Setting the stage for a possible power struggle with President Donald Trump, governors around the U.S. began sketching out plans Tuesday to reopen their economies in a slow and methodical process so as to prevent the coronavirus from rebounding with tragic consequences.
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 start back up in a calibrated effort by politicians to balance public health against their countries’ economic well-being.
While the crisis is far from over in the U.S., with over 25,000 dead and approximately 600,000 confirmed infections by Johns Hopkins University’s count, the doomsday scenarios that were predicted just two weeks ago have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has joined a coalition with his West Coast counterparts in Oregon and Washington on how to emerge from the crisis, outlined a set of conditions Tuesday for lifting the coronavirus restrictions in America’s most populous state. Among other things, he said hospitalizations will have to decline and more testing will have to become available.
And when the state does reopen, he warned, things will not look the same. Waiters will probably be wearing masks and gloves, schools may stagger students’ arrival times to reduce crowding, and large gatherings such as sporting events and concerts are “not in the cards,” the Democrat said.
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. That could well entail the use of smartphone technology to alert potentially infected people.
Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to see the U.S. reopened for business quickly, and at one point wanted to see churches packed on Easter. On Monday, he insisted he has “total” authority over the loosening of restrictions, even though the Constitution largely delegates such powers to the states.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has by far been America’s hardest hit, ridiculed Trump’s assertion, saying: “We don’t have a king in this country.”
While the president has issued national social-distancing guidelines advising people to 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%.
Still, there were glimmers of hope, even in New York, where the death toll topped 10,800. Cuomo reported 778 deaths over the previous 24 hours but said fatalities were leveling off, and hospitalizations and the number of new patients put on ventilators were continuing to drop, showing that social distancing is working.
At the same time, he warned against complacency: “We could lose all the progress we made in one week if we do it wrong.”
Governors across the country echoed that sentiment. Michigan Gov. 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,” the Democrat 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 relaxation of 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.
Fauci also said a vaccine might be possible by mid- to late winter, a slightly more optimistic outlook than his previous estimate of 12 to 18 months. “Please, let me say this caveat: That is assuming that it’s effective. See, that’s the big ‘if,’” he said. “It’s got to be effective and it’s got to be safe.”
In North Carolina, around 100 people who want Gov. Roy Cooper to ease or lift the stay-at-home order held a midday rally that broke up after police warned them to disperse.
In New York, social worker Brandy Robinson, of Queens, said she would need to see deaths come down in the city “for me to feel safe to get back on the train or do anything.”
“It’s very hard to come out of the house at all,” the 34-year-old Robinson said. “I just try to keep the faith and hope that this will pass soon.”
Some experts say states will 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 being considered by U.S. states and planned for various European countries including Britain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Amid privacy concerns, Apple and Google announced last week that their mobile-phone operating systems will support public health apps beginning in May that alert people who come into contact with other smartphone owners later found to be infected. Under the scheme, the use of such apps would be voluntary and keep user locations and identities private.
In other developments, 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 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 in many places. Forestry workers, needed to clear dead trees ahead of the summer fire season, also went back.
In Spain, with more than 18,000 dead, 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.