Trump Kicks Toughest Decisions to States With Reopening Plan

The president set no deadlines, demanded no particular action and offered little federal assistance

Trump Kicks Toughest Decisions to States With Reopening Plan
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington D.C., U.S.. (Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- Days after insisting he had absolute authority to steer the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump instead handed over the keys to governors and businesses.

Trump issued guidelines on Thursday for states to consider as they decide whether to relax stay-at-home orders and other social-distancing measures enacted to curb the spread of the virus. The brief document lays out a three-stage process and leaves many difficult decisions to statehouses.

The president set no deadlines, demanded no particular action and offered little federal assistance. One page of the document says that states undertaking a resumption of normal life should plan to “independently” secure protective gear and medical equipment for their hospitals. Businesses are advised to come up with their own protocols for temperature checks, protective gear, sanitation and testing.

Trump Kicks Toughest Decisions to States With Reopening Plan

“A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution,” Trump said Thursday at his daily White House news conference. “Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we’re starting our life again.”

Stocks extended a weekly advance as investors wagered that the American economy would soon begin to emerge from its lockdown. The S&P 500 advanced 1.5% as of 12:32 p.m. New York time.

Trump also applied pressure to governors in three Democratic-led states -- Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia -- with a series of tweets Friday morning that citizens “liberate” themselves. There have been protests in the states this week against stay-at-home measures aimed at curbing the pandemic.

Pence and Democrats

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence plans a 1 p.m. call Friday with Senate Democrats on the federal coronavirus response, according to the White House. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on MSNBC Friday morning that negotiations with the Trump administration for additional funds for a small business program that ran out of money Thursday are making progress.

Trump said Thursday that 29 of the 50 states qualified to begin the reopening process his administration laid out or would be ready soon, naming Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. He agreed with a questioner who suggested Hawaii.

In the best case, a state could abandon all but minimal social distancing practices within a month, under the plan. Yet it’s not clear whether most governors, business owners and workers share the president’s optimism that it will soon be safe to risk easing measures that only now appear to be slowing the virus’s spread in some hot spots, while cases and deaths continue to rise across the country.

In North Dakota and Wyoming, the number of cases are still rising, which may disqualify those states from attempting to reopen under Trump’s guidelines. Hawaii Governor David Ige, a Democrat, is “working with his cabinet and others to determine what specific milestones will be needed for Hawaii to begin a phased reopening,” spokeswoman Cindy McMillan said.

McMillan said the state does not yet believe it meets the federal criteria.

A spokesman for Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Trump’s guidelines.

Testing Weakness

The overarching weakness of Trump’s plan is that the U.S. still lacks sufficient testing capacity to know with much precision where the virus is spreading. Tests continue to be rationed for priority groups and the country does not yet have a widely available antibody test, which can identify people who were infected and recovered without experiencing symptoms.

Business leaders told Trump Wednesday that widespread testing was key to reopening.

“Without sufficient testing -- and they’re talking millions of tests per week -- you cannot accurately predict what the actual rate of infection is,” said Paul Meechan, a bio-risk consultant who until last September was director of the Office of Safety, Health and Environment at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Until we get those baselines, and we can have a discussion about what it means to be going down, you’re basically opening the door for making it a wild guess,” he said. “And that’s not good public policy. It’s not good science.”

Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist who is one of Trump’s top medical advisers, said Thursday the country has enough testing capacity for people with symptoms and those who have been in contact with confirmed cases, and can conduct “surveillance” testing that is crucial to stave off future outbreaks. The administration is trying to take advantage of an “amazing array” of capacity for “a million more” tests per week, Birx said, though that may not be enough.

Trump Kicks Toughest Decisions to States With Reopening Plan

Micha Benoliel, an entrepreneur who led the development of a contact-tracing app called Coalition that’s expected to be used in the city of Berkeley, said “there is urgency to end the total lockdown as soon as possible if we want to avoid killing the economy” but that “we need to put science first in our decision.”

“Much more access to testing is needed for us to begin a progressive approach in getting back to normal economic activity,” he said.

Frustrated President

Trump has long made plain his frustration with social distancing, the isolation behaviors that Americans adopted to protect themselves from the virus even before he endorsed them March 16. The practices have crushed the U.S. economy, which less than two months ago was the president’s strongest argument for re-election.

Gallup said Thursday that Trump’s approval rating fell six percentage points since mid-March, when he reached a personal best of 49%.

“The current health and economic crisis is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of his presidency so far -- and could imperil his standing in the final year of his first term as he seeks re-election,” the polling service said.

Trump’s new guidelines are as deferential to governors as they are flexible. The metrics are vague, and much is left to the discretion of states.

The plan, called “Opening Up America Again,” outlines three phases of recovery from the outbreak in which social distancing restrictions are lifted step-by-step. In the third and final phase, employers can “resume unrestricted staffing” of workplaces, while restaurants, theaters, stadiums and other gathering places can operate with “limited physical distancing protocols.”

“A new normal,” Birx called it.

To move into the first phase, and then again into subsequent phases, the plan recommends that states document a decline in cases of coronavirus and flu-like illnesses for two weeks.

‘Literally Tomorrow’

Some states could enter phase one and begin lifting restrictions immediately -- “literally tomorrow,” Trump said. Barring a resurgence of infections, they could reach phase three in four weeks. It isn’t clear whether any governors will seek to move that quickly, risking a political backlash if the outbreak surges.

“We have large sections of the country that, right now, they can start thinking about opening,” Trump said. “I call it a beautiful puzzle -- you have 50 pieces, all very different.”

Trump’s guidelines also give states -- particularly the worst-hit ones -- license to do what they were already doing.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has joined with governors in Washington and Oregon to set common policies for an eventual reopening. He said at a news conference that Trump understood the need for extensive testing, and expressed appreciation the president wasn’t trying to impose his preferences on states.

Trump recognized “the need for a phased approach, a thoughtful and judicious approach,” Newsom said.

Governors in the Midwest and the Northeast have formed similar regional partnerships. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer -- a potential running mate for Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, who has faced anti-shutdown protests led by Trump surrogates -- cited her own requirements to consider reopening her state: a declining rate of new infections, testing and tracing for sick people, health care capacity, and workplace social distancing.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who is part of the Midwest coalition with Whitmer, said in a statement on Thursday that the regional economies would not reopen until “the time is right.” The state saw a 10-day-old child diagnosed with the virus on Thursday.

Corporate Unease

Companies are also likely to be uneasy with the steps proposed by the guidance -- or unable to function even under the limited social distancing that’s still envisioned in phase three, said Scott Ream, chairman of the Association of Continuity Professionals, a 1,700-member organization of business professionals that advises companies on how to operate in a time of crisis.

“Corporations in particular are going to be very challenged by this in the absence of the federal government or some entity, or maybe through some other precedents that corporations wouldn’t be held liable for someone’s death,” Ream said.

Any return to normal will require extensive testing, rapid identification of cases and tracing and testing of contacts of infected people, said Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.

“I’m not convinced we have those resources available,” Galea said. “We need to re-emerge. And to re-emerge, we need to plan for how to mitigate the risk of every case becoming again an outbreak, and every outbreak becoming an epidemic. I don’t think we’ll be ready tomorrow.”

June is likelier, he said.

But the guidelines largely leave to governors and businesses the choice whether to attempt reopening -- and therefore the consequences of moving too soon.

“It’s going to be very dependent on the governor,” Trump said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged the risk of the approach.

“This is uncharted water,” he said at the White House news conference. “There may be some setbacks. We may have to pull back a little, and then go forward.

But he said, “I do see us getting more towards normal.”

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