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States Move to Coordinate on Reopening Plans

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/14/2020 Jennifer Calfas, Andrew Restuccia, Joseph De Avila
a man and a woman standing in front of a window © joy malone/Reuters

Two groups of governors said they would coordinate efforts to gradually reopen businesses and ease social-distancing guidelines, even as President Trump said he had the ultimate authority over when to restart the economy.

The announcements by the governors on the East and West Coasts come after a decline in daily U.S. infection rates in recent days has prompted some officials to express cautious optimism that infections may be hitting a plateau as mitigation efforts take hold.

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Confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, rose above 581,000 in the U.S. on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In the 24 hours ended at 8 p.m Monday, 1,584 people died from the coronavirus and there were 26,366 new cases, down slightly from highs of more than 2,100 and 35,000, respectively, last week, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

The governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island said they were creating a working group of public health, economic and government officials from each state to develop a regional plan. The group’s members will soon get to work, but they haven’t set a timeline for when they plan to reopen their economies.

Looking to balance financial worries with fears that easing lockdowns could spur new outbreaks of the disease, governors warned the return to normalcy wouldn’t arrive all at once.

“There is going to be no epiphany,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “There will be no headline that says: ‘Hallelujah, It’s Over.’ ”

Across the country, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced a “Western States Pact,” agreeing that they would jointly reopen their economies based on certain health outcomes. They laid out four goals they would focus on, including the development of a system for testing, tracking and isolating the virus.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his staff would also release on Tuesday a more detailed, state-specific approach to reopening the economy. And Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson unveiled a new advisory committee to help set criteria and make recommendations for social-distancing measures after infections in the state slow.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, sought to centralize control over the coronavirus response in the U.S., saying the federal government—not governors—will make the final decision about sending Americans back to work and reopening closed businesses.

“When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be,” Mr. Trump said at the White House press briefing Monday.

“You have a couple bands of Democrat governors but they will agree to it. The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we’re talking about is total,” he added.

Stung by criticism of his response to the virus, President Trump used the news conference to defend his handling of the outbreak.

The president made the case that he took the outbreak seriously, acted quickly and listened to the advice of the experts in his administration. At one point, staff dimmed the lights in the White House briefing room and showed journalists a video that featured governors praising the administration’s response. The president said the video was produced in part by his social media director, Dan Scavino.

“Everything we did was right,” Mr. Trump said at one point, explaining that he gets along with governors. He later sought to shift blame to states: “Governors should have had ventilators. They chose not to have them.”

The president didn’t turn to his regular update on the state of the coronavirus response until about 40 minutes into the briefing.

The president has grown increasingly frustrated about the media coverage of the pandemic, administration officials said. News organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, have reported on the administration’s halting response, including a lack of widespread testing and persistent problems getting crucial medical equipment to states.

The president focused much of his defense on his January decision to impose China-related travel restrictions. But the president’s critics, along with some in the administration, have said Mr. Trump didn’t act swiftly enough in the aftermath of the travel restrictions to stop the spread of the virus in the U.S.

Mr. Trump also told reporters that his administration is nearing completion of a plan to reopen the country “hopefully ahead of schedule.” He declined to say by what date he hopes the country will be operating normally again.

“We’re going to be smart about it and we’re going to be safe about it,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he will listen to his administration’s health experts.

He argued he has authority over how and when states reopen, but didn’t explain where that authority comes from. “The president of the United States calls the shots,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump was set to announce on Tuesday a new working group that will focus on the economic effects of the coronavirus and analyze options for reopening parts of the country. The working group is expected to consist of key members of the president’s economic team, including National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The president said he would continue to work closely with governors and will decide in conjunction with them about reopening the country “shortly.”

Governors have wide authority over state stay-at-home orders and mandates to close schools in their states. Unknown is how or whether the federal government could override those orders—or whether individuals would comply if they felt it was too unsafe to resume their normal lives.

