Donald Trump and his coronavirus taskforce have unveiled a set of federal guidelines for reopening the economy, which comprise three phases but ultimately defer to governors on when and how to return their states to normal.
The first phase allows for gradually returning to work while also minimizing non-essential travel. The second phase allows for gatherings of 50 people and non-essential travel. The third allows for schools and organized youth activities to open up as well as large venues to operate under “physical distancing protocols”. The third phase also allows bars to reopen but with “diminished standing room occupancy” when possible.
The guidelines were unveiled at the president’s daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Trump held a conference call with the country’s governors to preview the guidelines. Trump said it was essentially up to them to lift their stay-at-home orders but encouraged them to do so if they saw no apparent health risk, a move that contradicted his previous claim of “total authority” to decide if and when a state should reopen. Likewise the new guidelines largely defer to governors to decide when to move to each phase.
The guidelines represent a dramatic shift from the strict stay-at-home orders currently in place in many states. In unveiling them Trump made clear his eagerness to end the nationwide lockdown and return the American economy to its pre-coronavirus days.
“A prolonged lockdown combined with a forced economic depression will inflict an immense and wide-ranging toll on public health,” Trump said on Thursday. He claimed that would include “a sharp rise in drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide, heart disease, and many other dimensions of physical and mental wellbeing”.
Trump’s top officials at the briefing stressed that states and governors must be cautious in relaxing guidelines in order to continue the country’s modest progress in containing the virus.
“We are slowing the spread, we are flattening the curve,” said the vice-president, Mike Pence. “In a word, because of the actions of this president, this administration, governors at every level, our healthcare workers, and Americans, we’ve saved lives and we can be comforted in that.”
But officials praised the administration’s progress in fighting the pandemic. In laying out the first phase of the guidelines, Dr Deborah Birx, the coronavirus taskforce response coordinator, explained that some strict orders would have to stay in place.
“If the schools are closed, they should continue to be closed,” Birx said. “Gyms could open if they adhere to strict physical distancing.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the guidelines did not mark an immediate end to governors’ coronavirus pandemic responses.
A “light switch on and off is the exact opposite of what you see here”, Fauci said. “You don’t get to phase one until you get through the gating.”
Trump is optimistic that many states are ready to advance through the guidelines.
“I think 29 states are in that ballgame,” Trump said. “Not for opening, but I think they’ll be able to open relatively soon. I think the remainder are just getting better. Look, New York, New Jersey are having very tough times and they’ll be there. They’ll be there at some point. But they’re not going to be one of the earlier states. They’ll be later, obviously.”
The White House sought support from business leaders and lawmakers ahead of unveiling its new guidelines, and Trump spoke earlier on Thursday with congressional lawmakers in both parties. The White House also announced a set of senators who would participate on the president’s “Task Force to Reopen America”.
But governors have indicated that the guidelines may only be a factor in what states decide to do next. A few governors even extended their stay-at-home orders and signed new executive orders on Thursday in response to the pandemic.
The governors of Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota announced a new partnership for coordinating reopening their states’ respective economies. Governors along both coasts have already unveiled similar alliances.
But other governors praised the president’s new directions.
“I appreciate President Trump’s guidelines for reopening pieces of the economy that have been closed temporarily,” the Nebraska governor, Pete Ricketts, said. “It is critical that we get people back to work safely and continue to slow the spread of the virus as the country opens up.”