Trump issues three-phase guidelines to reopen US

Trump's recommendations were a far cry from his previous calls for a sudden end to social distancing measures

US President Donald Trump issued a three-phase plan to reopen the country and economy on Thursday, while leaving the ultimate decisions on when to move ahead with it to the states' governors. Facing re-election in November, Trump has been impatient to lift a lockdown that has thrown 22 million people out of work in the world's largest economy, although plenty of leaders at home and abroad fear that hastily easing restrictions will cause more people to die.

"Our experts say the curve has flattened and the peak is behind us," Trump said at a press conference, stressing that each state would act individually, based on its own data.

Trump vacillated between offering a cautious science-based approach and stating that the country "must have a working economy and we want to get it back very, very quickly." His recommendations were also a far cry from his previous calls for a sudden end to social distancing measures - as well as his earlier call for the nation to be fully open in time for Easter on 12 April.

Instead, according to the White House plan, states would enter phase one after meeting core criteria on showing declines in infections for 14 days and meeting sufficient medical and testing capacity in their territory before they may transition to the next step.

Initial reopening would mean large venues could open and elective surgeries resume, with a second phase seeing schools and bars reopening and a relaxation of restrictions on non-essential travel.

Finally, phase three would see life could return to some version of normal, though basic social distancing would remain in place.

Trump's guidelines allow some - mostly rural - states to enter the first phase in the coming days.

"A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution," Trump said, warning that keeping large chunks of the economy closed would have broad negative repercussions - including on health.

However, social distancing and strict hygiene would remain a part of life for some time, he said. It is unclear whether the states will abide by Trump's guidelines or if they will form their own plans. Three separate regional coalitions of governors on the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest have formed working groups to coordinate their reopening.

Some areas with large urban and largely Democratic populations, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, have extended stay-at-home orders for weeks, while some lesser-hit states, which are mostly rural and Republican, have resisted and have not signalled any extension of shutdown measures.

Worries persist that the lack of coronavirus testing capacity will hinder a quick reopening, both due to concerns over resurgent outbreaks and because people will lack confidence to resume their usual routines. Trump claimed that there is sufficient data and testing to handle any emerging concerns.

"If we see a hotspot developing we've learned a lot, we'll be able to suppress it, whack it," he said.

Anthony Fauci, the top public health official dealing with the US coronavirus outbreak, cautioned there is a risk of setbacks as part of the return to normality. Thus, the plan to reopen the economy was designed with flexibility to reintroduce stricter measures to again stem contagion, he said.

"There may be some setbacks. Let's face it. This is uncharted water," he said. "We may have to pull back a little," before moving ahead again with opening up the country and economy, he said.

The US leads the world in reported cases and deaths at over 667,000 and over 32,000 respectively. In New York, the country's current outbreak epicentre, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday extended the state's shutdown to stem the spread of coronavirus until 15 May, meaning all non-essential workers will remain at home and non-essential businesses are shuttered.

Cuomo is spearheading the coalition of states on the East Coast, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

"We've controlled the beast. We brought the rate of spread down," Cuomo said during his daily press conference. He cited a decreasing rate of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and intubations.

"What happens after then? I don't know," he said of the 15 May extension. "We will see depending on what the data shows."

Cuomo said the state needed to strengthen the health-care system and conduct widespread testing and contact tracing, for which "we need the federal government to work with us." 

California, with over 40 million residents, is part of a coalition of Western states that will coordinate their reopening. California Governor Gavin Newsom has said his state will need to be able to adequately provide widespread testing among other measures before being able to lessen public health restrictions.

Governor Kristi Noem who runs the rural state of South Dakota has declined to issue a stay-at-home order in her state, saying voluntary compliance with guidelines has been sufficient, despite a coronavirus outbreak at a meat-processing plant there.

The evolving dynamic between Trump and the states and when and how to reopen comes as a vaccine is still 12 to 18 months away, according to government estimates, and parts of the US have not been infected. Public health officials worry that relaxing the shutdown measures too soon could lead to second surge in cases.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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