President Donald Trump on Monday said he planned to pull the U.S. economy out of its coronavirus-induced slumber in a matter of weeks, and refused to commit to following the advice of his handpicked health experts — many of whom have warned that it will be a matter of months before it will be safe to reopen the country again — when reassessing guidelines for social isolation.
“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. This is not a country that was built for this,” Trump insisted to reporters during a White House press briefing with his coronavirus task force on Monday evening, predicting that “America will again and soon be open for business. Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting.”
The president complained that he didn’t want to let the “cure” to the fast-spreading pandemic — social isolation that has prompted the shuttering of businesses across the country and cratered the economy — to be worse than the disease itself. He even claimed, without evidence, that the economic downturn caused by continuing the social distancing recommendation could result in more deaths “than anything we are talking about with respect to the virus.”
Trump very strongly hinted that he planned to ease federal guidance on social distancing at the end of his administration’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative, which ends next Monday, despite an expected explosion of reported cases as tests for coronavirus become more widely available.
Current guidance instructs Americans across the country to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people; work or attend school from home whenever possible; and abstain from eating or drinking at bars, restaurants and food courts. But in more than a dozen states with higher concentrations of cases, governors have issued mandatory shelter-in-place directives or ordered all non-essential businesses closed.
Health experts are in agreement that social isolation is imperative to blunting the spread of the disease, and on Monday, health officials cast the coming week as the most critical yet for the effort to “flatten the curve” of infected individuals and prevent resource-strapped health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.
They also maintain that the fallout will be worse if the White House declares victory now, only to have the virus resurface in coming weeks or months .
But Trump went back and forth in his press briefing, arguing that he could reopen the country while keeping an eye on the most at-risk populations, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
“We can do both things” at once, Trump insisted repeatedly, though he declined to offer a concrete date for lifting the current social-distancing suggestions.
The current guidance has contributed to a precipitous drop in economic activity. Unemployment claims are surging across the nation, and forecasters are predicting a depression-level decline in second-quarter GDP. Even more-stringent directives issued by state and local authorities, such as large-scale shelter-in-place orders, have similarly spooked financial markets and provoked fears of an imminent recession.
Trump has repeatedly sought to reassure Americans that the economy will bounce back swiftly once the virus abates. But his own health experts remain unsure of when that will be, and in the meantime both Congress and the Federal Reserve have scrambled to cushion the blow to the economy, responses that Trump cheered on Monday.
Already, there are more than 43,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus across all 50 states and at least 500 dead, according to a Johns Hopkins University database. Because of limited testing capacity, experts agree the actual number of positive cases is much higher.
Still, Trump leaned on several dubious arguments to support his position. He fell back on a widely panned comparison between the fatality rates of coronavirus and the common flu, the latter of which can kill tens of thousands of Americans a year.
He also repeated a similarly criticized comparison of coronavirus to the number of Americans killed in car crashes annually. Experts have called both attempts to draw parallels with coronavirus instances of false equivalency.
Then Trump asserted that economic downturns could be fatal in their own right.
“People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this, when you have terrible economies. You have death,“ the president argued, adding — without evidence — that “probably … definitely, it would be in far greater numbers than the numbers we“re talking about with regard to the virus.“
Trump began broadcasting his growing impatience with public health measures meant to combat the pandemic — even as public health officials have offered contradictory forecasts — on Twitter over the weekend, a shift that continued throughout the day on Monday.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” the president wrote on Twitter shortly before midnight on Sunday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” He then spent much of the morning retweeting posts that proposed Americans return to work in the near future and that advocated for a resumption of daily life in the U.S.
The president’s stark disagreement with medical experts on whether the White House’s 15-day effort would be extended was on public display Monday, even before the White House briefing.
Earlier in the day, Surgeon General Jerome Adams made a string of appearances on morning news shows, repeatedly cautioning that the coming days would prove among the most difficult in Americans’ fight against the public health crisis.
Adams is one of a number of senior administration officials who have argued that social-distancing recommendations will need to be sustained, not slackened, to curb the swift spread of Covid-19, and cautioned that its threat to Americans would last longer than initially thought.
“I want America to understand: This week, it’s going to get bad,” Adams told NBC’s “Today” show, adding that “we really, really need everyone to stay at home.”
“As the nation’s doctor, I’m here to help America understand how we need to respond to this,” Adams said on Monday, when pressed on Trump’s weekend tweet previewing an impending “decision” on the administration’s guidelines.
“And where I come down is that every single day counts,” the surgeon general continued. “Every single second counts. And right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”
At Monday’s briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House‘s coronavirus response coordinator, tiptoed around the subject. She demurred when asked whether she shared the president’s confidence about a diminishing need for broad social-distancing restrictions, and instead stressed the importance of a “granular” and “geographically targeted” approach to social distancing.
“We went out with a very blunt force. I mean, we have to all be honest, we had to do that because we weren‘t sure where the virus was and where it is going,” Birx acknowledged, explaining that the next seven days would allow the administration to capture important data about the outbreak and its response. “I think over this week, we‘re concentrated on figuring out exactly where the virus is and making projections about where it‘s going and the impact of our mitigation pieces.”
