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Trump weighs easing stay-at-home advice to curb economic rout

Jennifer Jacobs, Josh Wingrove and Saleha Mohsin
Bloomberg

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.

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 doctor 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 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. 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.”

Some of the debate over how rapidly Americans should return to work is beginning to play out in public.

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.