WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump has said he wants the United States back to normal and re-opened for business by Easter, April 12, despite the soaring coronavirus infection rate in the New York metropolitan area and warnings from public health experts that the worst is yet to come.
"You'll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time," said Mr Trump at a Fox News town hall televised on on Tuesday (March 24). "I don't want the cure to be worse than the problem itself...you can destroy a country this way, by closing it down."
But he later softened his stance at an evening press briefing by saying that "large sections" of the country could be opened up instead of all of it. "My first priority is always the health and safety of the American people," said Mr Trump.
A growing number of states in America have closed non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, leading to mass layoffs and distressed industries and bringing much of the economy to a grinding halt.
While the President does not have the last word on policy as states can determine much of their own, easing restrictions by Easter would create risks to the nation's health and markets, said analysts.
Not enough was known on immunity to the coronavirus, infection rates and transmission, and so there was just no way of knowing how successful Mr Trump's preference of targeted measures allowing more economic activity could be, said Eurasia Group analysts in a research note on Tuesday.
"Until those areas are filled in, the main risk is the biggest one - continued rise in fatalities. Obviously, this president and all members of his administration seek to avoid that. A concern, however, is that the president's increased reluctance to hear opposing views could lead to suboptimal policy," they wrote.
Even as the Trump administration weighed the tradeoffs of keeping restrictions in place, the World Health Organisation warned that the US had the potential to become the new epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic due to the "very large acceleration" in cases there.
Top health officials said at Tuesday's press briefing that they were deeply concerned about the New York hotspot, urging everyone who recently left the metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
More than half - 56 per cent - of all the new confirmed coronavirus cases in the US are from the New York metropolitan area, and 31 per cent of all US patients who died are from the same region, said White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx.
About one in 1,000 people in the New York area are infected with the virus, about eight to 10 times higher than in other places, said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci.
New York state has the highest number of cases in the US by far. It has 25,600 cases confirmed and at least 210 deaths, out of the country's more than 53,600 cases and nearly 700 deaths.
The city of New York is gearing up in preparation for an anticipated surge in patients, adding hospital beds and mobile testing sites as the state's governor Andrew Cuomo warned that the pandemic would peak in the next 14 to 21 days.
The state needs 40,000 intensive care unit beds with ventilators - much more than the 3,000 to 4,000 it currently had, Mr Cuomo said on Tuesday as he called on the federal government to send New York more ventilators from its stockpile.
If not, Mr Cuomo said: "You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die."
While business leaders publicly urged the government to consider lifting some restrictions, experts were alarmed at the prospect of easing off the brakes too early, even as they acknowledged the dilemma that policymakers faced.
The American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association urged the American public to continue to stay home to buy time for physicians to get the necessary equipment and resources to combat the virus.
"Staying at home in this urgent moment is our best defense to turn the tide against Covid-19. Physicians, nurses and health care workers are staying at work for you. Please stay at home for us," they said in an open letter.
Center for Global Development senior policy fellow Jeremy Konyndyk on Twitter cited recent studies from Harvard University and the Imperial College of London, which used models to project that temporary one-off social distancing measures would delay, and not avert, a surge in cases.
"Lifting those measures before we are ready just puts us back at square one," he said.
"What the President is contemplating is truly dangerous. Even now, the situation developing in New York City seems on course to eclipse Wuhan and potentially northern Italy. Easing off the brakes too early just guarantees more US cities reaching that same point," he added.