January 26, 2022

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Torn Over Reopening Economy, Trump Says He Faces ‘Biggest Decision I’ve Ever Had to Make’

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, along with Vice President Mike Pence, listens to President Donald Trump address a news conference about the coronavirus, at the White House in Washington, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, along with Vice President Mike Pence, listens to President Donald Trump address a news conference about the coronavirus, at the White House in Washington, Friday, April 3, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — As he grapples simultaneously with the most devastating public health and economic crises of a lifetime, President Donald Trump finds himself pulled in opposite directions on what to do next. The bankers, corporate executives and industrialists plead with him to reopen the country as soon as possible, while the medical experts beg for more time to curb the coronavirus.

The phone calls from his business friends compete against the television images of overwhelmed hospitals. The public health experts tell him what he is doing is working, so he should not let up yet. The economic advisers and others in his White House tell him what he has done has worked, so he should begin to figure out how to ease up. Tens of thousands more could die. Millions more could lose their jobs.

“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision,” Trump said Friday during his daily news briefing on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 18,000 Americans so far and put more than 16 million out of work. “But I would say without question it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Seizing on new estimates of a lower-than-projected death toll, the president signaled that he wanted to start resuming business on some basis after his current stay-at-home guidelines expire April 30, and he announced that he would name a task force next week to develop a plan. But he also promised to listen to public health officials cautioning against a premature move to relax limits.

“We’re not doing anything until we know this country is going to be healthy,” Trump said. “We don’t want to go back and start doing it over again.” But he added that the nation’s current paralysis was not sustainable. “You know what? Staying at home leads to death also,” he said. “It’s very traumatic for the country.”

The number of deaths worldwide from the coronavirus topped 100,000 Friday, as a surge of cases in Moscow pushed the Russian capital’s health care system to its limit. Lockdowns were extended across much of the globe heading into the Easter weekend, as countries desperately struggled to slow infections. The strain of people out of work and dependent on assistance was starting to show. A distribution of food turned into a bloody melee in a poor area of Nairobi, Kenya.

In the United States, the death toll has surpassed that of Spain, with only Italy reporting more. In Washington, lawmakers and administration officials made some progress in breaking a stalemate over a $250 billion federal infusion to replenish a fast-depleting loan program for distressed small businesses. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said that the Trump administration had agreed to bipartisan negotiations early next week.

But the central question dominating the conversation in Washington, New York and elsewhere was how long would it be until the country could begin to get back to normal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, the hardest-hit state, said any easing of restrictions would require widespread testing to cover millions of workers first, while Trump said that “you don’t need full testing” but instead concentrated screening in the most affected areas.

In actuality, the decision on when and how to reopen is not entirely Trump’s to make because he never ordered it closed. The stay-at-home edicts that have kept the vast bulk of Americans indoors were issued by governors state by state. But the president did issue nonbinding guidelines urging a pause in daily life through the end of the month. And if he were to issue new guidance saying it was safe to reopen or outlining a path toward reopening, many states would most likely follow or feel pressure from their businesses and constituents to ease up on restrictions.

New government projections presented to officials this week concluded that stay-at-home orders, school closures and social distancing have greatly reduced infections but added that lifting them after only 30 days, as the president is considering, could result in a rash of new illnesses and fatalities that would rival doing nothing to counter the pandemic.

Without any of the mitigation policies now in place, the death toll from the coronavirus could have reached 300,000, according to the projections. But if the 30-day stay-at-home guideline is lifted, the death toll could reach 200,000, even if schools remain closed until summer, 25% of the country continues to work from home and some social distancing continues.

Using the demand for ventilators as a stand-in for serious coronavirus infection rates, the model foresees a modest bump immediately after stay-at-home orders are lifted and a major new increase in infections about 70 days after a shelter order is lifted, peaking after 120 days. The projections, dated Thursday, were prepared by the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and obtained by The New York Times.

These numbers fueling the projections may already be out of date. Forecasts accepted by the White House that once estimated at least 100,000 deaths in the United States have now been revised to about 60,000 thanks to aggressive social distancing. But if the numbers are off, the direction and increases may be consistent.

