Public health authorities, state governors, and even some members of his own administration are pushing back against President Donald Trump’s professed desire to roll back measures intended to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check and reopen the country for business.
In his regular daily briefing on Monday evening, Trump said the nation could not afford to continue the lockdowns that have brought the country, and its $20-trillion economy, to a virtual standstill during the past several days.
“America will, again, and soon, be open for business,” Trump said. “Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. Lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
On Twitter, on Tuesday morning, Trump reiterated his preference for a quick return to normality.
Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2020
Trump’s pronouncements run counter to the advice from health experts and emergency management officials, who have said that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction – staying home from work and isolating themselves – the number of infections will overwhelm the healthcare system and lead to many more deaths.
The debate reflects a growing gulf between Trump’s economic and political advisers, who fear that weeks of uncertainty will lead to even further economic devastation and weaken his political prospects in the November general election, and his public health officials. Trump’s scientific point man on the crisis, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that the internal debate has been “intense”.
“What the president is trying to do is to balance the public health issues with the fact that this is having an enormous impact on the economy of the country, which may actually indirectly even cause a considerable amount of harm and difficulty – even health-wise,” Fauci said on Monday. “So, it’s a delicate balancing act which the president is trying to get right. And we’re under very intense discussions right now about what the most appropriate timeline is and, if we do modify it, how to modify it.”
On Tuesday, however, most public health officials said curtailing the preventive measures now would cause more harm than good. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the country is still early in the throes of the epidemic.
Anyone advising the end of social distancing now, needs to fully understand what the country will look like if we do that. COVID would spread widely, rapidly, terribly, could kill potentially millions in the yr ahead with huge social and economic impact across the country. 15/x
— Tom Inglesby (@T_Inglesby) March 23, 2020
Trump’s own Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator, Pete Gaynor, said the “social distancing” measures in place are working and any decision to roll back those precautions should be made by health professionals.
“I think it’s about timing, so I leave the timing up to the medical professionals and the scientists about when we get out of it,” Gaynor said during an appearance on CNN.
Even some Republicans have pushed back against Trump. Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan, also appearing on CNN on Tuesday morning, lamented the “mixed messages” coming out of the administration regarding the preventive measures.
“We’re just trying to take the best advice we can from the scientists and all the experts, and making the decisions that we believe are necessary for our states,” Hogan said. “We don’t think that we’re going to be in any way ready to be out of this in five or six days, or whenever this 15 days is up from the time that they started this imaginary clock. Most people think that we’re weeks away from the peak, if not months.”
What remains unclear is to what extent Trump is in a position to dial back the preventive measures. So far, most of the restrictions have been enacted by state and local officials, who retain the ultimate authority over the extent to which businesses remain shut down.
People across the country were taken aback when one of Trump’s surrogates, Texas’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, appeared on a Fox News opinion programme on Monday evening and suggested that older Americans most susceptible to the virus might be willing to heed Trump’s counsel and sacrifice themselves for the good of the country.
“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in,” Patrick told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick, who turns 70 next week, added. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”
There were indications on Tuesday that Trump’s rhetoric was influencing his supporters. Jerry Falwell Jr, a prominent evangelical leader and steadfast Trump fan, announced that the 5,000 students at his Liberty University in Lynchburg, Tennessee would be welcomed back to campus next week at the conclusion of spring break.
The move runs counter to almost every other university in the country, which has moved classes online for the remainder of the academic year.
“I think we have a responsibility to our students – who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here – to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell told a local newspaper, the Lynchburg News & Advance.