WASHINGTON — Coronavirus infections were spiking in 21 states Wednesday, and cases in the United States topped 2 million — but Washington had other business.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties were examining police brutality. The Senate health committee was grappling with getting children back to school. President Donald Trump, who halted daily virus briefings more than a month ago, was speaking up for the names of Confederate generals adorning military bases and announcing a resumption of campaign rallies, some in virus hot spots. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was spotted at a popular Georgetown cafe Tuesday night.
The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus.
As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb — more than 112,000 dead as of Wednesday and warnings from Arizona that its hospitals could be full by next month — Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.
“They have made a conscious decision that we are moving on,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan who helped shape federal social distancing policy during the George W. Bush administration. He mourned the shrinking public profile of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
“The government is blessed with one of the best experts in the world and neither side is listening,” he said. “What’s wrong with that picture?”
Fauci, who had been a steady presence (and occasional thorn in Trump’s side) on television during the president’s daily briefings, made a brief reappearance Wednesday. He warned on the ABC program “Good Morning America” that protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody could exacerbate the pandemic — even though many demonstrators were wearing masks.
“Masks can help, but it’s masks plus physical separation, and when you get congregations like we saw with the demonstrations, like we have said — myself and other health officials — that’s taking a risk,” Fauci said. “Unfortunately,” he added, “what we’re seeing now is just an example of the kinds of things we were concerned about.”
But there seems to be a tacit agreement between the parties: Democrats have largely stopped harping on social distancing, while Trump plans to resume his political rallies — first in Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — and Republicans refrain from shaming protesters over shedding pandemic precautions.
The bully pulpit has gone silent.
“There isn’t a daily information flow around COVID-19, and so in the absence of that, everybody’s theories about what to do next are competing with one another,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist. “There’s no voice of authority that’s saying: ‘This is OK. This is not OK.’”
Inside the White House, Trump has attended significantly fewer meetings and briefings with the coronavirus task force, according to senior administration officials, and has begun plotting his return to the campaign trail, even as cases are spiking in key swing states. Of the four states where the president announced rallies, three — Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — are seeing rising caseloads, while Oklahoma’s infection numbers are steady but not falling.
For a third consecutive day this week, Texas set a record for hospitalizations, which have increased 42% in the state since Memorial Day.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, an outside adviser to the White House who served as the commissioner of food and drugs under Trump, cited modeling from the investment house Morgan Stanley that forecast a doubling in the number of infections over the next 60 days. In an interview, he predicted a “slow burn through the summer, where maybe 20,000 cases a day diagnoses is the new normal.
Despite that, the coronavirus task force has met less frequently and in less focused ways in recent weeks, senior administration officials said. On Tuesday, the 90-minute meeting ranged from new cases in North Carolina to an update on vaccines from Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, to the possible public health consequences of the protests over Floyd’s death, one official said.
Around the same time, Mark Meadows, the Republican former congressman from North Carolina who is now Trump’s chief of staff, visited Capitol Hill with Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and he joked with reporters about their facial coverings as they walked through a Senate office building with him.
“You guys with all your masks, you look very different than you used to,” he said, not wearing one himself.
“We’re just trying not to die,” replied Jake Sherman, a reporter for Politico.
Dr. Deborah Birx still coordinates the task force from her office in the West Wing, regularly updates senior staff members and still meets often with Vice President Mike Pence, according to one official, but appears only occasionally to present and discuss new virus data with reporters. Pence met Wednesday with Trump campaign workers, who posed for a photo, huddling together, thumbs up, their faces bare.
. And Adm. Brett Giroir, who has been the administration’s point person overseeing coronavirus testing, told colleagues in an email that he was resuming his regular duties as the assistant secretary for health.
“While I remain committed to the fight against COVID-19, and will spend a portion of my time in direct support of the pandemic response,” he wrote, “I feel personally compelled to continue our office’s leadership in childhood vaccination, combating substance misuse, ending the HIV epidemic in America, and improving the lives of all living with sickle cell disease.”
For nearly two weeks now, the nation has been convulsed by the twin crises of the coronavirus and the civil unrest that followed the death of Floyd, a black man who gasped for air with his neck under the knee of a police officer. Congress continues to address the coronavirus crisis — in addition to Wednesday’s health committee hearing, Mnuchin appeared before the Senate Small Business Committee, where he defended the administration’s decision to reopen the economy.
But the big news on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was the testimony of Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, before the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m here to ask you to make it stop,” he said, asking lawmakers to make sure that his brother “is more than another face on a T-shirt.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, convened a virtual hearing Wednesday on how to overcome obstacles — like creating social distance and a “mask-wearing culture” — to getting children back to school.
The headline on the news release announcing the session summed up his sentiment. “Alexander: 56 Million Students Going Back to School This Fall Will Be Surest Step Toward Normalcy.”
In one sense, the shifting emphasis is a sign that the nation is no longer on a war footing but has come to accept that the coronavirus pandemic is not going away anytime soon and must be incorporated into Americans’ daily lives. Politicians and health officials are now simply trying to minimize its impact, knowing that Americans are going to continue to get sick and die.
“We are in a phase where it’s about risk mitigation, rather than risk prevention,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
With the November election looming, politicians including Trump will have little appetite for reviving shutdown orders or another mass quarantine. “It’s going to be very hard for these governors and these mayors to go backward,” Gottlieb said Wednesday in an interview on CNBC, while Fauci warned that even as states reopen, Americans must still “practice a degree of caution.”
That warning, though, did not seem to transmit to Mnuchin, who was spotted drinking wine with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, at one of the Treasury secretary’s favorite haunts, Cafe Milano in Georgetown, a hot spot for Trump administration officials before the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for the restaurant insisted that Mnuchin was seated on an outdoor patio and not, as a photograph suggested, in the restaurant’s indoor seating area, which would have been in violation of restrictions imposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington. Mnuchin, for his part, said during the Senate hearing that he was happy to be dining out again and seemed to acknowledge that he was inside.
“Let me just give a pitch on indoor seating, OK? I’m happy that in D.C., they’ve now allowed restaurants open. I tried to support restaurants,” he told lawmakers, adding, “This distinction between indoor and outdoor seems a bit random, and I don’t know what people would do when it rains.”