The government models show a rise in demand for ventilators 120 days after lifting stay-at-home restrictions that would be more severe than if the United States had never issued such orders in the first place and instead relied simply on school closures, sending people home to telework and directing the public to socially distance.

At his briefing Friday, Trump said he was not aware of those forecasts, but aides said he had interpreted the decreasing death projection to mean that his health advisers may have been overly pessimistic.

The president cited the 60,000 estimated death toll as evidence of progress. “I think we’ll be substantially under that number,” he said of the earlier 100,000 forecast. “Hard to believe that if you have 60,000, you can never be happy, but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told.”

But his public health advisers took a more cautious approach. “As encouraging as they are, we have not reached the peak,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House pandemic coordinator, said of the latest figures. She noted that without universal testing, experts were seeing only the most serious cases. “Is this the tip of the iceberg, or is this half the iceberg or three-quarters of the iceberg that we’ve seen to date?” she said.

Five administration officials said it was highly unlikely that Trump would extend the guidelines beyond April 30, adding that he would be more likely to find a way to announce some lifting of quarantine measures, even if it might not be a full flip-the-lightswitch reopening of the country.

Trump has been having conversations, both formally and informally, in recent weeks with business leaders like Michael Corbat, chief executive of Citigroup, and Brian Moynihan, chief executive of Bank of America, about how to support the economy and when it might be able to reopen.

Many of those discussions have been facilitated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has fielded calls from executives like Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, looking for a road map to when a semblance of normalcy could return, although some people close to the discussions said that Schwarzman and Steven Roth, a real estate investor close to Trump, have not been aggressive as others.

Other business executives have gone through Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Paul Tudor Jones made an impassioned push to reopen the economy on a conference call organized by Kushner several weeks ago, these people said, and investor Nelson Peltz was said to be influential in Trump’s since-aborted plan to begin reopening by Easter.

Lobbying groups have become more vocal about the need for the administration to create a plan for the reopening of the economy.

“The longer we stay shut down, the worse off people will be, and the harder it will be getting the economy going again and getting people jobs so they can go back to work,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth. “What we need now is a plan for when we reopen the government, because the plan curve has been flattened.”

Some business leaders have been particularly frustrated that the government is not being realistic about the economic consequences of the fight against the coronavirus. They note that there are many health risks and that not all of them warrant shutting down the economy.

Jacob Wintersteen, a real estate developer in Texas and the finance chairman for the Houston area for the state’s Republican Party, said businesses should have the right to operate if they see fit despite the risks. “People in front of my face are watching their businesses be destroyed by our choice of the cure,” he said.

The president’s economic advisers have been laying the groundwork for reopening the economy. Larry Kudlow, chairman of the National Economic Council, said this week on the Fox Business Network that he could envision returning to work on a rolling basis within the next four to eight weeks. Mnuchin said on CNBC that it could happen as soon as May 1.

However, people close to Mnuchin have suggested that a more gradual timeline for reopening the economy could begin in May based on the availability of coronavirus testing and regional case numbers. Kushner and Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser, likewise have talked about opening in stages as quickly as possible, fearing that banks will start having real problems if the lockdown continues through May.

Economists say that lifting restrictions, particularly on nonessential businesses, will restore a limited amount of activity to an economy that is currently in a free fall.

But some of the president’s advisers like Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, have argued that, ultimately, business leaders will not wait for health professionals or administration officials once new infections and deaths start to decrease and may simply reopen their firms.

Many experts caution that growth will be slow when it returns because people will be wary of resuming normal activities before the country has far more extensive testing.

Without widespread confidence in returning to work or other public activities, any economic recovery could be tepid. A survey of business leaders and market participants this week by S&P Global found that only 12% of respondents believed the economy would make a “quick complete recovery” soon.

A quick restart, though, could carry risks for the economy. If the government tells Americans to return to normal life and infections rise again, that could wipe out consumer optimism and lead to a longer, more damaging recession.

“It’s not clear to me that the pandemic’s direct effect on the economy will end in June” or anytime close to that, said Karl Smith, vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation in Washington. “Even after official restrictions are lifted, lots of people may be uncertain about jumping back into ordinary life. Companies may be uncertain about putting their workers at risk.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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