- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2020

President Trump announced Thursday that states with low amounts of coronavirus cases can begin to reopen for business on May 1, as he issued new guidelines calling for governors to move at their own pace amid mounting economic hardship from the crisis.

Citing medical data that nearly one-third of the nation has had no new cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days, the president said it’s time for many Americans to go back to work.

“Our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war,” Mr. Trump said at the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing. “We must have a working economy and we want to get it back very, very quickly. Our country has suffered.”

The president announced the new guidelines as the Labor Department reported that another 5.2 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. It raised the one-month total for jobless claims to about 22 million, wiping out all of the job gains of the past decade.

Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s have so many people been thrown out of work so quickly.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the unemployment rate will hit 14% in the second quarter and will still be as high as 10% through 2021. The unemployment rate in February was 3.5%.

The new guidelines, called Opening Up America Again, call for governors to take “a phased and deliberate approach.”

“This strategy is based on hard, verifiable data,” Mr. Trump said. “We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time.”

The guidelines include reviewing medical data county-by-county or statewide at a governor’s discretion. Areas with declining infection rates and robust testing would begin a gradual reopening of businesses and schools in three phases of 14 days each, to ensure that infections don’t spike again.

In Phase One, the most restrictive, healthy people who go out in public should practice social distancing, avoid groups of more than 10, and minimize non-essential travel. Gyms and restaurants could open with social distancing but schools and bars would stay closed, and return to work would occur in phases.

In Phase Two, schools and bars could reopen. Vulnerable individuals should continue to shelter in place. Others should practice social distancing in public, limit social gatherings to 50, and could resume non-essential travel.

Phase Three is the closest to a return to normal life. Vulnerable people could resume public interactions; low-risk people should “consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”

Major sports leagues will phase in over the coming weeks or months, starting with games played without spectators.

“Many of them are going to be starting without the fans. It will be made for television,” the president said.

The plan also calls for states to set up screening and testing sites for people with symptoms and to trace contacts of infected people.

The president said states such as Utah and Montana, which have fewer than 30 deaths combined from COVID-19, could be ready to reopen as soon as Friday.

“They will be able to go literally tomorrow,” Mr. Trump said. “I think you’re going to have some nice surprises over the next few days. I think 29 states are in that ballgame.”

The president’s move puts the decision-making squarely on governors, days after Mr. Trump said he had “total authority” over deciding how and when states would reopen.

“Some states will be able to open up sooner than others,” Mr. Trump said. “If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that.”

The announcement came as the president and many GOP governors and lawmakers are pushing for a swift reopening of states’ economies in regions that haven’t been hard hit by the virus. For example, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said he’ll start to ease restrictions on May 1 and begin a “new period” of recovery. His state of 11.7 million has had about 7,800 cases of COVID-19 and 361 deaths.

Mr. DeWine joined six other governors of Midwestern states Thursday to work in concert on crafting plans to reopen their state economies amid the pandemic. The partnership includes five Democrats: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, plus Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana.

The governors said they would keep a close eye on new infections and hospitalizations, testing and tracing capacity, the capacity for health facilities to handle a potential resurgence, and strategies to promote social distancing in the workplace.

Two groups of mostly Democratic governors on the East and West coasts who are crafting their own plans independently of the White House are taking a more cautious approach calling for a dramatic expansion of testing before reopening.

Seven Northeast states from Delaware to Massachusetts on Thursday extended closures of non-essential businesses and a ban on public gatherings until May 15, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, where the death toll rose above 12,000.

“What happens after then? I don’t know,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Starting Friday at 8 p.m., New Yorkers will have to wear face masks or coverings when they’re in public and aren’t in a position to practice social distancing. The requirement applies to everyone who is at least 2 years old.

