WASHINGTON – The White House is finalizing expanded guidelines to allow the phased reopening of schools and camps, child-care programs, certain workplaces, houses of worship, restaurants and mass transit, according to documents under review by administration officials.
Members of the White House coronavirus task force and other officials received the guidelines late last week, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the guidelines have not been officially released.
It represents the most detailed guidance to date on the administration’s plan to gradually reopen key sectors of society and comes as business groups lobby to lift stay-at-home orders and protesters flock to state capitols to demand their end. Although President Donald Trump was highly critical of Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for reopening already, he also has prodded governors to open by May 1 and has tweeted that citizens should “liberate” states whose leaders have ordered people to stay home.
The guidelines have sparked sharp debates within the administration between public health experts and other officials who fear that the guidelines could restrict worship services, damage the profitability of restaurants and upend daily life in a way they deem unnecessary.
Among the most contentious issues are the guidelines for faith communities and restaurants. While sharing menus, passing the offering plate and crowding members of a choir together raise the risk for transmission, some officials said the guidelines are likely to be controversial.
“Churches don’t like being told how to operate,” said one administration official with knowledge of the document who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “There was a decision to say ‘consider’ so we aren’t infringing. Churches aren’t going to want to give up hymnals or choirs or normal services.”
In mid-April, the White House unveiled a three-phase plan for a gradual reopening. In phase one, large venues such as restaurants, movie theaters, sport 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-care centers, the guidance says.
In the first phase, people are encouraged to continue practicing social distancing while vulnerable populations remain at home and employees are allowed to continue teleworking. If there’s no indication of a coronavirus rebound, a state can move to phase two, which allows schools to open, nonessential travel to resume and large venues to begin to ease physical distancing. Phase three lifts most remaining restrictions, although it still advises large venues continue “limited” social distancing.
But those initial guidelines provided few specifics.
The guidance under review, drafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is considerably more detailed. Changes could be made, but the guidance is likely to be released within the next seven days, officials said.
The 17-page guidance lists recommendations for each of six settings. It says all decisions should be made locally in collaboration with local health officials. An accompanying set of documents provides one-page checklists to help state and local health officials make decisions. The Washington Post obtained copies of the guidance and checklists.
The documents have been reviewed by task force members Deborah Birx, who is also the response coordinator; Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Joe Grogan, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council.
Some aides do not want guidance for religious institutions. Others thought an earlier version was too restrictive on those institutions. Guidelines for religious institutions are still likely to be included, but they have been the subject of many changing drafts, officials said.
The guidance under review says the CDC “offers these suggestions that faith communities may consider and accept or reject, consistent with their own faith tradition.”
It suggests faith communities consider limiting gatherings in phase one to those that can be held virtually for vulnerable populations and consider video streaming.
In all three phases, the guidance recommends that faith communities consider temporarily limiting community sharing of prayer books, hymnals and other worship materials; consider using a stationary collection box, the mail or electronic payment instead of shared collection trays or baskets; and avoid or consider suspending choir or musical ensembles during religious services.
It also suggests they consider having a soloist or strictly limiting the number of choir members and keeping them at least six feet apart.
In all phases, the guidance recommends good hygiene practices, including encouraging everyone over age 2 to wear cloth face coverings at all gatherings and when in the building; promoting social distancing by spacing seating at least six feet apart for attendees who do not live in the same household; and ensuring that ventilation systems operate properly and that the circulation of outdoor air is increased by opening windows and doors and using fans.
Some aides said restaurant owners may find the recommendations so onerous they can’t reopen and still make a profit.
“The big problem with the restaurant section is it could cause many restaurants to go bankrupt,” said the official with knowledge of the document.
In the guidance for restaurants and bars, the recommendations for the second and third phases include asking facilities to consider avoiding offering self-serve food, including buffets, salad bars and drink stations.
The recommendations for all three phases include:
– Consider assigning vulnerable workers duties that minimize contact with customers, such as managing inventory rather than working as a cashier.
– Avoid using or sharing items such as menus and condiments and use disposable or digital menus and single-serving condiments.
– Consider installing physical barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions, at cash registers or other areas where maintaining a physical distance of six feet is difficult.
– Consider conducting daily employee health checks, including temperature and symptom screening. Implement a flexible sick leave policy, if feasible.
White House officials are discussing whether new guidelines are needed for meat packing and meat processing plants, which are not included in this set of recommendations. The plants have become infection hot spots.