Rattled health officials are trying to fight off ascendant voices around Donald Trump pressing the president to restart the economy as soon as Monday to stem severe business and job losses.
The prospect of resuming typical business so soon has horrified these public health leaders, who see the debate as premature amid a crisis that the administration is just beginning to wrangle, according to eight people with knowledge of the administration’s discussions about its coronavirus guidelines.
Health experts are contending the fallout will be worse if the White House declares victory now, only to have the virus resurface weeks or months from now. The government, they argue, has yet to definitively answer key questions that would dictate how to reactivate the economy: Do those who recover from coronavirus become immune? How do underlying health conditions affect the severity of the virus? And, most important, how widely has it spread?
Others have stressed the political risks facing Trump and his reelection campaign if the outbreak worsens significantly, warning that it would be catastrophic if the virus made a comeback closer to the November election — especially after Trump declared himself a “wartime” president and assured the public that his administration was in control.
“It is way too early to even consider rolling back any guidelines,” said Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former top Obama administration public health official. “With cases and deaths rising by the day, the country must double down, not lighten up, on social distancing and related measures.”
It’s a battle that will intensify in the coming days as the country approaches the end of a 15-day period of extreme social distancing, which the White House launched on March 15.
At a White House briefing Monday night, Trump seemed adamant that the economy would come back to life “very soon,” insisting that the government can fight the viral spread while also going to work — “we can do them both at the same time.”
“Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” Trump said during a Monday night briefing. “America will again and soon be open for business. … a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting, a lot sooner.”
The change in tone comes as a growing faction of people in the White House have started to worry that weeks of economic shutdown will wreak financial havoc.
Administration officials like senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have spent the past few days fielding calls from technology, finance and energy CEOs. These executives have made the case that companies need a clear, concrete date from the White House as to when stores, restaurants and schools can reopen to give the markets and employers a sense of certainty amid the unpredictable spread of the coronavirus.
“To use the analogy of a war, we send kids off to fight a war, and there are deaths associated with it. There will be deaths associated with this,” said Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to the Trump administration, who regularly speaks with Trump economic officials. “We are looking at no great options.”
“What is clearly not a viable option is to keep the economy shut down for the next seven to 10 weeks,” he added. “People will lose their life savings, and the unemployment rate will go to 35 percent.”
The internal debate is uniting strange bedfellows from the economic world, with National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, trade adviser Peter Navarro, The Wall Street Journal editorial board and the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, all calling for a quick return to the workplace. Powerful Trump advisers have joined the chorus, including Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government accountability group, and Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host.
Not all of Trump’s closest allies agree. Some have advocated for Trump to be as severe as necessary to slow the coronavirus spread.
“Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on social media, and shown all around the world,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, tweeted on Monday. “There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”
Any lifting of restrictions would happen gradually, people familiar with the discussions said, given the uncertainty about how case counts nationwide could grow over the next several weeks and widespread concerns about hospital capacity.
One option would be for the White House to offer guidance that huge swathes of the country return to business as usual, while hard hit states like New York and Washington remain under a greater lockdown, said three people briefed on the White House’s internal discussions.
Trump touched on the idea during his briefing.
“We can start thinking about as an example, parts of our country are very lightly affected,” he said, citing Nebraska and Idaho as examples.
And even before the end of the 15-day period, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the government’s coronavirus task force, said there will soon be new guidance for some first responders and critical infrastructure workers.
“Even if they’ve been exposed to someone with coronavirus, as long as they don’t have symptoms, [these employees] would be able to return to work immediately, wear a mask for two weeks, but otherwise return to the important roles that they play in all our communities,” Pence told reporters during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Still, governors and local leaders will have the ultimate authority over states and cities and the extent to which businesses remain shut down, argued one person familiar with the White House talks, setting up a potential showdown between federal and state officials.
Top administration health officials, including coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, have warned that case numbers are likely to spike in the coming days as testing ramps up. Outside public health experts, meanwhile, emphasize that lags in testing results and reporting mean the government’s data is already about a week behind the reality on the ground.
That’s made it difficult for officials to know how much of an impact the past couple weeks of nationwide social distancing have had on the virus’ spread.
“I can tell you for sure, from a public health standpoint and experience with other outbreaks, we know we are clearly having an effect,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, during a White House briefing on Sunday. “But we can’t quantitate it for you accurately.”
Fauci, a veteran of six presidential administrations, has emerged as a key vessel for health officials’ more cautious views, said one person close to the Health and Human Services Department, due to the broad respect he enjoys inside and outside the administration and his willingness to contradict Trump in public. As the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci has openly advocated for tough distancing measures, reasoning that it’s worth potentially overreacting if it means avoiding a worst-case public health scenario.
That blunt approach has sparked speculation that Fauci could fall out of favor or be sidelined by the president, especially after giving a series of candid interviews detailing his relationship with Trump.
But Fauci’s job is not seen as in immediate danger, given his role as one of the few widely trusted officials leading the coronavirus response.
“The president worries most about the stock market,” said the person close to HHS. “You want to see a fall in the stock market? Fire Tony Fauci, watch what happens.”
The showdown between Trump’s economic advisers and public health officials has been building for weeks, as the stock market plummeted and confirmed coronavirus cases climbed, prompting a cascade of restrictions that have disrupted American life and threatened to plunge the nation into a depression.
“You’re going to see a clash between the economists and the public health guys, no doubt about it,” said one person with knowledge of the debate.
A former HHS official described the situation as a debate between two “horrendous” paths — one that could dramatically remake the economy for the worse by maintaining the current harsh restrictions, and another that could exact a human toll “that will be unacceptable to Americans” if the virus continues spreading for months on end.
“This is like managing a wildfire,” the former official said. “There are controlled burns going on right now. The other alternative is just to let the fire run through.”
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