President Trump said Tuesday that he wants the U.S. open and “raring to go” in less than three weeks, proposing an optimistic end date to the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as he pushes to reinvigorate an election-year economy that has been turned on its head.
“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he told a Fox News town hall on the pandemic.
As doctors and scientists call for greater limits on public interaction, Mr. Trump said the country was not built to shut down and that economic aftershocks could kill more people than the pathogen itself.
“We can destroy our country this way by closing it down,” he said. “You’re going to lose more people by putting the country into a massive recession or depression. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”
Briefing reporters later, he said “that beautiful Easter day” of April 12 is his target, but he will be guided by experts and science.
“I just think it would be a beautiful timeline,” Mr. Trump said.
The president had asked Americans to stay indoors and avoid large gatherings through the end of March, yet he has signaled potential changes to his guidance by the weekend.
He said some parts of the country have been hit harder than others and that influenza and car crashes kill thousands each year without a single business closing.
Lawmakers working to finish an economic stimulus package warned Mr. Trump not to be too hasty because failure to defeat the virus would lead to more pain down the road.
“The cost to the economy of many more people getting affected and sick is an even bigger cost than we’re seeing now,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also a California Democrat, pleaded with Mr. Trump to listen to scientists after the U.S. recorded more than 10,000 new cases in a single day at the start of the week.
“It makes no sense to make changes to our safety guidelines unless those changes are based strictly on science. Politics should play no role when more and more people are dying every day,” she said. “I hope the president consults with doctors and other experts before making any changes to federal recommendations.”
The president said March 16 that people should work and learn at home if possible, avoid groups of 10 or more and use takeout service instead of entering bars and restaurants for 15 days.
Governors across the country have issued various degrees of “stay at home” orders as well as directives to shutter nonessential businesses.
Scientists say the widespread business closures, a form of “social distancing,” are vital to breaking the virus’ chains of transmission. It will buy time for hospitals so they aren’t overrun with patients.
Yet Mr. Trump and others say the economy can’t wither indefinitely and a plan is needed for restarting it.
Mr. Trump’s allies said April 12 isn’t a deadline, per se, but a target date for Americans striving to get back to normal.
“I don’t think it should be interpreted necessarily as you know, one day we’re on a stop sign, the next day we’re on a green light. I think there’s a lot of different ways to do transition phases to get to that point,” said Marc Short, chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence. “You could have different guidelines on different parts of the country where there are certain hot spots. Some of it could be guidance that’s given to different demographics.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health, said it is a “flexible situation.”
The president said workers should follow safety guidelines as they return to the office during any type of phase-in.
“You won’t be shaking hands for at least a while,” Mr. Trump said.
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It has infected about 400,000 people worldwide, upending normal life in much of the developed world and forcing officials to postpone the Summer Olympics in Tokyo until next year. Nearly 19,000 people, including nearly 700 in the U.S., have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus,
Cases in Italy surged to about 70,000, putting it closer to China’s toll. A world-leading 7,000 people have died in Italy. Broadcasters for RAI television on Tuesday interviewed people huddled inside their homes by shouting up to their balcony windows.
India, a country of more than 1 billion people, announced a three-week lockdown on Tuesday to limit the virus’ spread.
The number of cases in the U.S. has ballooned from several thousand a week ago to more than 53,000 as increased testing roots out infections.
It’s a major turnabout from one month ago, when Mr. Trump pointed to just over a dozen domestic cases and several dozen patients repatriated from other countries.
“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” he tweeted Feb. 24.
Wall Street numbers have tanked since then, erasing the gains of Mr. Trump’s presidency and forcing the Federal Reserve and Congress to reach for stimulus measures.
The economic fallout is weighing on Mr. Trump, who was hoping to point to robust markets and low unemployment rates as the centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
“Our country has to get back to work,” Mr. Trump said. “We can’t lose the advantage that we have.”
The Greater New York City area has emerged as the epicenter of the U.S. crisis. The 15,000 cases reported in the city far exceed that of any state.
White House officials asked anyone who has traveled out of the metropolitan area to self-isolate for 14 days so they don’t spread the virus elsewhere.
“It’s a very serious situation. They’ve suffered terribly through no fault of their own,” Dr. Fauci said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday said the rate of new infections is doubling about every three days and that the “apex” is likely in 14 to 21 days.
“The apex is higher than we thought, and the apex is sooner than we thought,” said Mr. Cuomo, speaking from the Javits Center in New York City.
A week ago, he said he didn’t expect the peak for another 45 days.
New York has recorded more than 25,600 coronavirus infections and at least 210 deaths related to COVID-19. Both totals are the most of any state in the country.
“In many ways, we have exhausted every option available to us,” he said. “We’ve closed all the businesses, we’ve reduced the street density, and we’ve increased testing to the highest level in the country.”
He repeated his call for the federal government to leverage the Defense Production Act to increase production of critical supplies such as ventilators, saying it’s inexplicable that there hasn’t been quicker action on that front.
“I need the ventilators in 14 days — only the federal government has that power,” he said.
Mr. Cuomo said the state has procured 7,000 ventilators, which are critical for treating people who have tested positive for the virus, but that they need 30,000.
Mr. Pence said 4,000 ventilators will ship to New York within two days, while Mr. Trump chafed at Mr. Cuomo’s complaints.
“He had 16,000 ventilators. He could have had a great price, and he didn’t buy them,” the president said, citing a report from five years ago.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Tuesday that Mr. Trump asked President Moon Jae-in whether South Korea could provide medical equipment to the U.S.
Mr. Moon replied that his government would provide “maximum support” if available but pointed out that approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might be required, the report said.
Mr. Trump said he would take immediate action for that “within today,” said Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok.
Yonhap noted that South Korea has been praised for its effective and swift response to the spread of the virus, including advanced testing capabilities, and has been exporting test kits to several countries.
South Korea, where the outbreak hit earlier than the U.S., has reported more than 9,000 cases of COVID-19, with 120 deaths. The U.S. now has more than 46,000 cases and 593 deaths.
The White House readout of the 23-minute phone call made no specific mention of Mr. Trump asking for medical supplies from South Korea.
White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said Mr. Trump “reiterated his commitment to employ the full weight of the United States government and work with global leaders to save lives and restore economic growth.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said the U.S. has conducted more tests for COVID-19 in eight days than South Korea conducted in eight weeks.
She said South Korea likely conducted about 290,000 total tests, and the U.S. will be over 300,000 on Thursday.
“Our cases will continue to surge,” she said, “because we’re still working on our backlog.”
• Dave Boyer and Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.