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Trump Says Parts of U.S. Could Go Back to Work in a Few Weeks

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/26/2020 Rebecca Ballhaus, Stephanie Armour
a man standing in front of a sign © Kholood Eid for The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—President Trump said restrictions on economic activity could be lifted in some parts of the country but not others as his administration works to develop a plan for how Americans could return to work in a few weeks without exacerbating the spread of the new coronavirus in the U.S.

“It’s time. People want to get back to work,” Mr. Trump said in a briefing Wednesday. He said that “large sections” of the country could return to work far sooner than others, but that New York has a ‘number of very tough weeks ahead.” The president added that “I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily.”

Mr. Trump in recent days has repeatedly signaled his interest in reviving the economy within the coming weeks, saying Tuesday that he hoped to do so by Easter, which falls on April 12—just under a month after the White House issued guidelines advising Americans to practice social distancing and avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more.

But the federal government’s ability to force the reopening of the economy is limited, as much of that power rests with state governors and mayors.

Mr. Trump’s timeline also is considerably shorter than what many health experts, including some in his own administration, have said will be necessary to blunt the spread of coronavirus across the U.S. and keep the nation’s health care system from being overwhelmed.

The president claimed in a tweet Wednesday that the news media was pressuring him to keep much of the economy closed to hurt his re-election chances in November. 

White House advisers and public health experts are developing proposals that could include workplace testing of employees and intensified contact tracing to curb the spread of the infection, according to people familiar with the planning. Their goal is to release a plan before Easter. Officials are also considering implementing more widespread and targeted testing in areas of the country where there are fewer cases.

But it isn’t clear the U.S. currently has the testing capacity to implement such measures. State and local health labs would need more federal help to establish specific reporting sites that act as sentinels to know how fast or far the virus is spreading.

Even if Mr. Trump moves to relax the federal government’s social distancing guidelines next month, his actions may have a limited effect.

While the Trump administration has issued guidelines urging Americans to stay home, the most severe restrictions nationwide have come from governors, who have ordered nonessential businesses to close in at least 24 states and have imposed restrictions on those businesses in a dozen more. Nineteen states plan to or already require residents to stay home. Federal guidelines don’t trump state restrictions.

The result could be an even further decentralized patchwork of guidelines across the nation, which public-health experts say will make it harder to combat the virus’s spread. The U.S., because of its decentralized structure of government and health care systems, has faced greater hurdles than some Asian countries in implementing rigorous measures to test and quarantine citizens.

“A patchwork approach is functionally a least-common-denominator approach, which is a huge problem,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the U.S. government’s response to international disasters under the Obama administration. “In the absence of uniform standards and robust surveillance, we are vulnerable to governors taking risks in their states that end up endangering other states as well.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said the administration is “evaluating critical data to determine next steps” and that the president remains in close contact with governors. “The goal is for America to be healthy, prosperous, and again open for business, and we remain committed to reaching that goal in partnership with state and local leaders,” he said.

Mr. Trump has faced pressure from business leaders and some of his own advisers to reopen the economy soon, as uncertainty about the pandemic has sent the stock market reeling in recent weeks, and business closures have caused millions to lose their jobs. “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” Mr. Trump said this week.

Health experts in the administration have urged more caution. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said it will be at least several weeks before the country can reopen and on Tuesday described the Easter timeline as “flexible.”

Governors in both parties rejected the Easter timeline the president offered and said they planned to chart their own course. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been by far the hardest hit by the virus, stressed that the federal government was offering suggestions, not decrees. “They call them guidelines because they are guidelines,” he said at a briefing Wednesday. “We’ll come up with a plan that works for New York.”

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last week ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay at home except for essential activities, said it would be “misleading to represent” that California would reopen by Easter.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, tweeted that he was looking forward to the day when the economy could reopen, but “it’s not yet here.”

Some states have also imposed penalties for violating state guidelines aimed at slowing the virus’s spread. In Virginia, companies can lose operating licenses or face misdemeanor charges if they violate state guidelines. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, made it a misdemeanor to open or shop at certain retail businesses such as hair salons, gyms and fitness studios and theaters.

Public health experts say it could take months, if not years, before life returns to normal. They say the U.S. is woefully behind on the type of widespread testing and quarantine measures adopted in Singapore and South Korea that were successful at reducing spread of the virus. They also say that reopening too soon could overwhelm hospitals, endanger health-care workers and fuel the virus’s spread in states where it isn’t prevalent now.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned in a briefing Wednesday that in the absence of necessary preparations, the virus could resurge once restrictions are eased. “The last thing any country needs is to open schools and businesses, only to be forced to close them again because of a resurgence,” he said.

Another question is the level of control the president can exert over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Mr. Trump has stressed that he will listen to advice from his administration’s health experts on when to reopen the economy, but that he will render the final decision on the timeline.

Ned Price, who was an adviser to former President Barack Obama, said that while Mr. Trump has authority over CDC guidelines, the agency has traditionally been granted a level of independence by previous presidents. That practice, however, is dictated “not by laws but by norms,” which Mr. Trump has made a habit of shattering, he said.

Americans around the country in recent days received a postcard from the federal government outlining the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing. The front of the postcard reads: “President Trump’s coronavirus guidelines for America.” His first piece of advice: “Listen and follow the directions of your STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.”

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at and Stephanie Armour at


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