Coronavirus: Trump leaves it to US states to decide when to reopen in phases

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US President Donald Trump proposed guidelines on Thursday under which state governors could act to revive the US economy from its coronavirus shutdown in a staggered, three-stage process.
Trump holds a ceremonial key during an event "celebrating America's truckers" at the White House, April 16, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Thursday (April 16) outlined federal guidelines for states to reopen businesses and ease social distancing rules in three phases, a day after he said that the United States as a whole had made it past the peak of its coronavirus cases.

The recommendations ultimately leave the decision to state governors and local officials, although there are criteria that a state must meet before starting its return to normalcy.

Said Mr Trump at his daily briefing on Thursday: "A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution. To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy."

"We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time. And some states will be able to open up sooner than others," he added. "If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that."

States already in good shape could open very soon, while others that needed to remain closed would be allowed to do so, Mr Trump said without naming states.

America had more than 678,000 confirmed cases and over 34,000 deaths reported as of April 17.

But the death toll and case count is not rising evenly everywhere in the US, a diverse and geographically large country where the more metropolitan East and West Coast states have been hit harder by the coronavirus than rural states in the Midwest.

Mr Trump said that nearly 30 per cent of the country reported no new cases in the last seven days.

Under the guidelines, states or regions should have a downward trajectory of documented cases, or a shrinking percentage of positive tests, within a 14-day period before beginning the first phase of reopening.

Hospitals also should be treating all patients without crisis care and have robust testing programmes for health workers who are at risk, among other recommendations.

In the first phase, elderly people and those with serious underlying health conditions should continue to stay home, while non-essential travel should be minimised and socialising in groups of more than 10 should be avoided.

Large venues such as restaurants, cinemas, sporting venues, and places of worship can operate under strict physical distancing protocols, although schools should still remain closed.

Elective surgeries can also resume.

States without a rebound in cases can move on to the second phase, where non-essential travel can resume and groups of more than 50 people should be avoided.

Individuals in public should still keep as far away from others as possible, while employers should still close common areas and encourage working from home.

Under Phase Three, vulnerable people can resume going out in public but should practice physical distancing, while large venues can operate under limited physical distancing rules.

The US is one of several countries working on when and how to reopen their economies, and groups of neighbouring states have been getting together to come up with regional plans for doing so.

Experts welcomed the flexibility given to states, given worries earlier in the week that Mr Trump would pressure states to reopen quickly.

New York, for instance, hired consultants to draw up a plan for reopening the state that could thwart expected pressure from Mr Trump to move more rapidly, state government sources told Reuters on Wednesday.

Americans mostly reckon that the worst is yet to come and are broadly worried about opening up too early rather than too late, a Pew Research Center poll published on Thursday found, although opinions vary slightly depending on politics and income level.

Two-thirds of respondents said they were more concerned that state governments would lift restrictions on public activity too quickly, compared to the third who were more worried the easing would not come quickly enough.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to prefer keeping social distancing rules in place, while higher income Democrats are far more concerned than those with lower incomes about lifting restrictions too early.

Shuttered businesses have left millions of Americans abruptly out of work.

But the epidemic has also highlighted a class divide between higher-income Americans who can work from home and essential workers who must still show up at their workplaces, and often make less money.

Multiple protests against stay-home restrictions in several states this week, including in Michigan and Ohio, were also broadly attended by voters on the right.

Director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security Tom Inglesby said that the White House plan had some good elements but were missing others.

"It should be made clear that same day diagnostic testing capacity for all patients with Covid-19 symptoms and rapid and strong contact tracing capacity in a given state are also gating criteria for reopening," said Dr Inglesby on Twitter.

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