Pence said on Tuesday that the president had no plans to overrule social-distancing guidance that state and local officials have issued to their residents, but that he was interested in softening federal guidance in order to recharge the economy, according to five participants on the call.
“The vice president was clear in this call they’re not going to undermine governors and the decisions they are making, but he said the president wants to get the country back to work,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and one of more than two dozen conservative leaders who spoke with Pence on Tuesday morning.
Trump’s eagerness to bring an end to strict preventative measures he imposed last Monday bubbled up over the weekend as he consulted with outside allies and top economic aides, many of whom warned him that the unemployment rate could reach 30 percent in the second quarter of 2020 if businesses remain shuttered. Guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, as well as more severe directives from state and local authorities, have already thrust the U.S. economy into a severe recession as Americans remain largely confined to their homes and both large corporations and small businesses shed employees.
“THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” Trump tweeted prior to his appearance on Fox News, echoing a view that has gained traction among White House allies.
Some conservative leaders, for instance, warned Pence on Wednesday that prolonged business closures and layoffs could do more to damage the health of American workers and business owners than the virus itself.
“There’s stress, there’s anxiety. People can wind up having a heart attack, committing suicide, turning to drug use. There are a lot of unintended consequences when people move into economic distress,” Martin said, noting that she and others voiced these concerns during their conversation with the vice president.
So far, the administration has declined to specify what guidance, if any, the federal government might issue or roll back to bridge the 13-day gap between the end of the administration’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative, which wraps up at the end of the weekend, and Easter, which falls on April 12.
“There weren’t specifics,” Kristan Hawkins, head of the anti-abortion group Students for Life, said of the conference call with Pence, adding that she was concerned about the infection rate of Covid-19 — the disease caused by the virus — and the potential risks of lifting social-distancing guidelines prematurely.
“I’m not going to even feel personally comfortable lifting my own self-quarantine until we start seeing more data and some of these experimental treatments are proven to be effective,” Hawkins said. “I think there are going to people like me who, for a long time, are going to be wary of being in crowds — of being on airplanes.”
Trump, meanwhile, has argued that it will be “absolutely possible“ to begin to resurrect the economy by Easter, while cautioning that Americans going back to their jobs next month will have to continue practicing “all of the things that we’re doing now“ — including social distancing in the workplace, frequent hand washing and avoiding shaking hands.
“We have to get our country back to work. Our country wants to be back at work,“ Trump said, claiming without evidence that more people would die as a result of the economic consequences of social-distancing measures than the number who would perish if Americans re-entered the workforce.
He also said the mental health implications of prolonged social distancing would prove dire, and warned that the U.S. would suffer “suicides by the thousands.“
But Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, appeared less enthusiastic regarding the president‘s proposed Easter end date, and declined to directly answer whether such a deadline was realistic.
Birx instead emphasized the importance of employing “21st century solutions“ and collecting data at the “most granular level“ to better understand the rampant spread of Covid-19.
“That‘s what the president has asked us to put together: to use these two weeks to get all the data from around the country and all the data from around the globe and really understand what‘s working,“ she said, adding that “every American needs to continue the president‘s guidelines for these next six days or seven days. We have to have them following those guidelines.“
Trump‘s new push to promptly wind down social distancing breaks with the advice of public health experts who have been urging greater governmental action, not less, in the race to “flatten the curve“ of cases and prevent communities from confronting the kind of crisis unfolding in New York — the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.
Without tested treatments or a newly developed vaccine, limited person-to-person contact remains the best recipe for slowing the coronavirus‘ spread, even if it won‘t halt the disease‘s transmission entirely. Several health officials have predicted that the need for social distancing could last until late spring, not just another two or three weeks.
But the Easter cutoff does offer the administration some extra time to intensify mitigation efforts and plan for whatever steps Trump decides to take next. It is also possible that as the outbreak worsens, the president‘s own relatively rosy assessment of the likely cost to American lives will grow more grim.