Conservative groups advising the White House have issued an array of coronavirus economic reopening plans with a common theme — Americans should go back to work immediately to halt the economic and societal damage from prolonged lockdowns.
The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has coalesced in recent days around the same message — the need to reopen quickly.
The White House did not renew federal guidelines on social distancing that expired April 30.
Just as the virus has infected the states unevenly, some state and local governments are opening malls, movie theatres and hairdressers while others remain in the stay-at-home posture that at one point kept most of America’s 320mn people indoors.
Both the White House and the groups advising it are missing detailed, centralised plans for virus testing and containment, which many health officials, historians, and economists say are needed to avoid a new surge of infections and longer-term economic damage.
On Tuesday, Trump said The White House coronavirus task force will wind down as the country moves into a second phase that focuses on the aftermath of the outbreak.
Trump confirmed the plans after Vice-President Mike Pence, who leads the group, told reporters the White House may start moving co-ordination of the US response on to federal agencies in late May.
“Mike Pence and the task force have done a great job,” Trump said during a visit to a mask factory in Arizona. “But we’re now looking at a little bit of a different form and that form is safety and opening and we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”
Asked if he was proclaiming “mission accomplished” in the fight against the coronavirus, Trump said, “No, not at all. The mission accomplished is when it’s over.”
Trump said Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, doctors who assumed a high profile during weeks of nationally televised news briefings, would remain advisers after the group is dismantled. Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Birx was response co-ordinator for the force.
“We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years,” Trump said, when asked why it was time to wind down the task force.
Trump acknowledged there might be a resurgence of the virus as states loosen the restrictions on businesses and social life aimed at curbing its spread.
“It’ll be a flame and we’re going to put the flame out.”
A Harvard University study published last week argued that 5mn tests per day by early June would be needed to deliver a “safe social reopening.” Such testing would need to ramp up to 20mn a day to fully remobilise the economy, the researchers said.
While Trump has said that number would be reached “very soon,” his top coronavirus testing official, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Brett Giroir, told Time magazine on Tuesday that there was “absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20mn tests a day, or even 5mn tests a day.”
Since the coronavirus was discovered in the United States in January, more than 1mn have been infected while over 6mn people have been tested.
The United States, with the most virus fatalities in the world at over 71,000, lags most countries hit hard by the virus on tests per positive case discovered, according to a Reuters tally from official websites.
A coalition of groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, which have supported return-to-work protests at state capitals, calls for the administration to “immediately reopen the economy while implementing the best workplace practices to protect the health of our citizens.”
The “Save Our Country Coalition” counts economist and tax cut advocate Arthur Laffer, a Trump favourite and mentor to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, as its honorary chairman.
The group published a list of principles that also emphasise halting massive US rescue spending, cutting taxes and protecting states’ rights and individual liberties.
There are no recommendations on how coronavirus testing and tracing should be done to ensure that work and public spaces are kept safe. “Any widespread testing programs must strictly adhere to and embody Constitutional protections,” the list says.
Stephen Moore, a conservative commentator who is a member of Save Our Country and of Trump’s economic recovery task force, said it was important that US states take the lead on such issues because of their differing situations.
“It’s really important that we get the economy open as safely and quickly as possible and the continued lockdown will have profoundly negative impact on Americans’ health and their well being,” Moore told Reuters.
A post on the FreedomWorks website argues that businesses “will use common sense discretion” in reopening and those who do not run their operations safely will fail in the marketplace.
According to the White House, states must have “robust testing” programmes in place for at-risk healthcare workers before reopening, but state governors including New York’s Andrew Cuomo say they neither have the budget nor the supplies to do so.
South Korea, among the first countries to bring a major coronavirus outbreak under control, is relying on a intensive, central-government run contact tracing and testing campaign to keep the virus under control without lockdowns.
The Heritage Foundation, whose current president, Kay Coles James and former president, Jim DeMint, have both been named to Trump’s reopening task force, mentions testing in a reopening plan, but rejects calls for universal, federally-backed testing as a condition of lifting restrictions.
James chairs the conservative think tank’s official-sounding “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission,” which recommends that testing be done by random sample to determine the prevalence of the virus within specific communities.
Workplace testing regimes should be developed by individual companies, with employers paying the costs.
The group also included some longstanding demands, such as recommending states make public education funding portable and repeal “unreasonable day care licensing requirements” that raise costs and limit return-to-work options.
Some Trump administration officials have emphasised that getting the virus under control is the only way to restore consumer and economic confidence.
“I for one am incredibly focused on testing. As we roll out more testing, I think that this is something that is going to get people more and more comfortable,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters on Wednesday.
New York University’s Paul Romer is among the economists who have rolled out their own reopening plan.
His, with assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, focuses solely on testing as a way to restore confidence, advocating $100bn in federal up-front spending on tests.
The former World Bank chief economist argues that lifting the lockdowns without a clear containment strategy will keep consumers in fear and will do little to recoup the $500bn per month in lost output that the US economy is now suffering.
Romer told Reuters that he sees economists and policy advisers on the left and right “looking at this through a kind of psychological lens of denial” and “don’t want to come to terms with reality that our options right now are much worse than a year ago.”
He said the options were allowing the coronavirus to sweep through the population to achieve so-called herd immunity that could lead to 1mn deaths in the next year, fear that drives consumers to pull back long term, or mass testing to boost confidence.
“The only way to reduce the fear is to have a credible plan for testing,” Romer said. “I’m not going to go to my dentist if I’m worried about the dentist infecting me with the virus, and vice versa.”
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