WASHINGTON – Some form of social distancing will probably remain in place through the summer, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, said Sunday – the same day several governors expressed optimism about the course of the virus and outlined their plans for a piecemeal reopening of their economies.
It was the latest instance of conflicting signals coming not just from state and federal leaders but also from within the Trump administration amid a coronavirus pandemic that so far has claimed the lives of more than 54,000 Americans. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence predicted that “we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us” by Memorial Day weekend in late May.
But on Sunday, Birx said in an interview on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that “social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases.” She cited the need for further testing to be developed after a potential scientific “breakthrough.”
The mixed messages come as Americans are entering a confusing and uncertain new phase in the coronavirus crisis. After weeks of being told to simply stay home to halt the spread of the virus, individuals and business owners are now facing more complex decisions about how to proceed in the absence of clear guidance from their leaders.
In places where restaurant dining rooms are reopening, is it safe to go? Is it a good idea to return to the hair salon for a much-needed trim? And for business owners facing a litany of new guidelines about how to reopen without endangering their workers or customers, are the risks worth it?
Emily Landon, chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, said those calculations are tricky for people in states that are beginning to reopen because of the continued lack of widespread testing and the inability to effectively track people who might have been infected.
“It’s hard for me to know what I’d do” in one of the states where governors have announced that spas and salons are able to reopen, Landon said. “I wouldn’t go. And I wouldn’t recommend that my family went. I would recommend that people stay home.”
Landon said that in her view, it’s still not safe for states to fully reopen – or for Americans to try to resume their lives as they were before the pandemic hit.
“This is a brand-new virus, and we have to do these things in a measured way,” she said. “Without requirements for things like [personal protective equipment], social distancing and really thoughtful policies for how to do these openings, it’s not the time to do them.”
In its broad guidelines for states to follow as they begin a phased reopening, the White House earlier this month recommended that a number of criteria, such as increasing capacity for testing and contact tracing, should be met before proceeding.
Across the country, however, some states are already relaxing their social distancing restrictions amid pressure from protesters, business groups and others.
On Sunday, several governors defended their decision to do so, arguing that their states’ closures have successfully achieved their goal of building hospital capacity, acquiring personal protective equipment and reducing the spread of the pandemic’s growth.
“The facts in our state are: March 30, we peaked in hospitalizations, with 560 across the state,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Today we have 300 across the state in our hospitals. We think it’s time for a measured reopening.”
Stitt said that more than 55,000 Oklahomans have been tested and that the positive rate was 6.3%. He also noted that no one is obliged to reopen a business.
“I’m giving guidance. If a restaurant doesn’t feel like they’re ready to reopen,” he said, “they don’t have to.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, also defended his decision to partially reopen his state, and maintained that he is focused on social distancing measures that are sustainable for the coming weeks and months.
“We’ve really been laser-focused on figuring out how we can endure and sustain these kinds of social distancing measures,” Polis said. “If we can’t succeed in doing that, the stay-at-home was for nothing.”
Polis said an apparent spike in coronavirus cases in Colorado was attributable to previous tests that were just confirmed and added to the total, and does not reflect the present situation.
The debate over reopening in the United States comes as another hard-hit country, Spain, allowed children under 14 to go outside for the first time in six weeks. The country, which has had more than 207,000 coronavirus cases and 23,190 deaths, has been in the midst one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns since last month.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is set to return to work Monday after more than three weeks battling a coronavirus infection. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been standing in for Johnson, told Sky News on Sunday that the prime minister is “raring to go.”
In the United States, the steps being taken toward reopening vary by state. In some places, such as Florida, beaches have reopened on a limited basis, with police urging visitors to keep moving and avoid congregating.
In Oklahoma, Stitt gave salons, barbers and pet groomers the green light to resume business late last week, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen their doors Friday.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Sunday that construction and manufacturing businesses outside of the New York City region might be able to reopen after May 15, when the state’s stay-home order expires.
And in Georgia, businesses including bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms and hair salons have already been allowed to reopen, with movie theaters and dine-in restaurants expected to follow suit Monday.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has come under fire for the speed with which he has rolled back social distancing restrictions, and on Sunday, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the state is opening up too early.
“Georgia is certainly jumping the gun, I think here, getting started too early relative to where they are in the epidemic,” Gottlieb said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
Asked whether he thinks states such as Georgia and Oklahoma are reopening too quickly, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, chairman of the National Governors Association, said that he was “going to be very cautious” in making decisions about his own state but declined to criticize other governors.
“Certain states are in different points of the curve, and they’ve got different situations on the ground, and I don’t want to second guess my colleagues in different states,” Hogan, a Republican, said on ABC News’ “This Week.”
While Pence and President Donald Trump have in recent weeks voiced optimism about the speed with which they expect the country to be able to reopen, Birx and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have voiced caution.
On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Birx was asked about Pence’s remark to a Cleveland radio station last week that “if you look at the trends today, that I think by Memorial Day weekend we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.”
She appeared to contradict Pence’s comment, projecting that social distancing will continue through the summer, and said the country needs to have a “breakthrough” in testing for antigens – molecules or molecular structures that trigger an immune response – to get on track toward normalcy.
After a torrent of criticism sparked by his suggestion at Thursday’s coronavirus task force briefing that injecting disinfectants into the human body might help fight the coronavirus, Trump did not appear in public over the weekend. On Saturday night, he questioned in a tweet whether the task force briefings were worth his time, declaring, “They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News.”
On Sunday, his wife, Melania Trump’s 50th birthday, the president continued to tweet angrily about the media, lashing out at reporters who he said “have received Noble Prizes for their work on Russia, Russia, Russia, only to have been proven totally wrong.”
Trump appears to have misspelled the Nobel Prize, though journalists recognized for their coverage of the Russia investigation received a different prize, the Pulitzer.
He later deleted the tweets and then tweeted that he was being sarcastic, writing: “Does anybody get the meaning of what a so-called Noble (not Nobel) Prize is, especially as it pertains to Reporters and Journalists? Noble is defined as, ‘having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals.’ Does sarcasm ever work?”
Despite Trump’s efforts to change the topic, Democrats continued to hammer him for his remarks about disinfectants as a possible cure for the virus.
“You know what they call that? They call that embalming,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “That’s the medical term.”
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The Washington Post’s Kim Bellware, Peter Whoriskey and Siobhán O’Grady in Washington and Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.