President Donald Trump laid out new guidelines on Thursday for U.S. states to emerge from a coronavirus shutdown in a staggered, three-stage approach meant to revive the U.S. economy even as the country continues to fight the pandemic.
The recommendations call on states to show a “downward trajectory” of COVID-19 cases or positive tests for the disease over 14 days before proceeding with the plan, which gradually loosens restrictions on businesses that have been shuttered to blunt the spread of the virus.
“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time,” Trump told reporters at the White House. The president had said earlier this month he wanted to reopen the economy with a “big bang.”
Phase one includes much of the current lockdown measures such as avoiding non-essential travel and not gathering in groups. But it says large venues such as restaurants, places of worship and sports venues “can operate under strict physical distancing protocols”.
If there is no evidence of a resurgence of the coronavirus, phase two allows non-essential travel to resume. The guidance says schools can reopen and bars can operate “with diminished standing-room occupancy”.
Under phase three, states which are still seeing a downward trend of symptoms and cases can allow “public interactions” with physical distancing and the unrestricted staffing of worksites. Visits to care homes and hospitals can resume and bars can increase their standing room capacity.
The plan is a set of recommendations for state governors, not orders.
In that sense, it represents a backdown by Trump, who on Monday insisted he had total authority to direct states to re-open or remain closed. The responsibility for such decisions lies with state, not federal authorities.
With the onus on governors, the plan also gives Trump political cover if everything doesn’t go well.
The president, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, has faced criticism for downplaying the seriousness of the virus in the early weeks of the outbreak.
The recommendations drew criticism from Ron Klain, who spearheaded the Obama administration’s response to Ebola and has advised former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
“This isn’t a plan. It’s barely a PowerPoint,” he said on Twitter, noting it did not include provisions to ramp up testing or set a specific standard for levels of the disease before economic opening.
Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden said testing was key to opening the country and criticized Trump’s presentation for lacking specifics.
The new guidelines effectively end, at least for some states, the 30-day federal virus mitigation rules that were meant to stay in place through the end of April.
“States that have met the criteria can move into the first phase of re-opening on Friday. Some 29 states would be in a position to re-open soon”, Trump said.
(With inputs from Reuters)