In addition to the health and livelihoods of millions, getting the recovery right also will determine the fate of Mr. Trump’s presidency in this election year. Gallup reported Thursday that the president’s job approval rating has slipped 6 percentage points, to 43%, since mid-March. His 49% approval rating last month tied his personal best.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden issued a four-point plan Thursday for essential workers, calling on the administration to ensure all frontline workers such as grocery store employees get protective gear; expand access to protective gear through the Defense Production Act; establish and enforce new workplace safety standards, and enact “premium pay” for frontline workers who are most at risk.

Adding to the economic anxiety around the nation, a $350 billion emergency fund to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll officially ran out of money Thursday, freezing about 700,000 loan applications in the pipeline. The administration wants to add $250 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program, but congressional Democrats are blocking that move, calling for hundreds of billions more for hospitals and states.

The U.S. is already in recession, economists say. But the concern among people who urge a more cautious recovery is that the recession will last longer than a few months if COVID-19 continues to spread because social-distancing rules were relaxed too soon.

“A rushed, haphazard reopening risks not only further lives lost but also further damage to our economy,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, who accepted the president’s invitation to serve on the new task force. “We need to do everything we can to stamp out this disease and give Americans confidence that it is truly safe to begin returning to normal.”

Another Democrat who agreed to serve on the presidential panel, Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, said she wishes Mr. Trump “had been as eager to prepare our country for this pandemic as he is to rush towards normalcy when his own experts are warning ‘we’re not there yet.’

“As a member of this task force, I will do everything in my power to remind Donald Trump of his responsibility to protect public health,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the task force had a priority of protecting public health in crafting the guidelines.

“The predominant and completely driving element that we put into this was the safety and public health of the American public,” Dr. Fauci said.

Several business leaders who have conferred with the president in recent days also told him that expanded coronavirus testing and proper social distancing measures are crucial to reopening the economy.

“I think everyone had in common the notion of testing and social distancing protocols that are a must to provide safety and confidence. As things stand, that’s a big problem,” Chubb Chairman and CEO Evan Greenberg, one of 200 industry executives working with the White House, said Thursday on Fox Business Network. “That was probably the main recommendation.”

But several Republicans such as Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas said it’s past time to get the economy moving.

“The president is right: We can continue to apply maximum pressure on the coronavirus while reopening our economy safely and responsibly,” Mr. Brady said. “Not only can we — we must if we hope to prevent hurting working families and the jobless with an unnecessarily extended economic recession.”

Another task force member, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told The Washington Times, “I think we probably need more testing, but it very well may be that there are aspects of the plan I’m not factoring in at this point.”

“What matters is the opinion of the experts, and the president has done a good job of listening to those experts during this challenging time,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association, said Thursday that the lack of available testing “has been the number one stumbling block in America.”

“You really can’t get to any point where you can reopen the country until, not just in my state but across the country, we can do much, much larger scale testing of more people,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show.

Data from the COVID Tracking Project show the U.S. averaged more than 160,000 tests per day over the past week.

Mr. Trump has focused on the aggregate total — about 3.5 million — but that’s roughly 1% of the national population. State leaders and experts say the rate of testing lags behind other developed nations on a per capita basis and it is not satisfying the need.

“The inability of the U.S. to do as much testing as most health and public health professionals would like to see is due to a lack of supplies of all types needed to perform these tests and the excessive global demand for testing,” said Eric Blank, chief program officer for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “This is not just a U.S. problem. It is a global problem.”

Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said reopening the country ideally would be accompanied by coronavirus testing that’s so prevalent people can grab one at a 7-Eleven or in a first-aid kit at an office.

“Testing absolutely is key here,” Mr. Gardner, a Republican facing reelection, said on “Fox & Friends.” “I’d like to see testing so ubiquitous going forward that you can go buy your Big Gulp at 7-Eleven and you can get your COVID-19 test at the same time.”

He said every business should have a COVID-19 test in its first-aid kit so if someone has, say, a sore throat they are able to get tested and see results “within a matter of minutes.”

“That’s where we need to be, and it needs to happen soon,” he said.

Tom Howell Jr. and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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