She continued: “We‘ve learned this in tackling epidemics around the world: You have to focus the resources, and the intervention, and the structural prevention intervention in the area where the virus is circulating. Otherwise, people never understand why you‘re doing this and they don‘t have any virus.”
Birx pushed back when asked whether she thought Trump‘s public restlessness about the tight restrictions in place could result in people taking them less seriously, instead arguing that people might adhere more closely to their knowing they might be in place for only another week.
Asked whether any doctors had backed his plan to ease social-distancing restrictions, Trump appeared to contend that it was imprudent to leave decisions that could have an economic impact solely up to scientists. He also dodged questions about whether he would listen to his health experts‘ advice.
“If it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down, let’s shut down the entire world,” Trump told reporters Monday night, citing the global reach of the virus. “So let’s shut down the entire world and when we shut it down, that would be wonderful and let’s keep it shut for a couple of years. You know, we can’t do that and you can’t do that with the country, especially the number one economy anywhere in the world by far. Number one economy in the world. You can’t do that.”
While he said the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Birx was “very important to me,” he added that “I’ll be listening to other experts,” as well.
“We have a lot of people that are very good at this, and ultimately it‘s a balancing act,” he said. “But the expression we can do two things at one time and we‘ve got an incredible country and that we have to keep it that way, and that includes not just economics, that also includes life and death. We have to keep it that way.”
Fauci, for his part, offered an inconclusive response when asked on Friday how long Americans would have to remain socially distant.
“I cannot see that all of a sudden, next week or two weeks from now, it’s going to be over,” he said. “I don’t think there‘s a chance of that. I think it’s going to be several weeks.”
Fauci was not present during Monday‘s briefing, despite becoming one of the major public faces of the White House response. Trump told reporters that Fauci was in a private meeting of the task force.
And Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s management of the outbreak, made a similarly bleak prediction this weekend, saying that “according to some of our modeling, we could well be dealing with coronavirus cases in the United States well into July.“
According to an internal report from the Department of Health and Human Services, produced last weekend and first reported on by The New York Times, the pandemic “will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said on Monday that Trump’s weekend tweet hinting at a potential suspension of social distancing “seems very counterproductive.”
“The need for intense social distancing is very strong right now,” Lipsitch said, noting that an abrupt end to the practice could eventually overwhelm health care providers.
“We should be thinking about not how bad it is now, but how bad it could be in three weeks,” he added. “It takes three weeks before you need intensive care if you’re getting sick, so we have to act now to stop what’s coming three weeks from now.”
Those dire assessments clash with rising complaints from some of the president’s top advisers and conservative supporters that the economic devastation wrought by social distancing could prove more damaging than the coronavirus’ human toll.
“We can’t shut in the economy. The economic cost to individuals is just too great,” Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told Fox News in an interview on Monday.
“The president is right: The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs,” Kudlow said, adding that he had spoken to Trump “about this very subject” late Sunday evening.
“We’ll be looking at a number of different things,” he said. “Let’s give it another week.”
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, tweeted:“I think it is soon becoming time to have old and/or sick people take every precaution and healthy people go back to work forever changed [with] new habits in a grimmer reality.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham expressed frustration with the uncertain time frame for the federal government’s guidelines, writing that going back to work after 15 days would “require new protocols,” including wearing personal protective equipment.
“A global recession would be worse for our people than the Great Depression,” Ingraham tweeted. “Doctors provide medical treatment and cures — they should not be the determinative voices in policy making now or at the end of 15 days.”
“Even another week of this will mean millions more out of work, massive damage to businesses big and small, rental incomes, families at every income level, horrific pain and suffering,” she continued in another post. “But if we knew this was almost over, recovery would be easier.”
It is not only White House allies who have begun to warn of the consequences of a protracted period of social distancing. Wall Street power brokers, some public health experts and at least one Democratic governor on the front lines of the outbreak have suggested that the U.S. workforce should begin preparing for a return to normalcy.
Lloyd Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, asserted that while “extreme measures to flatten the virus ‘curve’” were reasonable to “stretch out the strain” on health care systems, “crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue — and beyond.”
“Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work,” he tweeted.
David Katz, the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, encouraged a “more surgical approach” to counter the coronavirus, writing in a New York Times op-ed on Friday that resources should be focused on the especially vulnerable. The rest of Americans, meanwhile, would re-enter society and “develop natural herd immunity to the virus” while stabilizing the economy.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., referenced Katz’s theory on Monday. During his daily news conference, Cuomo emphasized the “parallel tracks” of securing public health and beginning “to plan the pivot back to economic functionality.”
“You can’t stop the economy forever, so we have to start to think about, does everyone stay out of work? Should young people go back to work sooner?” Cuomo said.
“You turned off the engine quickly,” he added. “How do you now start or begin to restart or plan the restart of that economic engine? Separate task, but something that we have to focus on.”
Arthur Allen contributed to this report.
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