Trump nudges nation to reopen
By Zeke Miller
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — For weeks, the Trump administration played up the dangers of the coronavirus as it sought to convince Americans to disrupt their lives and stay home. Now, as President Donald Trump aims for a swift nationwide reopening, he faces a new challenge: Convincing people it's safe to come out and resume their normal lives.
It's a defining question for a cloistered nation — and a political imperative for Trump, whose reelection likely rides on the pace of an economic rebound.
Can the country move beyond a crippling fear of the virus and return to some modified version of its old routines, doing what's possible to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, but acknowledging that it may be a fact of life for years to come.
“We need to create the kind of confidence in America that makes it so that everybody goes back to work,” said Kevin Hassett, a White House adviser and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. “And that confidence is going to require testing and confidence that your workplace is a healthy place, but also confidence in the economy.”
At the White House, officials believe they've entered a new chapter of the pandemic response, moving from crisis mode to sustained mitigation and management.
It began last Thursday with the release of guidelines to governors for how to safely reopen their states. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence celebrated Americans for successfully “flattening the curve” of the epidemic. A day later, a phalanx of the administration's top medical officials sought to reassure the nation that there were plenty of tests available to safely begin easing restrictions.
It's a sharp shift in rhetoric after Trump and allies stressed the threat of an “invisible enemy” to convince people to abide by social distancing recommendations. The American people have also been scarred by the daunting death toll and images of body bags piled up in refrigerated trailers. Moving from fear to acceptance will take confidence in government, medical professionals and businesses at a time when faith in those institutions is low. White House aides say restoring confidence will require the same “whole-of-America” approach that slowed the virus spread.
“It's one thing for government to say, 'OK, it's safe to go out,''' New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “If people don't believe it's safe, they're not going to go.”
While there have been isolated protests in states aimed at lifting aggressive stay-at-home measures, most Americans don't believe it will be safe to ease the restrictions anytime soon, according to a new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Trump predicted earlier this month that the economy would take off like a “rocket ship once we get back to business.” But experts say the recovery will be far slower.
“It'll be a very gradual process regardless of what a governor says or the president says,” said Dr. Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis. He said the history of lockdowns, particularly the quarantine of more than 25,000 people around Toronto in 2003 to slow the spread of SARS, shows that it will take weeks, even months, for people to develop the confidence to resume normal activity.
Blendon also warned that a predicted second wave of COVID-19 could reverse any gains made in the interim.
It's not just government, but individual businesses that will need to persuade employees and consumers that it's safe to return, once they decide to reopen.
“We are not going to be a vector of death and suffering,” said Savannah, Georgia, gym owner Mark Lebos. He said it would be professional negligence to reopen his business, even as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced that gyms and salons can reopen this week.
Delta Airlines when they CEO Ed Bastian on Wednesday warned his employees to be prepared for a “choppy, sluggish recovery even after the virus is contained.”
The White House says it expects businesses “will advertise to the public” about the safety measures they are putting in place when they reopen, said Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council. He said the White House is also considering asking Congress to provide liability protection for employers in case their workers or customers fall sick. “We want small businesses to have some confidence that if they do reopen, they'll stay open,” Kudlow said.
A sign on the window at a 7-Eleven store reads, “Now Hiring,” as an employee inside the store wears a mask and gloves while mopping the floor amid the coronavirus health crisis, Wednesday in Dallas. [TONY GUTIERREZ/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]