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Trump tempers push for quick reopening in new guidelines

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Via Financial Times

President Donald Trump backed away from threats to force a quick reopening of the US economy, unveiling guidelines for states that set high hurdles to easing lockdown policies imposed in response to coronavirus.

Despite his earlier claim to “total” authority over post-outbreak planning, Mr Trump’s new recommendations acknowledged that it was up to governors of individual states to determine when to lift social distancing restrictions.

“My administration is issuing new federal guidelines that will allow governors to take a phased and deliberate approach to reopening their individual states,” Mr Trump said Thursday at the White House.

The guidelines recommend that before reopening, states make sure that there has been a downward trajectory in confirmed coronavirus cases over a 14-day period or a downward trajectory in positive tests as a percentage of total tests over the same period.

The plan also suggests that there is a “robust testing programme” in place for health workers who remain at risk, including antibody testing that helps determine whether someone has previously contracted the virus.

Anthony Fauci, the immunologist on the White House’s coronavirus task force, said the guidelines amounted to a “rather robust programme for re-entering into normality”. Deborah Birx, the other top public health expert on the task force, said Mr Trump had not listed timelines because he wanted governors to make those determinations based on the data in their states.

Mr Trump said he would maintain restrictions on entry into the US for the time being. “As we begin a science based reopening, we must be extra vigilant in blocking the foreign entry of the virus from abroad. Border control travel restrictions and other limitations on entry are more important than ever to keep the virus in check and allow Americans to get back to work.”

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Phase one of the president’s plan maintains current guidelines such as avoiding meetings of 10 or more people, minimising non-essential travel and trying to “maximise physical distance from others”.

It says employers should encourage their teams to continue teleworking where possible and return to normal work “in phases”. But the guidelines also recommend that schools that are currently shut should remain closed.

They say cinemas and other large venues, such as restaurants and churches, and also sports clubs should ensure “strict physical distancing” after reopening, but that bars should remain shuttered.

Phase two would remove restrictions on schools and recommend meetings be capped at 50 participants. Phase three would remove almost all of the previous restrictions but recommend that vulnerable individuals continue strict social distancing.

Mr Trump had sparked controversy on Monday by saying he had “total authority” to order governors to reopen their economies. His remark was rejected by constitutional experts.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York who has emerged as the leading defender of state authority, said the US did not have a “king” and that governors would not be directed by Mr Trump.

Over the past two months, Mr Trump has vacillated between pushing to reopen the economy as quickly as possible and reluctantly agreeing to move more slowly on the advice of the experts on his coronavirus task force.

Mr Trump is worried that the collapse in the economy triggered by plummeting consumer demand and widespread business closures ordered by states would hurt his odds of winning re-election in November.

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Mr Trump had been pushing for states to reopen their economies by May 1, following his previous desire to see them open by Easter — a date he later said had only been “aspirational” after his own experts pushed back.

Dr Fauci said this week that May 1 was also “too optimistic” for much of the country.

Many governors in worst-hit states have also made clear that they will not risk exacerbating the public health crisis by moving too quickly. Mr Cuomo on Thursday extended New York’s restrictions until the middle of May.

Seven governors from Midwestern states on Thursday said they would co-ordinate efforts to reopen their economies, in an effort to ensure states open up in a way that does not hurt other regions.

The Democratic governors of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kentucky joined with the Republican governors of Ohio and Indiana on the initiative, which they said was aimed at eventually taking steps to ease the economic crisis while at the same time ensuring the health of citizens.

Polls have shown that while Americans are frustrated at the economic pain and the restrictions on movement, they remain wary about the health risks.

A Gallup poll this week found that 71 per cent of Americans would wait to see what happened with the virus after government restrictions were lifted before returning to normal life. That was a two-point rise from the end of March. Twenty per cent said they would resume normal life “immediately”.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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