President Donald Trump prepared to unveil national guidelines Thursday on when and how the country starts to recover from the sharp economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic as a bipartisan panel of lawmakers urged him to heed the advice of public health experts.
The new guidelines are aimed at clearing the way for an easing of restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while keeping them in place in harder-hit places. Ultimately, decisions on when to ease up will rest with governors.
The recommendations also will make clear that the return to normalcy will be a far longer process than Trump initially envisioned, with federal officials warning that some social distancing measures may need to remain in place through the end of the year to prevent a new outbreak.
“We’ll be opening some states much sooner than others,” Trump said Wednesday.
Trump held conference calls Thursday with lawmakers he named to a new congressional advisory task force as he aims for a swift rebound. The economic costs were clear in new federal data showing that at least 22 million Americans have been thrown out of work in the last month. But the legislators repeatedly urged the president not to sacrifice public health in an effort to reopen the economy.
“My highest priority on this task force will be to ensure the federal government’s efforts to reopen our economy are bipartisan, data-driven, and based on the expertise of public health professionals," said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.
Business leaders, too, raised concerns to the president in a round of calls Wednesday, warning that a dramatic increase in testing and wider availability of protective equipment will be necessary before they can safely revive operations.
The federal government envisions a gradual recovery from the virus, in which disruptive mitigation measures may be needed in some places at least until a vaccine is available — a milestone unlikely to be reached until sometime next year.
“It’s not going to immediately be a situation where we have stadiums full of people," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Thursday. “We’re Americans. We will adapt,” he added.
Trump said Wednesday that data indicates the U.S. is “past the peak” of the COVID-19 epidemic. He said the numbers have “put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines for states on reopening the country.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, added that data from across the country showed the nation “improving,” but that Americans had to recommit to social distancing to keep up the positive momentum.
She said nine states have fewer than 1,000 cases and just a few dozen new cases per day. She said those would likely be the first to see a lifting in social distancing restrictions at the direction of their governors under the guidelines set to be released Thursday.
Birx said the White House was particularly concerned about Rhode Island, noting it is now seeing a surge in cases from the Boston metro area after seeing a spike several weeks ago from cases from New York.
But participants in a Wednesday call with Trump that included executives of dozens of leading American companies raised concerns about the testing issue, according to one participant who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion.
Another participant said it was stressed to Trump that expansion of testing and contact tracing was crucial, as well as guidelines for best practices on reopening businesses in phases or in one fell swoop.
The participant said those on the call noted to the administration that there was about to be a rush on personal protective equipment. Many businesses that are now shuttered will need the protective equipment to keep their employees and customers safe.
Trump was told "the economy will look very different and operations will look very different," one participant said.
The panel, which Trump dubbed the new Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, also could help give him a measure of cover. If cases surge once restrictions are lifted, as many experts have warned, Trump will be able to tell the public he didn’t act alone and the nation’s top minds — from manufacturing to defense to technology — helped shape the plan.
Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, who participated in one of the calls with Trump, said there was also discussion about tax relief as well as “making sure that people are optimistic about the economy and they feel safe coming back to work.”
“I think you’ll see steps to reopen the country at different rates in different states in the not too distant future,” Nolan said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Trump has appointed some “smart people” to his task force who could offer state leaders helpful guidelines as they negotiate the way forward.
"There are certain roles that only the federal government can play and should play, but I think the governors are going to make their own decisions within those recommended guidelines,” Hogan said.
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