Coronavirus: US faces mounting dilemma on reopening safely

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The US Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved US$484 billion in fresh relief for the US economy and hospitals hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, sending the measure to the House of Representatives for final passage later this week.
Healthcare workers stand in the street in counter-protest to people who demanded the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver on April 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - A woman leaning out of a pickup truck in downtown Denver, Colorado last Sunday brandishing a sign saying "LAND of the FREE" and yelling at two health workers in their hospital scrubs and masks briefly blocking anti-lockdown protesters, has come to represent a mounting backlash to restrictions, as well as the political fault line, of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The scene captured in stills and on video has come to represent a mounting backlash to restrictions, as well as the political fault line of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The protests have largely been organised by right-wing groups who form part of the President's political base.

People are getting "very anxious" and "want to make money" President Donald Trump told journalists on Tuesday during the daily Covid-19 briefing at the White House.

Meanwhile on Tuesday in Wisconsin, Republican state legislatures took the state's Democratic Governor Tony Evers to court to stop his administration from keeping businesses and schools closed through May.

And in Washington DC, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would support legal action against states that continue to impose strict social distancing rules even after coronavirus cases begin to subside.

"The idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest. I'm not saying it wasn't justified. I'm not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it's very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood," Mr Barr said.

Current federal guidelines on social distancing expire on May 1.

The White House has released guidelines on opening up, laying down conditions for a phased return to business.

As fears of prolonged massive unemployment grow, and in the face of the small but widespread protests, some states have begun to lift restrictions on social and business activity, and may lift more restrictions earlier than May 1.

Florida and Texas for instance, are opening some beaches.

Epidemiologists have warned of the dangers of the virus spreading quickly on the back of a premature return to business, especially in the absence of optimum, comprehensive testing and contact tracing.

The Federal government has pledged to ramp up capacity but it is also saying state governments need to do it themselves. The states say they cannot do it without Federal help.

"The chances of spreading (the virus) are just too high," Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, professor at the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania told MSNBC.

"We are just not there yet," he said, warning against prematurely opening up.

"It's a very tough issue, it's a very emotional, very human dilemma, between people getting jobs and people staying alive, between watching people suffer in joblessness and watching people suffer in hospitals," Dr Paul Sullivan, a professor at the United States' National Defense University, told The Straits Times.

On Tuesday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, who is allowing some establishments to open, acknowledged the likelihood of infections going up, but said the state was better equipped to deal with them.

He has come under fire from the state's Democrats for singling out bowling alleys, gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlours to open this Friday.

Until a vaccine is found - which will take at least a year if not more - the reality is that returning to a pre-pandemic norm is an impossible dream.

Behavioural changes will have to be sustained to a significant degree in order to avoid spurring outbreaks, experts say.

From schools to restaurants to international supply chains, life will not quite be the same.

The White House's guidelines for the first phase of a return to business include social distancing in restaurants, for instance. No restaurants are sure how to go about this.

While restaurants in suburbia may have a lot of space, those in cities like New York usually have far less. Home delivery services have kept many restaurants afloat and may become the norm rather than an add-on.

"New safety codes are a whole new Pandora's box," MrDavid Chang, founder of Momofuku Restaurant Group which has over a dozen units around the US, told the journal Politico in an online interview livestreamed on Monday.

There is no national protocol for food handling, he noted.

Asked about safety issues for businesses such as hair and nail salons and tattoo parlours on Tuesday, Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said: "If there's a way that people can social distance and do those things, then they can do those things."

"I don't know how, but people are very creative," she said.

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