WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday, March 24, that he wanted to reopen the country for business by Easter, on April 12, despite widespread warnings from public health experts that the worst effects of the coronavirus were still weeks away and that lifting the restrictions now in place would result in unnecessary deaths.
The president said he believed a crippled economy and forced social isolation would inflict more harm than the spread of the virus. But experts have warned that spread could be slowed if businesses remain shuttered and people remain in their homes as much as possible.
Trump made his comments at a time when large parts of the United States and the world were moving in the opposite direction: India announced a “complete lockdown” of the country’s 1.3 billion people. The Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed for a year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in Britain. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said cases of COVID-19 were doubling every three days, with a peak expected in the third week of April, when an expected 140,000 New Yorkers would need to be hospitalized.
Later Tuesday, at the coronavirus task force’s daily news briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, announced that anyone who has recently left New York City should self-quarantine for 14 days after leaving the metropolitan area. The region is where about 60% of all of the new cases are coming from.
Sitting in the Rose Garden earlier in the day for a Fox News “virtual town hall” on the coronavirus, the president said he was ready to “have the country opened up” by Easter and to ease restrictions he said were responsible for harming a flourishing economy.
“You are going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said, misidentifying the virus. “You are going to have suicides by the thousands — you are going to have all sorts of things happen. You are going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”
Public health officials were horrified by Trump’s statement, which threatened to send many Americans back into the public square just as the peak of the virus was expected. But at the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the task force members, said that any new guidelines would not pertain to hot spots like New York and that there could be “flexibility in different areas” based on data.
“We need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak,” Fauci said.
Trump, however, did not budge on the April 12 date, which he said he did not arrive at by examining any data. “I just thought it was a beautiful time,” he said.
None of the analyses that have been publicly discussed modeling the spread of the coronavirus in the United States suggest that there will be a resolution of the pandemic anywhere close to Easter. Fauci himself has said it was possible that the country would see a peak in the number of cases around May 1.
But Trump said he expected that people could return to work and still practice social distancing, which requires maintaining a separation from others of about 6 feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can socially distance ourselves and go to work, and you’ll have to work a little bit harder,” the president said. “You can clean your hands five times more than you used to. You don’t have to shake hands anymore with people.”
But if people are told they can head back to work, commuting by bus or subway while thousands of new infections are confirmed each day, “the virus will surge, many will fall ill and there will be more deaths,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, was even more pessimistic. “Nobody voted in Donald Trump thinking he would become a ‘one-man death panel’ empowered to dispense with American lives like cannon fodder,” he said. “It would be political suicide for him and murder for many others.”
For now, however, Trump and his aides do not feel deterred by how his opposition to measures overwhelmingly recommended by health professionals is playing politically. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that 60% of Americans held general positive views of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. And his overall approval rating was 49%, a high for his presidency.
As a practical matter, however, Trump cannot reopen the country. He can issue guidelines, as he did last week, when he announced a 15-day plan that included closing schools and telling people to avoid groups of more than 10 as well as bars, restaurants, food courts and discretionary travel. But the decision of whether to return to business as usual is up to the states, and Democratic and Republican governors of some of the biggest states in the country have said they were, in fact, shutting down for the foreseeable future, while others, like Texas, have imposed no restrictions.
In New York, Cuomo has already ordered all nonessential businesses to close and all nonessential workers to stay home. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has also issued a stay-at-home order and has said he is likely to extend an order shuttering all schools.
But health experts said there also needed to be a nationwide approach and that it was not clear that patchwork, state-by-state policies alone could be effective.
“This disease will not respect state borders and city borders, and will move around this country just like it’s moved around the world,” said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Despite Trump’s insistence, it was unclear how serious he was about his Easter deadline for telling people in some parts of the country they should resume their normal daily routines. On Tuesday, Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, insisted that the president does take advice from the health experts on his task force. “He also listens to the governors,” Adams said.
And later, Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, described it simply as a “goal.”
Trump has long tied his own political success to the surge of the stock market, and he has been eager to send a message to the business community and to the markets that the economic standstill caused by the coronavirus and the response to it would not last forever.
But experts said there would be an even greater human price to pay if the president gave Americans the impression that it was safe to resume their routines too early.
“The lesson from China is that aggressive measures to reduce the spread of the virus, continued for two months, have led to a reduction in new cases,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, the acting director of the University of Washington MetaCenter for Pandemic Disease Preparedness.
Countries like Italy, which took more incremental approaches to containment, he said, fared far worse.
“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Rabinowitz said. “This is no time to be planning to relax the U.S. social distancing measures.”
Dr. Keith Martin, a physician who heads the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, said simply that if restrictions were lifted prematurely, “President Trump will have blood on his hands.”
Trump’s likely Democratic opponent joined in the criticism of the president.
“He should stop talking and start listening to the medical experts,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with CNN. “What is going on with this man?”
But Trump again reiterated Tuesday that he did not view the highly contagious coronavirus as any more dangerous than the flu. “People die from the flu,” he said. “But we’ve never closed down the country from the flu.”
The president also noted with frustration that “we lose much more than that to automobile accidents.”
“We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars, we don’t want cars anymore,’” he said. “We have to get back to work.”
While it is true that deaths resulting from those causes outnumber deaths from the virus to date, projections from the CDC estimated that deaths from COVID-19 in the United States could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million. Estimates from other scientists place the potential number of deaths in a range from several hundred thousand to several million, substantially more than the annual number of deaths from car accidents and flu combined.
Trump appeared on the Fox News town hall with members of his coronavirus task force, including Pence, Birx and Adams. Notably absent, again, was Fauci, who has recently been testing Trump’s patience with his thinly veiled public criticisms of his approach.
But when asked about the status of their relationship, the president said it was “very good” and praised Fauci as “extraordinary,” attributing his recent string of high-profile absences to the fact that he had “other things to do.”
In the evening, though, as Fauci appeared in the briefing room next to Trump, it was a sign that their strained relationship had not yet ruptured.
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