask at all times, practice social distancing “as work duties permit,” and avoid sharing headsets.
Employers were asked to take employees’ temperature and assess their symptoms before they resumed work duties; send them home immediately if they became sick during the day; “increase the air exchange in the building,” and “increase the cleaning of commonly touched surfaces.”
On April 10, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the federal government was discussing issuing immunity cards to identify workers who were exposed and who could potentially return to work.
Dr. Fauci said on Wednesday that many states are unlikely to change their social distancing and coronavirus mitigation strategies in the coming weeks, as Mr. Trump prepares a path for reopening certain regions of the U.S. economy.
“There is going to be a great deal of variability,” Dr. Fauci said on NBC’s “Today” show. “It would probably be a rolling entry into it with some states actually doing nothing different because they’re still in a really difficult situation, and you would not want to relax any of the physical separation guidelines and others that would be doing really much better. So it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all.”
Dr. Redfield said Wednesday that determining who is immune to the coronavirus is crucial because the virus is likely to return next year.
“This is going to be the critical question we will answer between now and next year, when it’s very likely that we’re going to have another wrestling match with this virus as it comes back,” Dr. Redfield said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said ramping up antibody testing is key to try to determine how many asymptomatic people spread the virus, notably in health-care settings.
• David Sherfinski and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.