Trump weighs easing stay-at-home advice to curb economic rout
President Donald Trump began talking privately late last week about reopening the nation, despite the swiftly rising number of coronavirus cases and against the advice of health professionals, because he’s worried about the economic damage from an extended shutdown, according to people familiar with his thinking.
The shortage of testing kits has made it difficult to assess the full spread of the virus, but Trump and a contingent of his aides, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, want to ensure that the economic damage from a nationwide “social distancing” campaign doesn’t outweigh the potential toll from the virus itself, the people said.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” Trump tweeted late Sunday.
The president started talking about how to get people back to work around Thursday, two of the people said, only three days after he helped roll out a 15-day plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stem the rise of cases by encouraging most people to stay at home. That campaign would end about March 31.
The discussions centered on what to do after the 15-day period ends, and how to test and isolate everyone who’s sick so healthy people can return to work. It’s likely the CDC guidelines would be relaxed rather than scrapped altogether, one person said.
Birx, Fauci Advice
The government’s top health authorities have warned that in the absence of any viable medical treatment, sustained and economically painful restrictions on daily life are the only way to beat the virus. This group is led by Deborah Birx, the State Department physician tapped to advise Vice President Mike Pence on the government’s response to the outbreak, and Anthony Fauci, the influential director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The advice of the medical professionals has so far formed the foundation of the White House’s coronavirus strategy, frustrating some of Trump’s economic and political advisers who think the president shouldn’t lean so heavily on them, according to two people familiar with the matter.
But a close Trump ally in Congress, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, tweeted his support for the doctors on Monday.
The economy is reeling as cases rise and the death toll mounts. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter, along with a 50% drop in gross domestic product. Morgan Stanley said Sunday it expects the U.S. economy to plummet 30% in the second quarter.
There had been more than 35,000 cases of the disease in the U.S. by Monday and more than 400 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Social distancing didn’t begin with Trump’s guidelines and won’t necessarily end if he lifts them, as governors and municipal leaders have the power to issue “shelter in place” and other orders limiting daily life in virus-ravaged parts of the country. And many companies have ordered employees to work from home where possible, regardless of government directives.
Several states are still moving to tighten restrictions, not loosen them. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she’s issuing a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order that will go into effect at midnight. And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses as of 5 p.m.
But the president has considerable power to influence Americans’ behavior by the tone he sets at what has become daily, televised White House news conferences.
“We’ll get a pretty good idea what we’re doing” at the end of his “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign on March 31, Trump said Sunday. “You know there will be a point at which we say: We’re back in business, let’s go.”
Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health, criticized what he called “zero-sum” framing of the debate by people who advocate abandoning social distancing.
“Nobody wants economic devastation nor the loss of hundreds of thousands or millions of lives in the United States. Both are terrible outcomes. We have to stop this either-or thinking,” he said in an interview.
“Epidemiologists are aware of the tradeoffs because they are thinking about them in their own lives,” he added. “But to do a knee-jerk response by removing these measures is short-sighted, short-term term thinking that’s going to get us into deeper trouble.”
Drop the Hammer
Some of the debate over how rapidly Americans should return to work is beginning to play out in public.
Fauci acknowledged that aggressive public health measures can cause too much harm to the economy and “unintended consequences” in an interview with Science magazine published Sunday.
“There is a discussion and a delicate balance about what’s the overall impact of shutting everything down completely for an indefinite period of time,” he said. “If you knock down the economy completely and disrupt infrastructure, you may be causing health issues, unintended consequences, for people who need to be able to get to places and can’t. You do the best you can.”
Former Goldman Sachs Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein said in a tweet Sunday night that “within a very few weeks” people at “lower risk to the disease” should return to work.
“Is it time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on?” Trump’s former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, tweeted on Sunday. “Businesses need clarity. Otherwise they will assume the worst and make decisions to survive.”
But another former senior aide to Trump, Steve Bannon, said the president should take even stronger measures to limit Americans’ social interactions over the next two weeks in order to snuff out the virus – or risk irreversible economic damage.
“We’re going to have to take the pain up-front. We’re going to have to shut it all down,” Bannon said on Fox News on Sunday. “Drop the hammer today on the virus.”
Trump said Sunday he’d seen both comments. “They are not mutually exclusive, they sort of inter-mesh,” he said of Cohn and Bannon. Bannon wants “just a brutal shutdown, and then open up a little bit faster. So you know, there’s that fine line.”
Late Sunday and into Monday morning Trump began retweeting supporters expressing exasperation with social distancing efforts.