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White House Unveils Coronavirus Guidelines On Path To Reopening The Country

President Trump listens during Thursday's briefing from the coronavirus task force.
President Trump listens during Thursday's briefing from the coronavirus task force.

Updated at 7:21 p.m. ET

The White House unveiled guidelines on Thursday it said the nation can use to plot a course out of the coronavirus disaster and toward something like normal.

Trump also spoke via teleconference with the governors of the 50 states earlier Thursday to outline his plan for the way they'll proceed with re-opening and normalization.

Trump has said he believes many states could begin to re-open even before the federal guidelines for social distancing and mitigation expire on May 1, citing what he says are the low numbers of cases or deaths in some places.

Trump said the nation has suffered greatly but he believes the peak of the pandemic has passed and so the time has come to prepare to get back to business.

"To preserve the health of our citizens we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy," Trump said.

Trump told the governors they'd be able to re-open before May 1 if they wish — but he said he wouldn't lean on them about what to decide.

"Every state is very different," he said.

Trump's new guidelines about normalization, which were obtained by NPR from a source who received them from the White House, contemplate a series of practices to bring people out of their homes again into workplaces and public places, albeit without time requirements.

Trump said Thursday there have been no new coronavirus cases in the last seven days in more than 850 counties, or roughly 30% of the country.

Phased approach

The White House's phased strategy is contingent upon states having data about case levels, the capacity to treat all patients and test healthcare workers, and the ability to trace the contacts of those infected. States can decide on a county-by-county approach, the 18-page document says.

Employers should be able to do temperature checks and contact tracing, the guidelines say.

The guidelines suggest three phases for states to reopen, with progressively relaxed levels of social distancing. Each phase would require a 14-day period of a "downward trajectory" of cases to advance to the next one.

Phase One states or regions would have social distancing guidelines similar to those in place now — a prohibition on gatherings of more than 10, maximized physical distance, working from home when possible, the closures of schools and bars and so on. "Strict physical distancing protocols" would be ordered for places such as restaurants, theaters, sporting venues, churches and gyms. Vulnerable people would be urged to stay home.

Phase Two states and regions that show no signs of a rebound could expand gatherings to 50 people and resume non-essential travel. Working from home would still be encouraged. Schools could reopen and bars could operate with "diminished standing-room occupancy." Vulnerable people still would be urged to stay home.

Phase Three states and regions could expand guidance so that vulnerable individuals could go out in public. Visits to hospitals and nursing homes could resume.

The full guidelines documents are available here.

The gates and the checkpoints

Dr. Deborah Birx, a top physician advising the White House on the pandemic response, said the guidelines did not include timelines so that local officials and governors could progress through them at their own pace.

"We want governors, with the data that they have, community by community, to set those timelines," Birx said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, another top physician on the administration task force, said the program is designed to permit states to move through what he called "gates," assess their caseloads, and then move ahead again.

"There are multiple checkpoints of safety here," he said.

Fauci said one major criteria for advancement will be the numbers of cases. If a state has an echo spike, its progress would stop — and Trump also has acknowledged that a major boomerang in infections could require the re-imposition of social distancing and other countermeasures.

Birx said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be relying on its existing surveillance practices for "influenza-like illnesses," which will be attuned to look for coronavirus, and fielding more new tests even for asymptomatic people to get better fidelity about the pervasiveness of the virus.

Eventually antibody tests and more capacity for diagnosis testing also will reveal the prevalence of the coronavirus, Fauci said.

But Fauci also warned that COVID-19 could become a seasonal affliction like the flu, which could mean more infections later this year.

Public health officials, however, hope that if that's so the response will be more robust because of work that has begun now, including on tests, therapeutic medications and, eventually, a vaccine.

Eagerness for normalcy

Trump's eagerness to reopen the United States is spurred by the economic paralysis caused by social distancing and other countermeasures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Orders to stay at home and avoid groups mean that restaurants, brick-and-mortar retailers, the travel industry and the energy sector are reeling; tens of millions of Americans are out of work. A relief program to help small businesses already has run out of money.

Everyday life, meanwhile, has been badly jangled. Roughly half of the public school students in the United States have been home for weeks and won't return this academic year.

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Even so, the crisis did not deliver an end to partisanship.

Trump's earlier claims about the power he said he could exercise over governors' decisions in managing the disaster have brought criticism from some of them and some of his traditional political foes in Congress.

Some governors and critics argue that essential elements necessary for a responsible re-opening — especially the testing capacity they say is needed to assure that a return to normalcy won't just bring an echo spike of infections — aren't yet in place.

At least one governor on the call, Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington, said that the president's push to return to the status quo seems premature.

"Some of the things that he sounded like he was hopeful for just ... don't exist in the criteria that the plan actually calls for," Inslee told NPR on Thursday.

Inslee's state was an early hotbed for the virus and has been under a stay at home order since March 23.

"The tenor of the president's comments do not seem to match the hard reality that is somewhat recognized in the plan. And there seems to be some discord there," Inslee said. "We're making decisions on data, not dreams."

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told shareholders in a letter on Thursday that he believes the world doesn't yet have the capacity to test at the magnitude necessary to assure a safe return to business as before.

Groups of states on the West Coast, in the Midwest and along the East Coast have formed consortia to decide for themselves how they'll re-open in view of their interconnections.

Trump, who earlier complained that such efforts amounted to a "mutiny," said on Thursday that he now wants to encourage states to "harmonize their efforts" as the pandemic ebbs.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.