President Donald Trump appears to be encouraging protests against state-level COVID-19 containment measures, and has announced guidelines for reopening the U.S. economy. Some governors are preparing to ease stay-at-home orders in the next two weeks. And companies are drawing up plans to restart operations in a physically distanced world.
But public-health experts warn that the country still does not have enough ability to test for and trace novel coronavirus cases to safely contain the outbreak once people return to work. New infection hot spots, meanwhile, are emerging in states that thought they had the pandemic under control. And supply chains have been so disrupted that many companies cannot easily resume business.
It all means that restarting the world’s largest economy will be a stuttering process, potentially with long-term distancing measures in public spaces and on the job, rather than the swift ramp-up Mr. Trump has envisioned.
“We must have a working economy, and we want to get it back very, very quickly, and that’s what’s going to happen,” the President declared at the White House this week. “I believe it will boom.”
On Friday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted support for demonstrations against physical-distancing measures in Democratic states. In one protest earlier in the week, thousands of people – some toting rifles, Trump posters and Confederate flags – descended on Michigan’s state capitol to demand that Governor Gretchen Whitmer rescind her stay-at-home order.
LIBERATE MICHIGAN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
LIBERATE MINNESOTA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA! LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” the President wrote.
Under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, states that have seen declines in coronavirus cases would follow a three-phase plan to gradually reopen businesses, offices and schools, and allow for progressively larger public gatherings.
Some governors and experts, however, say the Trump administration has laid out no plan for the necessary public-health infrastructure to prevent a resurgence of coronavirus when containment measures ease.
Among other things, states need more and faster COVID-19 tests; staff to track down the close contacts of infected people so they can be isolated; and sufficient capacity in the health care system, with proper supplies of personal protective equipment.
“We’re just nowhere near that point. Until we get there, it would be premature to talk about reopening,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a health-policy expert at George Washington University and former municipal public-health official. “There is no part of our country that is there.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said states need federal help to expand testing before they can reopen, but Mr. Trump’s guidelines leave governors to sort out testing for themselves. “That is passing the buck without passing the bucks,” he told reporters in Albany on Friday.
Even states that had appeared to dodge the worst of the pandemic, meanwhile, have recorded new outbreaks, highlighting how little control officials have had over the spread.
The Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, S.D., for instance, has become a major COVID-19 hot spot, with 634 employees testing positive and 1,157 cases in the surrounding county. South Dakota is one of only seven states that have not implemented stay-at-home orders. In an appearance on Fox News, Governor Kristi Noem argued such measures force people to “give up their liberties for just a little bit of security.”
Smithfield shut the plant last weekend.
“I don’t know how we can reopen the economy when we’re still trying to keep people safe and alive to begin with,” said Nancy Reynoza, head of Que Pasa, a Sioux Falls Latino community organization that helped Smithfield workers organize a protest outside the slaughterhouse last week. “Everybody wants to get back to work, everybody needs to get back to work, but what’s the price to pay for that?”
Some states and companies, however, are taking steps to reopen.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said this week that he would begin loosening coronavirus containment measures on May 1. Mr. DeWine did not detail exactly how this would work.
At least three automotive parts suppliers – Lear Corp., Magna International and Aptiv – have published manuals on how to reopen factories while maintaining COVID-19 precautions. Among other things, they envision creating space between employees on the job, issuing protective equipment to staff and isolating workers who fall ill.
Glenn Stevens of MichAuto, a Michigan car-industry group, said his sector faces another logistical hurdle: Auto supply chains stretch across North America, meaning companies in numerous jurisdictions would have to restart around the same time for production to resume.
“You’re talking about 2,000 parts that are coming from all over the world and have to come together in an assembly plant in a very synchronized manner,” he said. “There has to be synchronization not just between states, but between international borders, too.”
While states have banded together in regional blocks – the New York metropolitan area, the West Coast and the Great Lakes – to co-ordinate reopenings, some contended that a fully national effort was needed to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.
Maura Calsyn, who co-wrote a reopening plan for the Center for American Progress think tank, said testing, at least, had to be co-ordinated by the federal government and not downloaded to states that can ill afford the cost, or might perform it unevenly.
“It’s really dangerous and reckless to say ‘we don’t have any cases in this area, so we’ll just open it up.’ How do you know that if you’re not testing?” she said. “Anything that does not address how to quickly and aggressively ramp up testing levels is totally incomplete. They’ve just punted that.”
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