WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump unveiled Thursday broad guidelines for states to follow as they begin reopening amid the persistent coronavirus pandemic while leaving the specific plans to the governors.
The guidance, formally introduced by the president at his evening White House briefing, provides state leaders a phased list of criteria to lift social distancing restrictions. For governors to start the process, they must first show that coronavirus cases in their state are decreasing.
“We’re starting our life again. We’re starting to rejuvenate our economy again in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion,” Trump said.
The guidance doesn’t set a specific timeline, and Trump wouldn’t hypothesize what the country will look like by milestone dates such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or Labor Day. But Trump predicted that there are 29 states that can begin the opening soon and several that could start the process right away, though he didn’t name them.
“I think you’re going to have some nice surprises over the next few days,” he said. “And I think it’ll be much faster than people think.”
Earlier Thursday, Trump explained the parameters to governors on a conference call, assuring them, “You’re going to call your own shots,” according to a recording of the call obtained by The Washington Post. But he emphasized that the federal government will be involved to support the states in the process.
Trump’s decision to defer to the governors is a change from his stance earlier this week, when he declared that he had “total authority” to unilaterally open the country — a statement that drew blowback from governors and some congressional Republicans who said the assertion was contrary to the Constitution.
The guidelines suggest that before reopening, states should first see a decrease in confirmed coronavirus cases over a 14-day period. That suggestion is in line with the recommendations of public health experts who have said that due to the virus’s 14-day incubation period, states should refrain from moving toward relaxing their restrictions until they have seen a sustained reduction in new cases for at least that long.
The White House plan also states that hospitals should be able to “treat all patients without crisis care” and have a “robust testing system in place for at-risk health care workers” before proceeding to a phased reopening.
One tension point is testing capacity. Trump restated that the states, not the federal government, are “going to lead the testing.”
But some governors appealed to Trump for more testing kits and supplies, noting shortages of key equipment in their states.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said that his state recently got the “great Abbott machines,” referring to the highly sought-after rapid-response tests developed by Abbott Laboratories — but “two weeks later, we don’t have testing kits to actually use them.”
“Testing supplies do remain a challenge,” Bullock said.
Deborah Birx, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, described a role for the federal government in connecting states with laboratories that have available testing.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, on Thursday released a plan outlining how his hard-hit state could begin lifting restrictions. It would increase testing with the federal government as a partner in the effort.
Shortly before, Cuomo appeared on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s radio show, where he broadly agreed with Hannity’s assessment of what New York will look like when it begins to phase out of safety measures: temperature checks before entering any building, masks and gloves required indoors.
The White House guidance describes three phases for a gradual return to normalcy. In the first, venues such as restaurants, movie theaters, sports stadiums and gyms may reopen if they can “operate under strict physical distancing protocols.” But bars should remain closed, as well as schools and day cares, the guidance says.
In that first phase, people will be encouraged to continue social distancing, vulnerable populations will be asked to stay home and employers will be urged to allow telework.
If there’s no indication of a coronavirus rebound, a state can move into the second phase, which will allow schools to open, nonessential travel to resume and large venues to begin to ease physical distancing.
The third phase would lift most remaining safety restrictions, though it still will advise large venues to continue “limited” social distancing.
Trump rejected the idea that these phases represent a “new normal,” remaining committed that one day restaurants and sports venue will again be filled to capacity.
“There’s not going to be a new normal where somebody has been having for 25 years 158 seats in a restaurant and now he’s got 34,” Trump said during the briefing. “That wouldn’t work. That’s not normal. No, normal will be if he has the 158 seats. And that’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen relatively quickly we hope.”
Trump also held a conference call with senators earlier Thursday. During the call, the president largely held back and listened to the senators as Democrats and Republicans alike pressed him on the need for more tests, according to senators on the call and other officials briefed on it.
Democrats in particular expressed wariness to the president about reopening the economy until the testing was robust enough, according to one of the officials, who spoke anonymously to discuss a private conference call.
Still, some GOP senators also spoke of their vision for what a restart of the economy would look like,
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who participated in the call Thursday, said that the reopenings should be staggered — county by county, state by state, depending on each locality’s circumstances — and that Trump was “definitely” receptive to that position. Braun warned in an interview that the economy was “very close to the point of irreparable damage.”
“There’s no way we’re going to be able to test comprehensive enough and with enough confidence where it would assuage the fears of people who want that in place before you reopen the economy,” Braun said.
But the eagerness of Trump and some other Republicans to reopen the stalled economy alarmed the Democrats on the call, who all pressed the president for more expansive testing. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence told senators that the current testing capacity was about 120,000 tests per day, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who participated on the call.
“We need to do this in a methodical way and not just rush forward and put lives at risk,” said Duckworth, one of the 13 Democratic senators selected for the president’s task force on reopening the economy.
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/trump-puts-onus-on-states-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/2020/04/10/869152c8-d35b-4dee-8aa1-ddd91a30db07_video.html (REF:riegerj/The Washington Post)