Updated at 6:35 p.m. CST
In his Tuesday afternoon briefing with the coronavirus task force, President Trump couched earlier comments about the need to reopen the U.S. economy within weeks, emphasizing that the decision would ultimately be data driven and made in consultation with public health experts.
The president said he still wants Americans working again by Easter Sunday, something he first said during a virtual town hall with Fox News earlier in the day. But he was much more circumspect over whether that would be possible from a medical standpoint.
His previous comments about reopening the economy prompted alarm among public health experts across the country, who said it’s far too early. Trump seemed to much more carefully toe the line during his briefing as he talked about “carefully and responsibly reopening the country.”
“I want to assure Americans that we have a team of public health experts … also economists and other professionals, working to develop a sophisticated plan to reopen the economy as soon as the time is right, one based on the best science, the best modeling and the best medical research there is anywhere on earth,” he said.
Trump stressed that this is a “medical crisis — this isn’t a financial crisis.”
In the Fox News TV special earlier Tuesday, Trump said he “would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
That’s April 12, within the timeline of “weeks” that Trump said he hopes is appropriate for curtailing the social distancing, isolation and other measures that officials have outlined to slow the spread of the coronavirus — but that have also paralyzed the economy.
During the briefing, officials also recommended that people who have recently left the New York City metro area should self-quarantine for the next 14 days to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.
The rate of infections inside the U.S. has not stopped climbing — by Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 50,000 confirmed cases nationwide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University — and Trump’s April 12 target date is far sooner than other milestones set by officials across the country.
The District of Columbia has closed its schools through April 24, for example; schools in Virginia won’t reconvene at all for the rest of this academic year.
Trump and Vice President Pence have talked up what they call the need for the U.S. to reset in stride, as military commanders might say — to continue some mitigation measures to constrain the pandemic but also permit some businesses to reopen.
“You can destroy a country this way by closing it down,” Trump said in the Fox special on Tuesday.
The president and vice president framed one focus for the upcoming months on the most vulnerable populations, particularly older people with preexisting medical conditions.
Under this construction, life might shift away from keeping everyone apart to permitting more people to leave their homes and return to work. For the time being, Trump said Americans might still be discouraged from shaking hands and other such activity. “We can socially distance ourselves and go to work,” he said.
At the same time, as Pence described it, the national response would shift from one based on dispersing everyone to defending the elderly, although it isn’t clear whether public health officials agree or what new steps that might require.
During the task force briefing, Pence also spoke about FEMA’s effort to identify personal protective equipment and ventilators.
As of Tuesday, FEMA is distributing 7.6 million N95 respirator masks, more than 14 million surgical masks and has already shipped 73 pallets of personal protective equipment to New York, Pence said.
Pence also reflected on what he called an “inspiring” response of businesses around the country who are mobilizing on the production of critical supplies.
“We see industry stepping up,” Pence said.
“We heard the McDonald’s is now offering curbside delivery to truckers who are unable to use the Drive-Thru to pick up a Big Mac.”
Pence also said he’s been in talks with Tim Cook of Apple, whose company is donating 9 million N-95 masks to health care facilities across the country and to the national stockpile.
Partway through isolation
The United States is nine days into a 15-day period of White House guidelines to “slow the spread” of the virus. When that ends, the administration will begin to assess whether to recommend more isolation and mitigation — or to permit some people to work or travel, as Trump has suggested.
It isn’t clear what metrics the White House might use when making that assessment, and the challenge of moving out of this isolation phase is compounded by the unequal affliction of the coronavirus across the country.
Washington state, California and New York state have been hit particularly hard but aren’t moving through their rates of infection at the same rate.
Dr. Deborah Birx, leader of the White House’s coronavirus response task force, says Washington state is about two weeks ahead of New York, for example.
The White House has acknowledged that many of the important upcoming decisions about the pandemic belong to governors or local officials. Trump and Pence have come under pressure, however, to at least give broad expectations about when life can start to get back to normal.
In recent days, the president has taken on board the idea that too much isolation and too much mitigation could be too ruinous for the economy, saying the “cure” can’t be worse than the disease.
“We have a pent-up energy that’s going to be unbelievable,” Trump said.
The president said he wants to be mindful about the need to balance public health interests with the desire to reopen America for business, but he also suggested that public health officials might be too conservative.
“I’m sure we have doctors who say, ‘Let’s keep it closed for two years,’ ” Trump said. “No, we’ve got to get it open — our people want it open, and that’s the way this country was built.”
Trump appeared in a separate interview on Fox on Tuesday and described a scene he had imagined in which millions of worshippers were able to attend Easter services next month.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?” Trump said, noting that churches have been forced to move online because of social distancing guidelines.
“Online is never going to be like being there,” he said. “You’re going to have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time.”
Call for consensus on legislation
Trump and Pence called for Congress to complete work on the relief and stimulus legislation that has been under negotiation for the past several days, but they also faulted Democrats for what they called opportunism about the bill.
“All of a sudden they started to throw the Green New Deal stuff in — ‘we want green energy,’ ” Trump said.
The president dislikes wind turbines after a dispute over the prospect that they might be installed near a golf course he owns in Scotland, and Trump suggested on Tuesday that Democratic support for wind energy might have caused him to reject some of the proposals in the bill.
“They had things in there that were terrible — windmills all over the place … windmills that kill the birds and ruin the real estate, right?” Trump said.
Washington must focus on “the workers,” the president said. “Workers first.”
Trump said in his second interview on Fox that he wasn’t concerned about the costs associated with what could be a $2 trillion stimulus package, because he considered that to be an investment.
“It’s not really spending, because a lot of it is helping companies” through loans, he said. “It’s loaded to save corporations,” he said, specifically mentioning Boeing.
“They’re going to pay that back,” he said, noting that some may pay by giving the government some equity and also by repaying with interest.
“We’re going to get stock for the taxpayers of our country,” Trump said.