WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is pushing to reopen much of the country next month, raising concerns among medical experts and economists of a possible COVID-19 resurgence if Americans return to their normal lives before the virus is truly stamped out.
Behind closed doors, President Donald Trump — concerned with the sagging economy — has sought a strategy for resuming business activity by May 1, according to people familiar with the discussions.
In phone calls with outside advisers, Trump has even floated trying to reopen much of the country before the end of this month, when the current federal recommendations to avoid social gatherings and work from home expire, the people said. Trump regularly looks at unemployment and stock market numbers, complaining that they are hurting his presidency and reelection prospects, the people said.
Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.
Trump said at his daily briefing Thursday that the United States was at the “top of the hill” and added, “Hopefully, we’re going to be opening up — you could call it opening — very, very, very, very soon, I hope.”
Multiple Cabinet secretaries in recent days have publicly expressed hope that the various government orders directing residents to stay at home and forcing nonessential businesses to close could be eased at least partially next month.
Asked Thursday during an appearance on CNBC whether he thought it was possible that the country could be open for business next month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “I do.” A day earlier, Attorney General William Barr had called some of the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions “draconian” and suggested they needed to be reevaluated next month.
“When this period of time, at the end of April, expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under their bed, but allow them to use other ways — social distancing and other means — to protect themselves,” Barr said on Fox News.
The White House cannot unilaterally reopen the country. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued federal guidance advising people to avoid social gatherings, work from home and use pickup and delivery options for food, it is state officials who have put the force of law behind those suggestions.
The CDC guidance is set to expire April 30, but the states are free to choose their own paths. Already, the state directives have varied in timing and in severity, and that is certain to continue as they are rolled back.
White House advisers have contemplated scenarios in which some “hot spot” states will not be ready to reopen as quickly, the people familiar with the matter said. There have already been vigorous debates, with public-health experts and some presidential advisers warning against reopening too soon, while key members of the president’s economic team — and some conservatives in the vice president’s orbit — push for a quicker return to normality.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, said Thursday that some places might reopen sooner than others, and that hard-hit New York, for example, shouldn’t loosen its restrictions until there was a “very steep decline” in infections.
“It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all,” he said.
The president, said one senior administration official with direct knowledge of the conversations, asks regularly: “When can we reopen?”
Health experts say ending the shutdown prematurely would be disastrous because the restrictions have barely had time to work, and because U.S. leaders have not built up the capacity for alternatives to stay-at-home orders — such as the mass testing, large-scale contact tracing and targeted quarantines that have been used in other countries to suppress the virus.
Even one of the most optimistic models, which has been used by the White House and governors, predicts a death toll of 60,400, but only if current drastic restrictions are kept in place until the end of May.
There have been nascent signs that the aggressive social-distancing measures imposed by state and city governments have slowed the spread of the infection, which has killed more than 16,000 Americans. Federal officials have noted that Washington state and California were among the first states to see cases of the virus but have not experienced the high levels of infection and death that others, such as New York and New Jersey, are enduring. Pence said Thursday that officials were beginning to see “stabilization” in some of the hardest-hit areas.
“It’s working, America,” Pence said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday that hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions in the state have fallen, suggesting progress. But he stressed that he did not know when New Yorkers would be able to begin a return to normal life.
“We’re not going to go from red to green; we’re going to go from red to yellow,” Cuomo said.
Trump aides internally have taken note of New York’s stabilizing hospital numbers, and some believe that the modeling projections are excessively high.
The comments from Barr, who is not a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, and Mnuchin, who is, seem to indicate the growing recognition in the administration that the steps meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus have inflicted economic pain that is likely to last for many months.
On Thursday — as the Labor Department tallied another 6.6 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits last week — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the U.S. economy was deteriorating “with alarming speed” and called for a national discussion about what will be required to reopen it.
Trump is preparing to announce this week the creation of a second, smaller coronavirus task force aimed specifically at combating the economic ramifications of the pandemic, according to people familiar with the plans.
The task force is expected to be led by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and include Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, and Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, along with outside business leaders. Others expected to play a role are Kevin Hassett, who has been advising Trump on economic models in recent weeks, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, administration officials say.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who advises the administration informally and has pushed for the country to reopen more quickly, said he believed the task force was a good idea to help expedite that process.
“You have to figure out: How do you do it? Where do you it? When do you it? What areas of the country? What industry?” Moore said. “His presidency depends on getting that right.”
Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement official, noted that the economics of the shutdown could cost lives. For example, he said, cancer researchers were probably at home, not doing their critical work.
“We will have a weaker health-care system if we go into a deep depression,” Barr said. “So, just measured in lives, the cure cannot be worse than the disease.”
Barr’s comments came in response to repeated questions from Fox News’s Laura Ingraham about the civil liberties problems created by government-imposed shutdowns.
Barr, a person familiar with his thinking said, has known Ingraham for many years and agreed to the interview some time ago.
The attorney general repeatedly lauded Trump and said states were, at least for now, within their rights to impose such measures. The person familiar with his thinking said he was focused on what happens after the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing expire this month.
The person said Barr has been informally talking with associates about how businesses could reopen, including having more equipped with personal protective equipment or on-site testing.
“He was trying to say once we’re through this period, it’s not sustainable to live in fear,” the person said.
Health experts and economists have said that reopening prematurely could backfire and lead to another shutdown if coronavirus cases begin surging again and a long-term solution is not found. Past pandemics have offered clear warnings of what can happen.
A 2007 study funded by the CDC examined the fate of several U.S. cities when they eased restrictions too soon during the 1918 flu pandemic. Those cities believed they were on the other side of the peak, and, like the United States today, had residents agitating about the economy and for relaxing restrictions.
Once they lifted the restrictions, however, the trajectory of those cities soon turned into a double-humped curve with two peaks instead of one. Two peaks means overwhelmed hospitals and many deaths, without the flattening benefit authorities were trying to achieve with arduous restrictions.
Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, notably did not advocate a May reopening, saying such steps were more likely after July. And even some close to Trump seemed wary of supporting an early date.
Pence on Thursday did not put a firm date on a possible reopening but said the decision would be guided by medical experts and that Trump wanted it to be done “responsibly.”
“No one wants to reopen America more than Donald Trump,” Pence said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, said an early reopening was “an aspirational goal.”
“The real fear is that you do it too quickly and you create a spike in the disease, which is likely to come back in the fall,” Graham said. “It has to be a science-based assessment, and I don’t see a mass reopening of the economy coming anytime soon.”
Even some of those most affected by the economic downturn expressed fear of a premature return to work.
“If restoring the economy means restoring transit systems back to full-throttle schedules, before COVID-19 is defeated, it’s just going to expose more transit workers to harm’s way, and it’s something we would not be in favor of,” said John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union. “Public transit systems are the most effective disperser of the virus. An evil-genius engineer could not have engineered a better system than the New York City transit system to spread COVID-19.”
Zack Hershman, 27, has been out of work since mid-March, when he was laid off as a server at Suraya, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. The layoff was profoundly unsettling, he said, but he nonetheless commended his employers for leveling with the staff early on about why the closures were necessary.
“As much as I would love to get back to work,” he said, “it’s not the right thing to do long-term in terms of the safety of people working and eating at restaurants.”
The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Heather Long, Brittany Shammas and John Wagner contributed to this report.