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4 takeaways from Thursday’s White House coronavirus briefing

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/17/2020 Amber Phillips
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In Thursday’s White House coronavirus briefing, President Trump and his task force introduced guidelines for states to consider opening back up as soon as May 1. But they didn’t put a timeline on any of this, and the federal government is not forcing any state to take action before its leaders see fit.

Here’s what you need to know from Thursday’s briefing.

1. Trump lost the game of chicken over when to reopen states

This wouldn’t have been a battle if Trump hadn’t made it one, specifically by coming out Monday and saying he had “absolute” power with regard to reopening the economy. That’s not the case, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) threatened legal action if Trump tried to tell states such as New York to reopen before they were ready. 

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Fast forward to Thursday’s briefing, and Trump and his team of advisers said they weren’t forcing states to reopen. Instead, they introduced voluntary guidelines for governors to reopen on their own timelines. He told governors on a call earlier: “Call your own shots.”

Trump and his team stressed that the guidelines were data-driven. (The unspoken statement there was: This isn’t about doing what Trump wants just because he wants it.)

“I know there are a lot of other considerations that go into opening — considerations that you've heard of right from this podium,” said White House coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci. “But the dominating drive of this was to make sure that this is done in the safest way possible.”

“We are not opening all at once,” Trump said, “but one careful step at a time.” That’s a far cry from his combative approach just a few days earlier to reopening the economy, and his weeks-long campaign that the “cure can’t be worse than the disease.” 

The guidelines advise reopening the economy in phases. If states have a declining number of cases for two weeks and no evidence of a viral rebound and can adequately test people with symptoms and can trace the people they have been around, then some life activities such as nonessential travel can resume and schools can reopen. Some bars and gyms can reopen if they adhere to “strict physical distancing.”

2. Officials did not confirm whether there will be enough testing to execute this plan

You cannot reopen a business if you don’t know which employees have or have not had the coronavirus. And on Thursday, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said testing is making great strides, but neither she nor others affirmed that the United States would have the capabilities to test millions of people per day over the next few weeks, both for who has the coronavirus and who had the coronavirus and may have immunity.

Fauci said earlier this week that “we’re not there yet” on having those capabilities, which he and others have said is critical to sending people back to work.

It is not clear when there will be sufficient testing available. The guidelines Trump released Thursday acknowledged that testing and tracing people who are infected is a baseline. But they list it under “core state responsibilities,” and local health officials and state leaders say they don’t have the staff or the money to take on such a big project alone.

Slideshow by photo services

3. Trump props up people protesting social distancing in states like Michigan

a person standing in front of a truck: Deborah Creque holds flags on her vehicle during a protest in Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) © Paul Sancya/AP Deborah Creque holds flags on her vehicle during a protest in Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“They seem to be protesters that like me,” Trump said of the people who gathered in several states this week to protest stay-at-home orders. Indeed, many protesters were photographed wearing Trump campaign hats and carrying Trump campaign signs.

“They gave speeches. They held up signs — ‘Recall Whitmer,’ ‘Heil Witmer’ (sic), ‘Stop the Tyranny,’ and ‘Trump/Pence,’” reports The Post’s David Weigel of a protest Wednesday in Lansing, Mich., targeting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). “For a few seconds, they broke into a chant of ‘lock her up!’”

It’s part of a budding effort by some on the right to push back on government interference, especially interference as disruptive as keeping people home and many away from paychecks. The political tensions of these stay-at-home orders are exacerbated by the fact that most of the states hardest hit right now, where the most populous cities are located, are led by Democratic governors. And within those states, the Democratic-leaning cities tend to have more infections than the Republican-leaning rural areas.

Even as Trump tells Americans to continue social distancing, he was very careful to avoid criticizing or objecting to people who are actively opposing orders and protesting in proximity to others. Instead of taking the opportunity to tell protesters to stay home, he empathized with their desire to go back to work.

4. The new normal is not going to be normal

a person wearing a costume: Terrace Marshall Jr. and LSU are starting to run away from Alabama. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) © Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Terrace Marshall Jr. and LSU are starting to run away from Alabama. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The guidelines gave no timeline for when states should think about reopening. The measure is declining infections and death rates, and no public health expert can say by what date that will start happening for the nation, let alone individual states.

Trump and medical experts emphasized Thursday that reopening the economy will not mean stadiums will be packed for sporting events and concerts again. “Light switch on and off is the exact opposite of what you see here,” Fauci said.

A good way to visualize that is by what sporting events could look like in the weeks and months to come. Fauci said there could be sporting events before a vaccine, but he emphasized the “could and did not say stadiums would be full: “I think there will always have to be attention to making sure that we don’t do all that packing in together,” he said.


Trump put a fine point on this later in the briefing.

“Our normal is if you have 100,000 people in an Alabama football game,” he said. “We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be where you have a game with 50,000 people.”

“I mean, let’s face it,” Fauci said at one point. “This is uncharted water. There may be some setbacks that we may have to pull back a little and then go forward.”

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