coronavirus

‘I’d love to have it open by Easter’: Trump says he wants to restart economy by mid-April

Despite health experts’ warnings, the president has signaled an eagerness to end the strict preventative measures his administration imposed last week.

Donald Trump

Top Trump administration officials on Tuesday signaled that they were already laying the groundwork to restart the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic — a tremendous task that President Donald Trump revealed he would like to accomplish by mid-April.

“I’d love to have it open by Easter, OK? I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now,” Trump said from the White House Rose Garden, where he and members of the administration’s coronavirus task force participated in a virtual town hall on Fox News.

“It’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’ll make it an important day for this, too,” he added. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”

Trump’s remarks came just hours after Vice President Mike Pence told conservative leaders on a private call that White House aides were discussing ways to encourage businesses to reopen and healthy Americans to return to work at the end of the current 15-day period of recommended social distancing, during which administration officials have asked Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and stay home as much as possible.

The shifting message could set Trump on a collision course with health officials inside his administration, who have warned that resuming business as usual could worsen conditions by accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. Those experts are still searching for answers regarding the severity of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as well as whether patients who recover from it become immune.

Senior administration officials, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, have shared concerns about the urgency of reopening the economy after hearing from a number of industry executives in recent days, while officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some Republican lawmakers have advised the president to keep his focus on containing the threat — a mission that becomes more difficult if Americans return to work, they say.

Pence said on Tuesday that the president had no plans to overrule social-distancing guidance that state and local officials have issued to their residents, but that he was interested in softening federal guidelines in order to recharge the economy, according to five participants on the call.

“The vice president was clear in this call they’re not going to undermine governors and the decisions they are making, but he said the president wants to get the country back to work,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and one of more than two dozen conservative leaders who spoke with Pence on Tuesday morning.

Trump’s eagerness to bring an end to strict preventative measures he imposed last Monday bubbled up over the weekend as he consulted with outside allies and top economic aides, many of whom warned him that the unemployment rate could reach 30 percent in the second quarter of 2020 if businesses remain shuttered.

CDC guidelines and more severe directives from state and local authorities have already thrust the U.S. economy into a severe recession as Americans remain largely confined to their homes and large corporations and small businesses shed employees.

“THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning prior to his appearance on Fox News, echoing a view that has gained traction among White House allies.

Some conservative leaders, for instance, warned Pence that prolonged closures and layoffs could do more to damage the health of American workers and business owners than the coronavirus itself.

“There’s stress, there’s anxiety. People can wind up having a heart attack, committing suicide, turning to drug use. There are a lot of unintended consequences when people move into economic distress,” Martin said, noting that she and others voiced these concerns during their conversation with the vice president.

So far, the administration has declined to specify what guidance, if any, the federal government might issue or roll back to bridge the 13-day gap between the end of the administration’s 15 Days to Slow the Spread initiative, which wraps up at the end of the weekend, and Easter, which falls on April 12.

“There weren’t specifics,” Kristan Hawkins, head of the anti-abortion group Students for Life, said of the conference call with Pence, adding that she was worried about the infection rate of COVID-19 and the potential risks of lifting social-distancing guidelines prematurely.

“I’m not going to even feel personally comfortable lifting my own self-quarantine until we start seeing more data and some of these experimental treatments are proven to be effective,” Hawkins said. “I think there are going to [be] people like me who, for a long time, are going to be wary of being in crowds — of being on airplanes.”

Trump, meanwhile, asserted on Fox News that it would be “absolutely possible” to begin to resurrect the economy by Easter, while cautioning that Americans going back to their jobs next month would have to continue practicing “all of the things that we’re doing now” — including social distancing in the workplace, frequent hand washing and avoiding shaking hands.

“We have to get our country back to work. Our country wants to be back at work,” Trump said, claiming without evidence that more people would die as a result of the economic consequences of social-distancing measures than the number who would perish if Americans reentered the workforce.

He also said the mental health implications of prolonged social distancing would prove dire, and warned that the U.S. would suffer “suicides by the thousands.”

Still, in a White House news briefing with the coronavirus task force on Tuesday, the president sprinkled in several caveats to soften his earlier proclamations.

“Rest assured, every decision we make is grounded solely in the health, safety and well-being of our citizens. This is a medical crisis. This isn’t a financial crisis,” Trump said.

