States confront practical dilemmas on reopening economies
Setting the stage for a possible power struggle with President Donald Trump, governors around the U.S. began collaborating on plans Tuesday to reopen their economies in what is likely to be a drawn-out, step-by-step process to prevent the coronavirus from rebounding with disastrous results.
In Italy, Spain and other places around Europe where infections and deaths have begun stabilizing, the process was already underway, with certain businesses and industries allowed to reopen in a calibrated effort by politicians to balance public health against their countries’ economic well-being.
While the crisis is far from over in the U.S., with more than 23,000 dead and about 600,000 confirmed infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, the doomsday scenarios that many were predicting just two weeks ago have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
At the same time, politicians and public health officials alike warned that an easing of the restrictions in the U.S. and Europe will have to be accompanied by widespread antibody testing to see who might be immune and ramped-up tracing of infected people’s contacts with others.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has joined a coalition with his West Coast counterparts in Oregon and Washington, said he would announce a detailed plan Tuesday for lifting virus restrictions, using "science to guide our decision-making and not political pressure."
A similar coalition has taken shape in the Northeast, encompassing Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
"The house is still on fire," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said. "We still have to put the fire out" but also "make sure this doesn’t reignite."
Trump, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to see the U.S. reopened for business quickly, and at one point said he would like to see churches packed on Easter, insisted Monday that he has "total" authority to decide how and when to loosen restrictions in the country — a notion considered at odds with the Constitution, which largely delegates such matters to the states.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has by far been America’s hardest hit, ridiculed Trump’s assertion Tuesday, saying: "We don’t have a king in this country."
While Trump has issued national social-distancing guidelines advising people stay home, those are only recommendations. It has been governors and local leaders who have instituted the tough, mandatory restrictions, such as lockdowns and the closing of schools and nonessential businesses.
The effects of such measures around the world were made plain by the International Monetary Fund, which projected that the world economy will suffer its worst year since the Great Depression in the 1930s, shrinking by an estimated 3% this year.
Elsewhere in the world, new infections appear to have leveled off in much of Asia and Europe, including Italy, France, Spain and Germany. Even in New York — where reported coronavirus deaths topped 10,800 — there were glimmers of hope.
On Tuesday, Cuomo reported 778 deaths over the previous 24 hours but said fatalities are leveling off, and hospitalizations and the number of new patients put on ventilators are continuing to drop, showing that social distancing is working.
At the same time, he warned against complacency: "We could lose the progress we made in one week if we do it wrong."
Governors across the country echoed that sentiment, including in Michigan, where Democrat Gretchen Whitmer said, "We’ve got to make sure that we avoid a second wave at all costs."
"That would be devastating for our economy. So we’re going to make decisions based on science and having a real strategic phase-in of our economy when it’s appropriate and safe to do so," she said.
Adding a dose of caution from the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the U.S. does not yet have the critical testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the nation’s economy.
"We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet," Fauci said.
In India, the government extended the world’s largest lockdown on its 1.3 billion people until May 3, and police with batons charged hundreds of jobless migrant workers who crowded a Mumbai railroad station, demanding that special trains be run to take them to their home villages.
In Britain, new data showed hundreds more people died of the virus than have been recorded in the government’s daily tally from hospitals. The dead include a wave of victims in nursing homes.
And China faced a new flare-up along its remote northern border with Russia. The border was sealed.
World leaders are ultimately pinning their hopes on widespread tests, technology and a coordinated approach to ease the restrictions that have slowed the outbreak but strangled economies.
The European Union is looking into creating a COVID-19 smartphone app that could function across the bloc. It would be used to trace infected people’s contacts with others.
"It’s important we don’t end up with a patchwork of 27 corona apps and 27 data protection regimes but coordinate as best as possible," Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, told the country’s Funke media group.
Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control center, said constantly exchanging information among countries and institutions about best practices, vaccine studies and protecting vulnerable people is key.
The virus has also forced rival companies to work together. Two of the world’s biggest drug companies — Sanofi Pasteur and GSK — announced they will combine forces to work on a vaccine. And Apple and Google last week announced a joint effort to help public health agencies worldwide use Bluetooth wireless technology to trace the contacts of infected people.
In China, where new reported cases have dwindled, life is ruled by a green bar-code symbol on a smartphone screen that says a user is symptom-free and can board a subway, check into a hotel or just enter Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak began in December.
South Korea and Israel have both aggressively used smartphone data to track the movements of carriers. But epidemiologists say contact tracing must be combined with widely available testing, which has been lacking in places like the United States and Britain.
In Europe, officials pointed to positive signs as they started to reopen their economies.
In parts of Italy, which has seen more than 21,000 deaths but reported the smallest number of new infections in a month Tuesday, bookstores, stationery stores and shops selling baby supplies were allowed to open. Forestry workers, needed to clear dead trees ahead of the summer fire season, also returned to work.
In Spain, where the official death toll rose to over 18,000, the country’s main epidemiology institute found an additional 1,500 "unexpected deaths" since mid-March after it studied mortality rates.
Spanish workers returned Monday to some factory and construction jobs. Stores and services were still closed, and the government required office workers to keep working from home.
In Austria, hardware and gardening stores reopened Tuesday. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the government is monitoring new infections closely, and "if the figures develop in the wrong direction, we will, of course, pull the emergency brake."
In Britain, which started its lockdown later than the rest of Europe, new infections and deaths were still rising. Britain as of Monday reported more than 11,300 deaths of COVID-19 patients in hospitals. But the head of one of the country’s biggest nursing home operators said Tuesday that the number of infections and deaths among the elderly is much higher than official reports.
More than 1.9 million infections have been reported and over 120,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size of the pandemic, because of limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and concealment by some governments.