US President Donald Trump said his administration was close to completing guidelines for states to reopen parts of the economy closed last month to slow the spread of Covid-19, and asserted “total authority” to order such moves.
“I’ve been having many discussions with my team and top experts and we’re very close to completing a plan to open our country, hopefully, even ahead of schedule,” Trump said at a White House coronavirus task force briefing, in which the US leader lashed out more vociferously than usual at negative media reports.
Current federal guidelines have the restrictions in place until April 30.
“We will soon finalise new and very important guidelines to give governors the information they need to start safely opening their states. My administration’s plan and corresponding guidelines will give the American people the confidence they need to begin returning to normal life.”
Opening up the country “is the decision for the president of the United States”, said Trump. “That being said, we will work with the states. If they don’t do a good job, I will come in so quickly.”
Meanwhile, Trump denied that he had any plan to remove National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr Anthony Fauci from his position in the task force after the infectious disease expert made statements on Sunday in a CNN interview that had fuelled the speculation of his possible dismissal by the president.
Monday’s statements came as the US recorded a daily death toll of 1,509 and some hotspots, including the New York City area, were starting to show signs that the spread of Covid-19 may have peaked.
Various levels of government are now weighing the need to keep businesses and schools closed to contain the disease against gradually reopening businesses in cities and states to spur economic recovery.
Shortly before the briefing began, in an interview on CNN, New York governor Andrew Cuomo responded to Trump’s comment about him being the authority to announce the reopening, that “you can have a legal debate of whom has the authority to open the economy”.
“Before we get to the legal issue, I think people want to hear the plan,” Cuomo said.
“The president wants to stand up and say: ‘I have a model’. God bless you,” he added. “But let’s see the model first.”
Earlier on Monday, Cuomo announced the formation of a regional working group to map out a reopening plan along with the governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island. Cuomo’s state has become the epicentre of the outbreak, accounting for more than a third of all US cases and 40 per cent of deaths.
The outbreak has so far infected more than 682,000 people and killed nearly 25,000 in the US.
Meanwhile, the governors of the three west coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, also said on Monday they had reached an agreement to work together to reopen their economies.
Trump has made it clear that he wants to have the country reopened soon. In March he had said he wanted to get the country working again by Easter, but backed down after top infectious disease doctors, including Fauci, said the epidemic might be reaching its US apex around that time.
World Health Organisation (WHO) officials on Monday cautioned that the lifting of any lockdowns could only occur if a country had sufficient contact tracing capabilities.
“The way down is much slower than the way up,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing in Geneva, referring to the contagion’s epidemic curve.
“That means control measures must be lifted slowly and with control – it cannot happen all at once. Control measures can only be lifted if the right public health measures are in place, including significant capacity for contact tracing.”
To support countries making these decisions, the WHO will be publishing its updated strategic advice on Tuesday, including criteria for lifting restrictions such as the status of the virus and the health system’s capacities to detect, isolate and treat cases and trace every contact.
Fauci, who is the government’s top medical specialist, has said repeatedly that “the virus will decide when the country is to open back up”.
He expressed that view again on Sunday during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union. Fauci also said “no one is going to deny” that lives could have been saved if the US government had implemented broad containment measures earlier.
On Sunday, Trump retweeted a call to fire Fauci, a veteran of six presidential administrations.
The tweet, written by Republican DeAnna Lorraine who is running for Congress, said: “Fauci is now saying that had Trump listened to the medical experts earlier he could’ve saved more lives. Fauci was telling people on February 29 that there was nothing to worry about and it posed no threat to the US public at large.”
Lorraine’s tweet included a hashtag that said: “Time to #FireFauci.”
Fauci “is coming under attack from the right-wing critics. The president obviously has to take into account other things and measuring and balancing the risk of opening up even on a slow basis,” said Bill Cohen, former US defence secretary under president Bill Clinton on Monday SiriusXM's The Joe Madison Show.
“Thank God we’ve got Fauci there,” Cohen said. “Follow them, follow the science and follow Fauci. And the fact that he’s coming under attack tells you that he is getting to the point.”
Trump spent about 20 minutes excoriating reporters present for suggesting that his administration moved too slowly to respond to the spread of Covid-19 in the US, and ran a short video of news footage highlighting comments by more than a dozen US governors and other political leaders, who praised the US leader for his efforts.
Trump singled out The New York Times, apparently for a lengthy feature the publication ran on Saturday, which recounted a reluctance on his part to put social distancing measures in place throughout the country.
The in-depth feature, citing “dozens of interviews with current and former officials and a review of emails and other records” went into detail about the considerations that Trump took into account, mostly economic, in deciding to wait until mid-March to announce widespread mitigation measures in the US.
Trump repeatedly cited his January 31 decision to block travellers from China, and said he “did everything right” in his response so far.
The only thing worse than starting something and failing… is not starting something.