- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2020

President Trump pledged new guidelines Thursday to help states decide whether to relax “social distancing” measures that are curbing the spread of COVID-19 but are ravaging the U.S. economy, with jobless claims soaring above 3 million last week.

“This was a country that was built on getting it done, and our people want to get back to work,” Mr. Trump said at a White House briefing.

“I’m hearing it loud and clear from everyone.”

The president wants to get America revving back to life by Easter even as governors look at a longer recovery. The crisis worsened from New Orleans to New York City on Thursday. The U.S. death toll surpassed 1,000, and its caseload lunged to the worst in the world, exceeding that of China or Italy at more than 82,000.

In a letter to governors, Mr. Trump said onerous restrictions should be tailored. He said increased testing and sophisticated disease tracking models will help governors label counties as high, low or medium risk for transmission of the new coronavirus as they tweak policies that have brought normal life to a standstill.

The president said some places should maintain or even tighten restrictions based on the data, but he has made it clear that he wants to get people back to work as the pandemic ravages the economy in an election year, indicating a desire to loosen restrictions.

“We have to go back. This is the United States of America. They don’t want to sit around and wait,” Mr. Trump said. “We have to open up. We can’t say, ‘Let’s close.’”

The Labor Department underscored the economic fallout Thursday by reporting a spike in new jobless claims to a record 3.28 million last week.

Economists had forecast about 1.5 million filings for unemployment benefits. The true number of out-of-work Americans is likely much higher because self-employed people and gig workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

The stock market shrugged off the record-breaking number and posted another huge gain Thursday after the Senate approved a $2.2 trillion rescue package.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 1,351 points, or 6.3%, to close at 22,552. The S&P 500 jumped 6.2%, and the Nasdaq rose 5.6%.

It was a three-day winning streak for Wall Street, where the major indexes had fallen about 33% from their record highs in mid-February. The Dow is now about 24% off its record high.

Congress is speeding its relief package to the White House, though Mr. Trump is worried about lasting damage to the economy that was supposed to serve as the linchpin of his reelection bid.

Mr. Trump on March 16 asked Americans to work and learn at home, avoid unnecessary travel and use takeout instead of entering restaurants for 15 days, a period that lasts until Tuesday.

He plans to release new guidelines next week, steering the debate on restrictions that have shuttered schools, turned church services into YouTube streams and closed many stores, leaving only necessities such as gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores.

Many governors have taken action on their own, so it’s not clear whether changes to White House guidelines will mean much in hard-hit states, where the disruption from the coronavirus could last months.

“Let me be clear: The decision to reopen school districts rests with me. We will not be prepared to revisit the closure until at least April 17th, at the very earliest,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in a Twitter post.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, struck a similar note Thursday. He said the schools might not reopen this academic year.

Yet Mr. Trump is ratcheting up pressure on other pockets of the country, saying he would like the U.S. opened up and “raring to go” by Easter, on April 12.

Congressional Democrats warned Mr. Trump not to loosen the guidelines before it is safe to do so.

“People in my state and across the country have made incredible personal sacrifices to help slow the spread of this disease. Now is not the time to retreat and let those efforts go to waste,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.

Mr. Trump said he is not being reckless. When counties reopen, they should still be cautious, he said.

U.S. reports of more than 82,000 cases of COVID-19 and nearly 1,200 deaths put the death rate at 1.4%. It is not clear how many cases have gone undiagnosed, so the rate is likely lower.

More than 600 people in the U.S. have recovered from the disease, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

New York state accounts for nearly half of the nation’s coronavirus cases and roughly a third of the deaths.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said patients in some cases are now on ventilators for 20 to 30 days, up from a range of 11 to 21 days. The chance of survival decreases the longer patients are on ventilators.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York now tops 37,800 — easily the most in the country.

The number of hospitalizations in the state — 5,327 — surged by 40% compared with the figure Mr. Cuomo reported a day earlier, when he had cited projections showing the rate of hospitalization increases was slowing.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation,” Mr. Cuomo said at his daily briefing on the outbreak.

He said the state has enough personal protective equipment in the immediate future but the state hospital system will be overwhelmed under almost any scenario.

Mr. Trump said the USNS Comfort ship will be dispatched to New York Harbor on Saturday to aid the city and free up space for hospitals reeling from the pandemic.

“It’s going to be leaving on Saturday rather than three weeks from now,” Mr. Trump said. “They did the maintenance quickly.”

Mr. Trump said he will go to Virginia to “kiss it goodbye” and noted the “media will be following.”

“If you want to go, I’ll see you there,” he told White House reporters. “If you don’t, that’s OK.”

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said his state will be out of ventilators and hospital bed space in early April if the pace of coronavirus infection does not slow. In a statewide address, he said Louisiana is now tied with New Jersey in the number of cases per capita but insisted his orders to “shelter in place” will work.

“Despite the dire circumstances we face, I do remain hopeful,” said Mr. Edwards, noting that he does not “see light at the end of the tunnel.”

“People just exercising good common sense, with that we are going to start flattening the curve,” he said.

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It killed thousands in China before the epicenter shifted to South Korea and then Europe and the Americas.

More than half a million people have been infected worldwide.

China on Thursday announced it is barring the entry of foreign nationals holding visas or residence permits as of midnight Saturday as part of its efforts to prevent a flare-up. The communist government says it has the outbreak under control and is worried about a rebounding effect as cases soar elsewhere.

“The suspension is a temporary measure that China is compelled to take in light of the outbreak situation and the practices of other countries,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. “China will stay in close touch with all sides and properly handle personnel exchanges with the rest of the world under the special circumstances.”

Mr. Trump says his late-January decision to ban foreign nationals who had been in China during the previous 14 days prevented a far worse problem in the U.S.

Now it’s China that is setting up barriers, saying it doesn’t want to import cases and squander the fruits of its draconian measures earlier in the year.

Mr. Trump said he planned to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping late Thursday. He predicted a good call even as he blames China for its delayed response to the outbreak.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who likely will face Mr. Trump in the presidential election in November, said Mr. Trump was too soft on Mr. Xi and China in the early days of the outbreak. He continued to criticize Mr. Trump’s tactics Thursday in media appearances and virtual addresses from his home in Delaware.

“The president is not responsible for the coronavirus, but he bears full responsibility for the slow and uncoordinated response that has exacerbated both the public health and economic impact on our country,” Mr. Biden said. “The harsh reality is that at least 3 million people now don’t have jobs because our president didn’t do his job when it mattered.”

Mr. Trump said the record number of people filing jobless claims are “nobody’s fault,” given the unexpected pathogen.

“They are fully expected numbers,” he said.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, meanwhile, told CNBC that the figures are “not relevant” in the short term and cited the president’s efforts to help those people.

The Senate late Wednesday night approved a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that includes $250 billion in expanded unemployment benefits and increased eligibility. It would cover the self-employed and gig workers.

It also has $350 billion for small businesses to retain their workforce. The House is expected to vote on the package Friday, and Mr. Trump has said he will sign it immediately.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Thursday that the economy may well be in a recession.

“We know that economic activity will decline probably substantially in the second quarter,” Mr. Powell said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I would expect economic activity to resume and move back up in the second half of the year.”

He said there is “nothing fundamentally wrong” with the U.S. economy.

“The economy performed very well right through February,” he said. “This is a situation where people are being asked to step back from economic activity, close their businesses, stay home from work. The sooner we get through this period and get the virus under control, the sooner the recovery can come.”

• James Varney contributed to this report.

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