Trump calls decision on reopening US the biggest of his life
President Trump on Friday described the decision on when and how to reopen the country as the most difficult one he’s had to make in his life, underscoring the careful line he is walking between concerns about the economy and public health during the coronavirus outbreak.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a bigger decision. But I’m going to surround myself with the greatest minds. Not only the greatest minds, but the greatest minds in numerous different businesses, including the business of politics and reason,” Trump told reporters at a White House press briefing.
“And we’re going to make a decision, and hopefully it’s going to be the right decision,” he continued. “I will say this. I want to get it open as soon as we can.”
Asked what metrics he would use to come to a final conclusion, he pointed at his head, making clear he felt the burden will rest on his shoulders.
Trump has appeared eager to relax social distancing guidelines recommended by the White House coronavirus task force in order to get Americans back to work, and some officials have suggested in recent days that businesses could prepare to reopen in May.
But public health experts have warned about the risk of reopening the country too early, which could set up a nightmare scenario where COVID-19 again surges in communities and overwhelms hospitals.
“This idea that on May 1 we can just turn the switch, this will not be good from a public health perspective or for our economy,” said Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“Not only are you risking a second wave, but a further economic closure,” continued Parekh, who served as Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary for health between 2008 and 2015. “I think it’s really important to get this right the first time as opposed to opening up too early.”
One of the key hurdles to safely reopening the country, according to health experts, is a lack of widely available testing that would help officials quickly determine the source of potential outbreaks.
But Trump has shrugged off that concern the past two days, saying at briefings he thinks mass testing would be a benefit, but not a necessity. He argued Friday that parts of the farm belt, for example, could get back to work sooner than the rest of the country because it is less densely populated.
“You don’t have to test every person in the state of Iowa, as an example. You don’t have to test every single person to say ‘let’s open up and let’s get the tractors moving,’” Trump said. “Now with that being said, if there’s a little hot corner some place, we’ll be testing.”
There were more than 486,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Friday afternoon and more than 18,000 people in the U.S. have died of the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Those figures have been held down largely by statewide stay-at-home orders and federal guidelines that urge Americans to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Still, the federal advisory is set to expire after April 30 and some top Trump officials have already suggested that parts of the economy could reopen shortly thereafter.
Even if Trump decides to relax the guidelines, the decision to reduce restrictions like stay-at-home orders and business closures would ultimately fall to states that implemented them.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Friday pumped the brakes on the possibility that wide swaths of America would reopen at the beginning of May, telling Fox News in an interview that only places that have seen low levels of COVID-19 and have implemented sufficient surveillance techniques to detect and contain further outbreaks would be able to consider opening up by then.
“There are places around the country that have seen consistently low levels and as we ramp up testing and can feel more confident that these places actually can do surveillance and can do public health follow-up, some places will be able to think about opening on May 1,” Adams said Friday morning.
“Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will. That’s how we’ll reopen the country: place by place, bit by bit, based on the data,” he added.
Adams’s remarks came a day after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he believed companies could reopen in May so long as Trump “feels comfortable with the medical issues,” while White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow expressed hope the country could begin reopening on a rolling basis in four to eight weeks.
Some outside advisers have pushed Trump to reopen parts of the country that have not seen significant spread of the virus by May 1, warning of severe economic depression otherwise.
To map out a potential reopening, Trump said he will unveil members of a new group Tuesday that he dubbed the “Opening Our Country Council.” The cohort is expected to include administration officials, business leaders and political figures from around the country.
The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the U.S. economy in recent weeks. Stringent social distancing guidelines have shuttered businesses across the country and millions of Americans have applied for unemployment benefits. Forecasters warn unemployment could hit 20 percent in the coming weeks as the country works to get the virus under control.
But the strength of the economy has been at the center of Trump’s reelection argument, and he has been fixated on certain financial markers even amid the pandemic.
He referenced a stock market rally this week during Friday’s briefing, citing it as evidence that businesses had “pent-up demand” and would bounce back upon the easing of restrictions. And when asked why his administration wasn’t better prepared to prevent coronavirus from ravaging at-risk minority communities, he pivoted to talking about low unemployment numbers for African Americans during his administration.
Trump has repeatedly insisted that he will listen to recommendations from top health officials like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx when making a decision on when and how to relax the guidelines. But the president has been careful not to commit to taking their advice, saying he will consider a variety of opinions and ultimately reach a decision on his own.
“I listen to them about everything. I think they are actually surprised. I have great respect for these people, all of them, and others that are working for us,” Trump told reporters Friday when asked whether he would heed their advice if they recommended against reopening the country in early May.
“I will certainly listen,” Trump continued later. “I understand the other side of the argument very well.”