Trump Eyes ‘Biggest Decision’ On Reopening as Aides Urge Caution
Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, speaks to members of the media after a television interview outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

Trump Eyes ‘Biggest Decision’ On Reopening as Aides Urge Caution

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(Bloomberg) --

President Donald Trump says he’ll hear from business leaders, health professionals and governors before making what he called the toughest decision of his presidency -- when to urge Americans to relax the economically punishing social distancing that’s curbed the spread of the coronavirus.

“I would say, without question, it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Trump said Friday during a White house news briefing. Asked what metrics he’ll consider, he pointed to his head and said: “The metrics right here.”

Trump said he’ll announce on Tuesday a council of “very, very great doctors and business people” to advise him on reopening the economy. His top public health officials have signaled that the prospect of widely easing social-distancing measures at the end of the month is dim. Coronavirus infections and deaths may be plateauing in some of the hardest-hit American cities, but others are only at the start of their outbreaks.

Trump has been anxious to relax economy-crushing guidance that Americans isolate themselves from one another -- likely beginning with less-affected regions. Data indicate that distancing efforts are having an impact on the outbreak, halving the projected death totals in some models. That has turned attention within the White House to planning for an economic reopening.

But top officials have spent the past 24 hours cautioning that “the light at the end of the tunnel” -- as Trump has described it -- may be further than it appears.

On Friday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that while some areas relatively untouched by the outbreak might be able to consider reopening by the end of the month, that’s not the case for most of the nation.

“As we ramp up testing and can feel more confident that these places actually can do surveillance and can do public health follow-up, some places will be able to think about opening on May 1st,” Adams said in an interview with Fox News. “Most of the country will not, to be honest with you.”

‘We Have Everything’

Trump said Friday that it appears now that the virus will kill fewer than 100,000 Americans. Last week, the White House projected between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths. The president touted increased U.S. testing capacity but also said there’s no need make testing available to all Americans, and boasted of ample supplies of protective gear even as front-line health workers continue to warn of shortages.

“We have masks, we have everything, and we were trying to get ready for the surge, and a lot of people said you will never have it,” he said. “We have ventilators, we have equipment, we have beds.”

He said the leaders of other countries have called to ask him for ventilators. Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, he said, asked him for 10,000.

Trump’s news conferences have routinely been a study in contrasts between his sunny assessments of the outbreak and the more sober warnings of his health officials, and the latest was no exception. On Friday, the government’s public health authorities urged the need to continue social distancing measures.

“Mitigation works,” Adams said. “It definitively and quantitatively is working and I want to say, thank you to America for your efforts to flatten the curve and save lives.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, also preached caution when asked earlier Friday about a potential May 1 opening. The virus will determine “whether or not it’s going to be appropriate to open or not,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“We would want to see, I would want to see a clear indication that you are very, very clearly and strongly going in the right direction, because the one thing you don’t want to do is you don’t want to get out there, prematurely, and then wind up and you’re back in the same situation,” Fauci said.

White House officials might be particularly cautious about committing to a specific date after Trump initially set a goal to “reopen” the country by Easter, April 12. But as the U.S. outbreak grew last month to the largest in the world, he agreed to extend guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social distancing until April 30.

Political Liability

Trump this week said Americans “have to be careful” about a return to work, even as he reiterated his desire to get businesses open again. He pointed out that his call for an Easter reopening had proved a political liability.

“Easter is a very important day. So, aspirationally, I said, ‘Let’s see if we can do it at Easter,’” Trump said. “But I said it would be very tough and I was criticized for that so I don’t like giving dates and that wasn’t a date.”

While U.S. officials began the week optimistic that the outbreak was beginning to level off, New York City on Thursday reported 824 deaths from the virus in 24 hours, the most yet. Members of Trump’s coronavirus task force has said they are closely monitoring cities including Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Washington for potential spikes.

There have been more than 466,000 cases across the nation and more than 16,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“The reassuring news, again, is that some places have leveled off and are on the downslope, and we hope that within a few weeks once we get past the 30 days, some places around the country can start thinking about reopening,” Adams said.

Pence’s Mileposts

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday outlined a series of mile posts the country must meet before social-distancing practices can be relaxed, including widespread testing for the virus and therapeutic medicines to treat it, both of which may be months away.

Most major communities must be “at the end” of their outbreaks, said Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force. The country also should have new guidance in place from the CDC on how large and small businesses can operate safely.

CDC Director Robert Redfield outlined similar criteria on Thursday during an interview with CNN. Officials, he said, have to understand the spread of the virus, strengthen public-health infrastructure, prepare hospitals and other medical facilities, and foster a belief among Americans that it’s safe to scale back their isolation.

“Those are really the four most critical elements that we’re working and planning on now, with the anticipation of beginning to reopen our nation one region at a time and get us all back to work and get prepared for next year, which will be another challenging time,” he said.

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