States confront practical dilemmas on reopening economies

Lori Hinnant, Frank Jordans and Chris Blake
Associated Press

Washington – Setting the stage for a possible power struggle with President Donald Trump, governors around the U.S. began collaborating on plans Tuesday to reopen their economies in what is likely to be a drawn-out, step-by-step process to prevent the coronavirus from rebounding with disastrous results.

In Italy, Spain and other places around Europe where infections and deaths have begun stabilizing, the process is already underway, with certain businesses and industries allowed to reopen in a calibrated effort by politicians to balance public health against their countries’ economic well-being.

A man in protective gear stands by equipment used to sanitize a children's clothes shop to prevent the spread of COVID-19, before the shop opened, in Rome, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. In Italy, bookstores, stationary stores and shops selling clothes and supplies were allowed to open  Tuesday, provided they could maintain the same social-distancing required in supermarkets.

While the crisis is far from over in the U.S., with more than 23,000 dead and about 600,000 confirmed infections by Johns Hopkins University’s count, the doomsday scenarios that many were predicting just two weeks ago have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.

In this April 9, 2020 file photo Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses the state's response to the coronavirus during his daily news briefing.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has joined a coalition with his West Coast counterparts in Oregon and Washington, said he would announce a detailed plan Tuesday for lifting virus restrictions, using “science to guide our decision-making and not political pressure.”

A similar coalition has taken shape in the Northeast, encompassing Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

“The house is still on fire,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said. “We still have to put the fire out” but also ”make sure this doesn’t reignite.”

Politicians and public health authorities alike warned that an easing of the restrictions in the U.S. and Europe will have to be accompanied by widespread antibody testing to see who might be immune and ramped-up tracing of infected people’s contacts with others.

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with people that have recovered from COVID-19, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence looks on.

Trump, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to see the U.S. reopened for business quickly, and at one point said he would like to see churches packed on Easter, insisted Monday that he has “total” authority to decide how and when to loosen restrictions in the country – a notion at odds with the Constitution, which largely delegates such matters to the states.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has by far been America’s hardest hit, ridiculed Trump’s assertion Tuesday, saying: “We don’t have a king in this country.”

While the president has issued national social-distancing guidelines advising people stay home, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted the tough, mandatory restrictions, such as lockdowns and the closing of schools and nonessential businesses.

The effects of such measures around the globe were made plain by the International Monetary Fund, which projected that the world economy will suffer its worst year since the Great Depression in the 1930s, shrinking by an estimated 3% this year.

New infections appear to have leveled off in much of Asia and Europe, including Italy, France, Spain and Germany. Even in New York – where reported coronavirus deaths topped 10,800 – there were glimmers of hope.

On Tuesday, Cuomo reported 778 deaths over the previous 24 hours but said fatalities are leveling off, and hospitalizations and the number of new patients put on ventilators are continuing to drop, showing that social distancing is working.

At the same time, he warned against complacency: “We could lose the progress we made in one week if we do it wrong.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference Thursday in Lansing.

Governors across the country echoed that sentiment, including in Michigan, where Democrat Gretchen Whitmer said, “We’ve got to make sure that we avoid a second wave at all costs.”

“That would be devastating for our economy. So we’re going to make decisions based on science and having a real strategic phase-in of our economy when it’s appropriate and safe to do so,” she said.

Adding a dose of caution from the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the U.S. does not yet have the testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the economy.

“We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet,” Fauci said.

Any easing off the social-distancing rules would have to occur on a “rolling” basis, not all at once, he said, reflecting the ways COVID-19 struck different parts of the country at different times.

Some experts say states need to train thousands of workers in contact tracing. Public health agencies from Massachusetts to San Francisco have gone on a hiring binge.

Contact-tracing smartphone apps are also under consideration in some places in the U.S. and Europe – technology that has been used in other parts of the world but has raised privacy concerns in the West.

Apple and Google, for example, are working together to develop smartphone technology that alerts people if they crossed paths with someone later found to be infected.

In other developments around the world, India extended the world’s largest lockdown on its 1.3 billion people until May 3, and police with batons charged hundreds of jobless migrant workers who crowded a Mumbai railroad station to demand that special trains be run to take them to their home villages.

In Britain, with a death toll put at over 12,000, new data showed that the true number is hundreds of victims higher. And China faced a new flare-up along its remote northern border with Russia.

In parts of Italy, which has seen more than 21,000 deaths but on Tuesday reported the smallest number of new infections in a month, bookstores, stationery stores and shops selling baby supplies were allowed to open. Forestry workers, needed to clear dead trees ahead of the summer fire season, also went back to work.

In Spain, with a death toll of more than 18,000, workers returned to some factory and construction jobs this week, while stores and offices remained closed. Hardware and gardening stores reopened in Austria, but Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he stands ready to “pull the emergency brake” if infections make a resurgence.

Worldwide, about 2 million confirmed infections have been reported and over 120,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins. The figures understate the true size of the pandemic, because of limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and concealment by some governments.

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Hinnant reported from Paris while Blake contributed from Bangkok. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.