President Trump raised expectations Tuesday that a draconian nationwide shutdown that has closed businesses could be lifted by Easter, 19 days away.
“It’s such an important day for other reasons, but I will make it an important day for this, too,” Trump said during a Fox News virtual town hall in the White House Rose Garden. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
Public health officials and Democrats responded skeptically, citing false hopes and disquiet over pitting the health of the economy against the health of the people. Trump, at an early evening White House press briefing, hedged and qualified his comments significantly.
His administration is devising a “sophisticated” plan for “reopening” the economy, he said, “based on the best science, the best modeling, and the best medical research there is anywhere on Earth.”
He hoped it would allow for a return to normalcy by Easter, he said, but told the public to “rest assured that every decision we make is grounded solely in the health, safety, and well-being of our citizens.” He would rely on the advice of public health officials, he added.
“This is a medical crisis. This isn’t a financial crisis,” he said.
The scripted remarks acknowledged the grim fact that the worst of the pandemic has yet to hit. In the words of Surgeon General Jerome Adams, “This week, it’s going to get bad. … We really, really need everyone to stay at home.”
The coronavirus had infected at least 53,660 people nationwide as of Tuesday, killing 706 people. It isn’t showing signs of slowing down. The number of cases from Monday to Tuesday jumped by about 10,000 and by another 10,000 from Sunday to Monday, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
Public officials and Trump allies cautioned that easing up on measures to curb the spread of the virus is unwise. Scott Gottlieb, former Trump-appointed director of the Food and Drug Administration, warned Monday, “It should not be lost on anyone that there’s no such thing as a functioning economy and society so long as COVID-19 continues to spread uncontrolled in our biggest cities.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and a Trump ally, picked up on that comment Tuesday and remarked, “This is the stark truth: we have to arrest the spread of the China virus to get the economy back on its feet & get life back to something like normal.”
Devising a plan to reopen for business is different from doing so.
Anthony Fauci, highly respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the coronavirus task force coordinator, declined on Tuesday to say Easter was a realistic deadline for easing restrictions on the pandemic spread. He said the administration could be “very flexible” in different parts of the country.
“People might get the misinterpretation you’re just going to lift everything up … and that’s not going to happen,” he said.
Still, with far greater testing now available, it might be possible to ease restrictions in areas with fewer or no infections, he said.
“If we do the kind of testing that we’re doing … and you find after a period of time that there are areas that are very different from other areas of the country, you may not want to essentially treat it as one force for the entire country but look at flexibility in different areas,” he said.
Fauci said he told Trump 19 days may not be feasible for the entire country, and the president conceded the point.
“I’m not sure that’s going to be the day, but I would love to aim it right at Easter Sunday, so we’re open for church service and services generally on Easter Sunday … That would be a beautiful thing,” he said.
But, right now, the country is increasingly shutting down. As of Tuesday, 13 states and 16 municipalities have enacted measures to keep residents in their homes. This accounts for 45% of the U.S. population. Five more states and nine more municipalities are expected to follow suit this week, extending the shutdown to 54% of the population.
People who’ve been near New York City should self-quarantine for 14 days, the administration said. New York is one of the hardest-hit places in the world. Nearly 15,000 people there are infected, and the number is doubling every two to three days. New York is on pace within a week to eclipse all the infections in Wuhan, China, the origin of the pandemic.