By Jeff Mason and Doina Chiacu – Japan Today
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday his coronavirus task force would shift its primary focus to reviving U.S. business and social life, while acknowledging that reopening the economy could put more lives at risk.
In a series of tweets, Trump said the White House task force he formed in March would not wind down, as he had suggested on Tuesday, but would instead add some advisers and center its attention on “SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.”
Trump changed his mind after the reaction to his Tuesday announcement showed how popular the task force was, he said.
Asked later if Americans will have to accept that reopening will lead to more deaths, Trump told reporters: “We can’t keep our country closed down for years and we have to do something. Hopefully that won’t be the case, but it could very well be the case.”
The Republican Trump administration and many state governors of both parties have faced mounting pressure to ease stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures that have ravaged the economy and thrown millions of Americans out of work, even as those measures succeeded in fighting the virus.
Public health experts warn of a new surge in case if reopenings occur without vastly expanded diagnostic screening and contact tracing.
Citing moves by about 30 states to relax restrictions this month, University of Washington researchers on Monday revised their model to project nearly 135,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths by early August, almost double their previous forecast.
The United States is already more than halfway there, with at least 71,000 lives lost to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, out of 1.2 million-plus Americans known to be infected, according to a Reuters tally.
Trump’s Twitter comments drew swift criticism from the leading Democrat in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who warned against easing restrictions prematurely.
“If you undermine science, if you underfund testing, if you exaggerate the opportunity that is out there for the economy at the risk of people dying, that’s not a plan,” Pelosi told MSNBC.”Death is not an economic motivator, stimulus. So why are we going down that path?”
White House guidelines recommend that new case numbers trend downward for 14 days and that wide-scale testing and contact tracing be instituted before shutdowns are phased out.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and most high-profile member of Trump’s task force, acknowledged that he was losing the argument against reopening the country too quickly.
“There are counties and cities in which you can do that safely now, but there are others that if you do that, it’s really dangerous,” he said on CNN Tuesday night.
While New York state and other early U.S. hotspots have flattened the infection curve, a number of U.S. states registered record daily spikes in cases on Tuesday, including Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin. Minnesota has set a new record for cases nine out of the last 14 days, including 728 new cases on Wednesday.
Trump said the White House will add two or three new members to the task force who will focus on reopening. Fauci, who has at times openly contradicted Trump’s assertions about the pandemic, would remain on the panel along with Dr Deborah Birx, a leading immunologist who has served as its coordinator.
State governors who have started lifting restrictions have said business reopenings will be gradual and that people should continue to observe social distancing and to cover their faces while out in public.
But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has clashed with Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp over his moves to reopen, said she saw people out celebrating on the annual Cinco de Mayo holiday on Tuesday.
“It was disappointing. And what was very clear was that people didn’t get anything past the message that we were open up for business,” she told CNN on Wednesday. “They didn’t get to the part that said that this was still a deadly virus.”
Democratic governors of states hardest hit by the outbreak have at times clashed with Trump over easing restrictions.
But even California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday announced plans to relax some restrictions if the data continues to see improvement.
Los Angeles’ downtown flower market opened on Wednesday for the first time since the shutdown after the city’s mayor gave some businesses the green light.
“It’s good that the stores are reopening. I have two kids. It has been hard,” said florist Gregorio Garcia, 35, as he pruned roses inside his open-front shop.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state is the worst-hit by far, has outlined criteria for loosening restrictions after a three-week decline in hospitalizations and a downward trend in the death count.
“You have states that are opening where you are still on the incline,” he told a daily briefing. “I think that’s a mistake.”
The New York City subway stopped running on Wednesday from 1 to 5 a.m. so that workers could deep-clean and disinfect trains after an order from Cuomo last week, in what was reportedly the first scheduled shutdown in the system’s 115-year-old history.