America Tiptoes Toward Reopening, Weighing Money Against Health

President Donald Trump’s push to reopen state economies would have Americans self-policing their behavior even as projections suggested that shopping, eating out and getting post-quarantine haircuts could lead to many more deaths.

Two recent estimates, one by Trump, have predicted that the toll from the outbreak will reach or surpass 100,000 deaths. Despite the grim forecasts, states continued to move toward resuming commerce, impelled by the president as well as business people and citizens weary of lockdowns without an end game.

The White House has released loose guidelines for a return to economic life that put the onus of decision-making on governors. Florida, Georgia and Texas, whose leaders have bridled at restraints, saw residents stirring at restaurants and shops. The governors of Ohio, Arizona, Rhode Island and California announced more cautious plans to slowly open businesses in a limited fashion to avoid human contact.

The strength of the economy was once Trump’s top argument for re-election. But as the outbreak and fallout of the measures to contain it have crushed businesses and workers, Trump has vacillated between calling for caution and pushing for reopenings. Epidemiologists warn that the return to commerce could result in more infections, and economists say a second shutdown if cases explode would do even worse damage than the first.

“The public is very confused,” said Harry Heiman, a clinical medicine professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “There’s been a void at the national level, and in many states, like Georgia, of leadership that is able to provide a clear, consistent message about what’s going on and about the plan is going forward.”

Long Fuse

On Sunday, Trump urged states to reopen, but also said that the coronavirus could kill as many as 100,000 people, up from a previous projection of about 60,000. Evidence suggests that after weeks of social distancing and home isolation, the U.S. has flattened the curve, with Covid-19 deaths stabilizing at about 2,000 a day. Already, almost 69,000 Americans have died.

“We have to get it back open safely, but as quickly as possible,” Trump said in a virtual town hall on Fox News.

Because of the time it takes to test patients and for severe cases to develop, outcomes in states that are aggressively reopening may not be known for weeks, said Brian Castrucci, president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation in Bethesda, Maryland, which works for public health.

“I don’t think we know yet what’s coming,” said Castrucci, an epidemiologist who has led state health departments. “Don’t go back into a burning building.”

While much of America has been little touched by the virus, there are clear indications the disease remains potent. As of Sunday, nearly 400 workers at a meatpacking plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, tested positive. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has aimed to limit the infection’s spread even as workers fall ill. And on April 27 — the day after Tennessee saw its biggest one-day spike in new diagnoses — the state opened restaurants for some dine-in business.

Late Monday, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted a death toll significantly larger than its previous modeling. It reflects a new approach that considers early easing of social-distancing policies in some states, among other factors.

“We’re entering a very new era, said Christopher Murray, director of the institute. “Different states are going to do different things,” creating complexity that prior modeling couldn’t incorporate.

An internal Homeland Security Department presentation first reported by the New York Times predicted that new cases could rise to nearly 200,000 a day by the end of May and the number of new deaths to nearly 3,000 daily. The figures are significantly higher than those provided by Trump on Sunday. The administration swiftly disavowed the presentation.

Johns Hopkins University’s public health school, whose research was the apparent basis, called the numbers “preliminary analyses.”

“There are some scenarios, including the premature relaxation of social distancing, that are likely to cause significant increases in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the United States,” Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of public health practice at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a news release.

Grading Governors

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the administration is proceeding judiciously.

“The guidelines to open up America again are a data-driven, phased approach that further the partnership with our nation’s governors and allow them to make the best on-the-ground decision for their communities,” Deere said.

But a member of Trump’s task force on opening the economy, conservative commentator Stephen Moore, released a report Monday grading governors. He called those who reopened fastest “superstars” and said the more cautious would see “body bags of businesses.”

Most top grades went to Republicans, including Georgia’s Brian Kemp, Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, who attended a video conference announcing the effort. Colorado’s Jared Polis was the only Democrat who made the superstar list after lifting a blanket stay-at-home order April 26.

“I hope we get similar marks for our work in protecting people’s health,” Polis said at a news conference.

New Jersey’s Phil Murphy and California’s Gavin Newsom both got failing grades for rigorous lockdowns; New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who has criticized Trump repeatedly but whose state is the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, got a C.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, said Monday he will allow barbershops, salons and similar businesses to reopen Friday. He said he would meet Trump on Tuesday at a Honeywell International Inc. factory in Phoenix to discuss the state’s “economic resurgence” — but also its testing needs.

Slow Start

It’s not yet clear how the public is responding to more economic freedom absent a national safety net. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Tuesday morning showed that most Americans clearly oppose the reopening of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. Majorities of those polled expressed fears that they could become infected by the coronavirus, as well as a belief that the worst of the medical crisis isn’t over.

This week, at least some consumers — as well as business owners — are proceeding with caution.

Several of Atlanta’s most prominent high-end restaurants remained closed despite Kemp’s order allowing dine-in business as of April 27.

In Texas, where restaurants were able to open to some dine-in customers May 1, results were disappointing, said Skeeter Miller, who had expected crowds at his County Line barbeque restaurants and surveyed empty parking lots instead. He said the busiest of his six stores did less than half of normal sales.

“I really felt like people were jumping to get out and go somewhere,” Miller said. “They were a lot more hesitant than I thought.”

Florida began reopening Monday, allowing retail sales in most of the state, provided stores limit indoor capacity to 25%. Governor Ron DeSantis recommended face masks, but stopped short of requiring them, and many Floridians flouted the recommendation.

Rene Wolf, proprietor of the Little Pelican Gift Shop in North Redington Beach, said she was eager to reopen the store she bought in November, shortly before the shutdown left her customerless. Shoppers floated in and out Monday, some purchasing tropical-themed face masks, though few used them.

“I haven’t even seen anybody on the beach wearing a mask, but people are still keeping their distance,” said Wolf, 54. “For the love of god, it’s too hot.”

— With assistance by Jonathan Levin, Thomas Black, Vincent Del Giudice, Justin Sink, and Brenna Goth

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