President Trump told the nation’s governors on Thursday that they could begin reopening businesses, restaurants and other elements of daily life by May 1 or earlier if they wanted, abandoning his threat to use what he had claimed was his absolute authority to impose his will on them.
On a day when the nation’s death toll from the coronavirus increased by more than 2,000 for a total over 30,000, the president released a set of nonbinding guidelines that envisioned a slow return to work and school over weeks or months. Based on each state’s conditions, the guidelines in effect guarantee that any restoration of American society will take place on a patchwork basis rather than on a one-size-fits-all prescription from Washington that some of the governors had feared in recent days.
“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time,” Trump told reporters during a briefing at the White House.
Trump essentially gave cover to mainly Republican governors of states in the South and West that have not been as hard hit by the pandemic to begin reopening sooner. The president, who has previously said that as many as 29 states could reopen soon, told governors on a conference call before his announcement that some of them were “in very, very good shape” and could move further and faster to resuming economic and social activities.
If they follow the guidelines, New York and other states in the Northeast, as well as states in the Midwest and West, that have seen large outbreaks would remain shuttered for weeks until new cases of the virus and death tolls fell and hospital capacity was restored.
The administration’s guidelines, titled “Opening Up America Again,” laid out a series of phases for how they could think about reopening.
In states judged to be doing well enough to enter the first phase, people would still be urged to avoid socializing in groups of more than 10, employers would be asked to encourage telework, and schools would remain closed. But some large venues — including restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship — would be allowed to operate under strict physical distancing protocols, elective surgeries could resume, and gyms could reopen as long as they maintained physical distancing. Bars would remain closed.
In the second phase, schools could reopen and people would be advised to avoid social gatherings of more than 50 people. By the third phase, states with no evidence of a resurgence of infections would be able to resume unrestricted staffing of work sites, visits to hospitals and nursing homes could resume, large venues could operate under limited social distancing protocols, and bars could reopen with increased standing room.
Some states could face a bulge in intensive care unit hospitalizations during the summer and early fall, according to a planning document issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The presentation singled out Nevada, which could see more than 1,000 ICU beds occupied by Covid patients around August in a worst-case scenario, and Maine, where up to 500 ICU beds could be occupied.
The 16-page document, which was labeled for official use only, found that 18 percent of people who responded to an April survey commissioned by the C.D.C. did not plan to get a mask or face covering, or did not know where to get one or how to make one.
Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the guidelines were thoughtful but vague. Even if cases declined for two weeks, numbers needed to be small enough that every case could be identified and every contact could be traced. Hospitals must have extra capacity to deal with a potential new flare-up, he said.
But the president’s preference for a sooner-rather-than-later approach was clear. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to get the country back to work. But public health officials and many governors have said that Trump’s desire for normalcy is running into the reality that doing so quickly could lead to more infections and once again overwhelm health systems.
Although capacity has improved in recent weeks, crippling supply shortages for testing remain, and many regions are still restricting tests to people who meet specific criteria. Antibody tests, which reveal whether someone has ever been infected with the virus, are just starting to be rolled out; most have not been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration.
On another conference call Thursday morning, Trump repeatedly told House lawmakers that people around the country were eager to get the economy moving again. He drew attention to protests in some states, saying that Americans were angry. And he hinted that 29 states were ready to reopen, according to a lawmaker who was on the call and described it on condition of anonymity.
Democrats and Republicans tried repeatedly to impress on the president that testing capacity and contact tracing were paramount to reopening. Representative Jimmy Panetta, Democrat of California, gently warned that reopening too quickly could be dangerous. Another lawmaker suggested creating a testing industry board that could coordinate and speed up the development of test kits. Trump told the lawmakers that his team was working on expanding availability.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for a $30 billion investment in testing capacity across the country, including hiring people to perform contact tracing.