- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2020

The U.S. steered out of a coronavirus maelstrom in the spring but faces a summer of sorrow if it cannot corral the fallout from early reopenings, wanton partying and lax compliance with federal safety tips that have been undermined at times by the White House, which gathered large crowds for Independence Day celebrations.

That was the Sunday view from Florida and Texas, where mayors said their hospitals will be overwhelmed if transmission continues to rage.

“If we don’t change the trajectory, then I am within two weeks of having our hospitals overrun. And in our ICUs, I could be 10 days away from that,” Steve Adler, a Democrat and mayor of Austin, Texas, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

He said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, doesn’t need to issue another stay-at-home order, though he would like the authority to shut down places in his city if needed.

“The number of people who are getting sick and going to the hospital has exponentially increased. The number of people in our ICU beds has exponentially increased,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, told “CBS’s Face the Nation.” “In fact, if we don’t get our hands around this virus quickly, in about two weeks our hospital system could be in serious, serious trouble.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said his state overcame a wave of death only to see ripples of reinfection as vacationers return from Florida and South Carolina, underscoring the fraught course of the pandemic.

The hard-hit Northeast showed great improvement after Mr. Trump asked Americans to work and learn at home from mid-March to the end of April. The trend, combined with medical advances and the fact that the latest surge is hitting younger people, is causing a steady decline in the death rate.

Yet Florida and Texas combined to report 20,000 new cases on Saturday alone. Arizona and California have reported a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and rates of people testing positive for coronavirus infection.

Local leaders cried for action after Mr. Trump said during a Saturday speech on the White House lawn that 99% of cases are “totally harmless.”

“There were no tests for a new virus, but now we have tested almost 40 million people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless — results that no other country can show because no other country has the testing that we have,” Mr. Trump told the crowd.

Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn declined to referee. He said he couldn’t get into “who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Global health officials say 1 in 5 people infected with the coronavirus need special treatment, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-quarter to one-third of cases involve no symptoms at all.

Local officials pushed back vocally.

“The virus is not harmless, absolutely not,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, a Republican. “If it were harmless, I would not be taking the steps I am taking in Miami-Dade.”

Mr. Adler said inconsistent messaging from the federal level makes him “angry” because it confuses his constituents.

“When they start hearing that kind of ambiguous message coming out of Washington, there are more and more people that won’t wear masks, that won’t social distance, that won’t do what it takes to keep a community safe. And that’s wrong, and it’s dangerous,” he told CNN. “I just have to hope that people aren’t going to listen to that, and they will stay focused on what they’re hearing here more locally.”

Houston’s mayor said the number of cases started to explode around mid-June as people socialized after pandemic-related lockdowns.

“What’s most disturbing is the positivity rate has increased,” Mr. Turner said.

About 1 in 4 tests are coming back positive, a rate that suggests rampant community spread of the virus, he said. Experts say the positivity rate should be 10% or lower to ensure that officials are catching enough cases within a community.

“We had it down to about 8%. … Now, they’re almost 20% showing up positive,” Mr. Gimenez told CBS.

He said the virus started to proliferate in recent weeks as people held summertime parties and graduation celebrations. He also believes the congregation of many young people in the streets protesting racial injustice was a factor.

Mr. Gimenez restricted alcohol sales and closed places where people congregate, including beaches, movie theaters and bowling alleys.

Mr. Trump has acknowledged flare-ups in parts of the country but has stressed the need to deal with the virus while reopening the economy so parents can send their children back to school and workers can earn paychecks.

He has highlighted the clear decline in the death rate — though nearly 130,000 have died already — and said the U.S. is making progress toward its goal of finding a vaccine by the end of this year.

“Our strategy is moving along well. It goes out in one area and rears back its ugly face in another area. But we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned how to put out the flame,” he said at his July Fourth “Salute to America.”

The White House said guests were not tested for the coronavirus. Outdoor events are seen as safer than indoor events. Guests on the lawn were offered masks, though many people didn’t wear them.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said Sunday that he would like to have seen more masks Friday night at Mount Rushmore, where Mr. Trump addressed a packed crowd beneath the majestic monument before a fireworks display, but “there is a virus fatigue in our country right now.”

“And you have to live life. You can’t stop every activity, but you have to be in a controlled environment in which you do protect yourself and others and take it seriously,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In Arkansas, he said, “whenever we see an outbreak, we tighten the screws again because we have to be able to respond and make sure people are following the guidelines.”

“But governors have to be able to adjust to what is happening with a virus,” he said. “We’ve done that in Arkansas. We were flat for a long time. We had a small increase, we went back down. And now you see it going back up. And we’re responding to that. That’s what governors do.”

But Mr. Murphy, in New Jersey, said he would like a national strategy because of the movement of the virus from one hot spot to another. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link right now,” he said.

He said wearing a mask in public should be a national requirement.

“It’s become almost not even debatable. Certainly when you’re going out and absolutely indoors,” Mr. Murphy said. “This virus is a lot more lethal inside than outside, but if you’re leaving your house, put on a mask.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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