Trump's new guidelines for states are aimed at reopening parts of US, lifting coronavirus restrictions

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump issued guidelines to states Thursday aimed at easing social distancing restrictions and reopening parts of the country as it grapples with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.  

The White House strategy, provided to all 50 governors during a phone call, outlines a three-phase approach to gradually bring back parts of public life such as schools, restaurants and theaters in certain areas based on evidence the virus is waning.  

"We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time," Trump said at the coronavirus task force press briefing Thursday.

Each phase requires a 14-day period of "downward trajectory" of COVID-19 cases in order to move on to the next phase. Qualifying for each phase will be judged on certain criteria for widespread testing for patients and health care workers, contact tracing and hospital capacity. Vice President Mike Pence said the guidelines to lifting restrictions could be implemented statewide or by county. 

The first phase of the "Opening Up America Again" plan requires states or regions meet the criteria and continue practicing social distancing guidelines currently in place. The phase suggests: 

  • Requiring vulnerable individuals to continue sheltering in place.
  • Practicing physical distancing in public, avoiding socializing in groups of more than 10 people.
  • Minimizing nonessential travel, continuing to encourage telework.
  • Shuttered schools should remained closed.
  • Prohibiting nursing home and hospital visits.
  • Elective surgeries can resume, on an outpatient basis.
  • Bars should remain closed, but gyms can open under physical distancing and sanitation protocols.

The second phase, under which states or regions with no evidence of resurgence that meet certain criteria a second time, can begin easing some of the social restrictions.

  • Schools can reopen.
  • Nonessential travel can resume.
  • Bars could operate with "diminished standing-room occupancy."
  • Vulnerable people would still be encouraged to stay home.
  • All people should maximize physical distancing in public.
  • Continue to encourage telework.
  • Gyms and bars can remain open.
  • Visits to nursing homes and hospitals are still prohibited.
  • Movie theaters, sporting venues and churches can operate under moderate physical distancing.
  • Elective surgeries can resume on an outpatient and in-patient basis.

The third phase, in which states and regions with no evidence of a resurgence and meet the criteria a third time, lifts most restrictions. Vulnerable people may return to social settings while practicing physical distancing and visits to nursing homes and hospitals can resume. 

Trump emphasized the strategy is a "gradual process," with some states opening sooner than others. The guidelines, he added, focus on "sheltering the highest risk individuals." 

The president said that some states could lift restrictions, send people back to work and open schools as early as "tomorrow," well before the May 1 deadline imposed under the current guidelines. Trump said 29 states "are in the ballgame" and will "be able to open relatively soon." 

He declined to name which states have already met the threshold for moving to the first phase of reopening under the guidelines. "We have a lot of states that through location, through luck and also through a lot of talent (that) are in a very good position."

The guidelines are voluntary and governors will ultimately make the decision to lift stay-at-home orders and social-distancing restrictions, Trump said. 

"You're gonna call your own shots," Trump told governors during a Thursday afternoon call.

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Critics pointed out the U.S. lacks the testing capabilities needed to address some of the requirements, including contact tracing, in which individuals who have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient are tracked and closely monitored. 

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, called the strategy "a bad idea motivated by Trump's political motives rather than a measured, data-driven public health strategy."  

"The data clearly suggests we have nowhere near the testing capabilities or even the supply chain for materials for testing," Chakravorti said. "There is no way we are prepared to meet the surge in demand that will inevitably arise."

"This isn't a plan. It's barely a powerpoint," said Ronald Klain, former White House Ebola coordinator during the Obama administration.

Klain pointed out there was "no provision to ramp up testing, no standard on levels of disease before opening ('down' is a direction, not a level) and no protections for workers or customers."

The president and officials have said it is imperative to revive an economy that has been battered in the past month by record jobless claims and steep falls in the stock market.

The announcement comes after Trump held several phone calls in recent days with business executives and lawmakers to help determine how to restart the economy. The president had initially said he would create a "task force" to examine whether to extend the social distancing guidelines but instead named more than 100 industry leaders who he said would join what the White House described as "economic revival industry groups." It was unclear what exactly their role would be. 

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The White House also announced Thursday that 65 senators and 32 House members would serve as part of the Open Up America Again congressional group. The president and members of his administration spoke to lawmakers Thursday to discuss plans to restart the economy as well as a range of topics including relief for small businesses, the medical supply chain and mental health. 

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the president outlined fairly basic guidelines on how the country would reopen on a call with senators Thursday afternoon, signaling that decisions could be made not just on the state level, but on a county-by-county level as well. 

“One side is going to be a little more, I think, willing to take some risk on reopening and one side is going to want to make sure there are stronger assurances mostly through testing,” Braun said, adding that while he acknowledges more testing is needed, the country shouldn't "rely on it 100% to start to reopen.”

Business executives and some elected officials have told Trump they shouldn't reopen the economy until there is more national testing for the coronavirus in order to allow experts to monitor the spread of the virus and detect the emergence of new hot spots.

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Some of Trump's own experts are warning that reopening too soon will lead to more spikes in coronavirus cases, just at a time when the epidemic appears to be ebbing.

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that reopening the nation will require a massive capacity to test, track and treat people for the virus, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.

Some governors, lawmakers, and skeptics have said reopening too soon will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases. Administration officials said the proposed guidelines have the support of doctors who have worked with the White House coronavirus task force, including task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Birx told reporters on Wednesday there are nine states that have fewer than 1,000 cases and less than 30 new cases per day. 

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While some Republicans have signaled they are ready to start to reopen the country for business, Democrats voiced concerns about the need for widespread testing before such a move. 

Braun noted one Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told the president that any plan needed to be “tailored” and “not a one size fits all” approach. “President Trump basically said, ‘Yeah, that's a great idea. That's going be part of what I lay out.’”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a member of the congressional group advising Trump on the coronavirus response, said rebooting the nation too soon could also hurt the businesses themselves in the long run.

"A rushed, haphazard reopening risks not only further lives lost but also further damage to our economy," he said.

While the guidelines are addressed to the governors, officials said city and county leaders can also use the guidelines to make decisions about their own communities.

Contributing: Christal Hayes