A handful of mostly southern U.S. states will begin loosening economic restrictions this week in the midst of a still virulent pandemic, providing a live-fire test of whether the country’s communities can start to reopen without triggering a surge that may force them to close again.
The Republican governors of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Ohio all announced on Monday they would begin peeling back the curbs on commerce and social activity aimed at stopping the coronavirus outbreak over the next two weeks. Colorado’s Democratic governor said on Tuesday he would open retail stores on May 1.
Georgia has been hardest-hit of these states, with 19,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths, including a dense cluster in a rural area in the state’s southwest.
Amid a national debate over how to fight the virus while mitigating the deep economic toll, these moves are the first to test the borders of resuming “normal” life, though none of the states has met basic White House guidelines unveiled last week of two weeks of declining cases before a state should reopen.
Republican President Donald Trump, who has been eager to end a lockdown that has crushed the U.S. economy in an election year, tweeted his apparent support on Wednesday morning for the governors who are loosening physical distancing guidelines that had shut businesses and largely confined residents to their homes.
“States are safely coming back. Our Country is starting to OPEN FOR BUSINESS again,” he tweeted, though it is not yet clear how safe it will be.
The decision to ease restrictions has pitted some business owners and others keen to get the economy up and running again against a wary public and health officials warning of a potential resurgence in cases.
“It’s a matter of concern, this whole idea of opening up. It’s based on non-science generated parameters,” Dr. Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told Reuters in an interview.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed a majority of Americans believed stay-at-home orders should remain in place until public health officials determine lifting them is safe, despite the damage to the U.S. economy. It’s a finding in line with most other polls on the same subject, despite significant media coverage in the U.S. for a smattering of protests against stay-at-home orders, most which have numbered in the low hundreds.
‘Unprecedented burden on civil liberties’: Barr
Deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, top 45,150 countrywide as cases climbed to more than 810,000, according to a Reuters tally.
Tensions between Trump and local officials have risen over the U.S. government’s role in ramping up testing — which infectious disease experts say is key to enable a safe reopening — and his stated sympathy for protesters feeling economic pain.
WATCH l ‘Give me liberty or give me death’:
The president’s sentiment was seemingly echoed by U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday.
“These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now. You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” Barr told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
“We didn’t adopt them as the comprehensive way of dealing with this disease,” he said.
Barr added the Justice Department is closely examining the various stay-at-home orders.
“And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them,” Barr said, without specifying which states he believed fit that description.
Testing an ‘enormous undertaking’: Cuomo
Experts say the United States, with a population of nearly 330 million people, should test three million per week to get an accurate sense of the virus’s reach. States have tested only one-third of that number in the past seven days, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by The Atlantic.
“We’ve got to get more testing done before we make any public health decisions,” said Lushniak.
There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.– CDC director Robert Redfield
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged from a meeting with Trump at the White House on Tuesday and said the president had agreed to help his state procure chemical reagents and other supplies needed to double testing capacity.
The governor said New York would try to double the number of people it tests each day — including diagnostic and antibody tests — to 40,000, characterizing the task as an “enormous undertaking” that would take weeks.
Even as states move ahead with plans to reopen, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned a second wave of the coronavirus could be worse if it coincides with the start of seasonal flu season.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with the Washington Post published on Tuesday.
Former FDA chief questions Georgia plan
Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor, said his plan to reopen balances public health with the need to reignite the state’s economy, saying physical distancing rules would remain in place. The order supercedes anything cities or counties have in place, he said Tuesday.
“Don’t go out,” Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, a Democrat, told residents of the eastern Georgia city during a news conference. “People will not come here if they think our businesses are not safe.”
Kemp said he would allow a broad swathe of businesses from barbershops to tattoo parlors to reopen on Friday under enhanced rules for hygiene, distancing among employees and use of masks.
“Gyms, nail salons, bowling alleys, hair salons, tattoo parlors — it feels like they collected, you know, a list of the businesses that were most risky and decided to open those first,” Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, told CNBC on Tuesday.
On Monday, movie theaters, restaurants and private clubs in Georgia will be allowed to open, with some restrictions.