“So we’re going to look at it, we will only do it if it’s good, and maybe we do sections of the country, we do large sections of the country,” he continued, adding that he would confer with the task force members.

But Trump expressed confidence that the mid-April date would work out, suggesting Easter could even overshoot the necessary duration of social distancing. “I would love to see it come even sooner,” he explained, “but I think that would just be a beautiful timeline.”

At the White House briefing, Trump’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, appeared to temper expectations, stressing that the president’s timeline was “very flexible.”

“We just had a conversation with the president in the Oval Office talking about, you can look at a date but you’ve got to be very flexible,” he said. “On literally a day-by-day, week-by-week basis, you need to evaluate the feasibility of what you are trying to do.”

Asked what kind of data points would inform a recommendation to loosen social-distancing guidelines, Fauci argued that the ensuing weeks would allow health experts to more closely examine testing data in areas without an “obvious outbreak.”

“Is there something underneath the surface that says, wait a minute, you better be careful and really clamp down? Or, looks there that you don’t have to be as harsh as you are in other areas?” he said, pointing to the recent surge of testing capability as critical to that effort. “So, it’s looking at information that up to this point we never had.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, seemed less enthusiastic regarding the president’s proposed Easter end date, and declined to directly answer whether such a deadline was realistic.

Birx instead emphasized the importance of employing “21st century solutions” and collecting data at the “most granular level” to better understand the rampant spread of COVID-19.

“That’s what the president has asked us to put together: to use these two weeks to get all the data from around the country and all the data from around the globe and really understand what’s working,” she told Fox News, adding that “every American needs to continue the president’s guidelines for these next six days or seven days. We have to have them following those guidelines.”

Pence also made a forceful case for Americans to keep heeding the federal guidance until at least the conclusion of the 15-day period, listing the administration’s recommendations in the final minutes of Fox News’ broadcast.

“These are all the principles that every American can do,” he said. “Now, there are going to be Americans that have different guidance from their state and local officials that are more stringent. We defer to that. We respect that. But the more Americans that do this, the sooner that we’ll be able, as the president said, to get back to work.”

Defending his rationale for reopening the economy, Trump repeatedly invoked deadly flu seasons in the U.S., remarking that the fatalities produced by that illness do not shut down the nation’s normal operations in the way the coronavirus has.

“Thirty-six thousand deaths a year ... but we’ve never closed down the country for the flu,” the president said. “So you say to yourself, what is this all about?”

Of course, flu season began months ago, and its death toll is largely predictable. The coronavirus, which is much more infectious than the flu, has only recently started tearing across the country, and could result in hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths.

Trump’s new push to promptly wind down social distancing breaks with the advice of public health experts who have been urging greater governmental action, not less, in the race to “flatten the curve” of cases and prevent communities from confronting the kind of crisis unfolding in New York — the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.

Without tested treatments or a newly developed vaccine, limited person-to-person contact remains the best recipe for slowing the coronavirus’ spread, even if it won’t halt the disease’s transmission entirely. Several health officials have predicted that the need for social distancing could last until late spring, not just two or three more weeks.

But the Easter cutoff does offer the administration extra time to intensify mitigation efforts and plan whatever steps Trump decides to take next. It is also possible that as the outbreak worsens, the president’s relatively rosy assessment of the likely cost to American lives will grow grimmer.

On Tuesday, though, Trump appeared as focused on the practicalities of reopening the economy by Easter Sunday as he was on the cultural significance of the date itself, which he called a “very special day for me.”

“You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” Trump told Fox News. “I think it would be a beautiful time, and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.”

In his appearance on the network, the president also appeared at times preoccupied with past and present political battles while discussing the administration’s war against the pandemic.

When pressed on the CDC’s far-from-perfect initial testing operation for the coronavirus, Trump was quick to point to the scandal that ensnared his presidency and resulted in his impeachment by the House of Representatives in December.

“What I said is perfect was my conversation with the head of the Ukraine,” he said. “That’s what I really said is perfect, OK? That was another whole scandal, nonsense. A total, you know, witch hunt.”

And when Birx posited that the heightened rates of COVID-19 infection in New York could have been exacerbated by a large number of people returning to the state from Asia after the Christmas holiday, the president interrupted her.

“Do you blame the governor for that?” Trump said with a smirk, needling his sometime political foil Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.