“The president can’t magically make them go away,” said Wendy Parmet, a public-health law professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “They’re not his orders.”

She added, however, that the president’s statements or orders could influence some governors to defer to White House guidelines. “The federal government has enormous influence, persuasion and the power of the purse,” Ms. Parmet said.

Mr. Trump’s assertion came as he has also pushed governors to take responsibility for their states’ coronavirus responses and played down Washington’s role. Last month, he urged states to do more to obtain crucial medical supplies, saying the federal government was “not a shipping clerk.” On Sunday, he called on governors to improve their state testing programs. “No excuses!” he wrote on Twitter.

In rebuffing calls to pressure states that haven’t imposed stay-at-home orders to do so, the president and his advisers had also previously argued that states are better equipped to make decisions about how to protect their citizens.

“Seeing as we had the responsibility for closing the state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Mr. Cuomo said Mr. Trump was free to step in and establish his own protocols for reopening the economies in the states, but he would have to clearly communicate who is responsible for what.

“If they want to change the model, they can change the model. He’s the president of the United States,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But then change the model and explain it. What does that mean the federal government is in charge of opening?”

However America begins its re-emergence, officials and business leaders predict the return to normal life will be anything but normal—with temperature checks and increased monitoring and testing.

In New York City, which makes up the bulk of known cases in the state, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would need robust testing capabilities to better track transmission rates and to make more informed decisions on when and how to reopen businesses, schools and places of work. Governors out West said the states would need an effective system for “testing, tracking and isolating.”

Hopes that U.S. infections are nearing their peak must be measured against concerns among governments elsewhere that have appeared to bring outbreaks under control, only to face second and third rounds of infections as they and their neighbors began reopening their economies, global health and economic experts say.

Globally, there are more than 1.9 million confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and more than 118,000 people have died, according to the Johns Hopkins data. The U.S. has the highest death toll in the world from Covid-19, with fatalities exceeding 23,000. Those numbers are likely higher, experts say. Lack of widespread testing, false negatives and differences in reporting standards have made it challenging to track the extent of the virus.

In the absence of a scientific consensus on how easily the virus can be transmitted through the air or whether those who have been infected are immune from further infections, many governments have stressed that any relaxation of confinement measures could only happen slowly and that some restrictions could remain for many months.

A health worker in protective gear hands out a self-testing kit in a parking lot of Rose Bowl Stadium during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pasadena, California, U.S., April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni © Thomson Reuters A health worker in protective gear hands out a self-testing kit in a parking lot of Rose Bowl Stadium during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pasadena, California, U.S., April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

In Spain, which has the world’s second-largest number of Covid-19 cases and some of the toughest confinement measures, authorities Monday began to ease the country’s lockdown by allowing some nonessential businesses to resume operations. Other European countries, such as Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic, have signaled they would also start phasing out some confinement measures this month.

However, officials in Italy, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, decided to extend most lockdown measures until at least May 3. And French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday extended a strict nationwide lockdown for nearly a month, with a gradual reopening of the country’s economy beginning in mid-May.

While the economic pressure to end the lockdowns is mounting around the world, Asia offers a cautionary tale about the risk of new infections when normal life resumes.

In South Korea, health authorities Monday cautioned that any attempt to return quickly to normal life could spark new infections that could spin out of control. The warning came a day after the country reported just 25 new cases in a 24-hour period, prompting optimism that efforts, including widespread testing and social distancing, had been successful in bringing to heel an outbreak that surged to more than 900 cases a day in February.

“A premature easing would come at an irrevocable cost,” South Korea Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said Monday.

Singapore and Hong Kong also faced fears of new waves of infections after appearing to bring initial outbreaks under control. And in China, fears of imported infections rose as the country reported 108 new cases Monday, its highest single day rise in more than a month, with most of the cases imported.

Write to Jennifer Calfas at Jennifer.Calfas@wsj.com, Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com and Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com

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