President Trump insists US economy can reopen safely

President Trump, fielding questions from Americans Sunday, said it's possible to “satisfy both” anti-lockdown protesters and people afraid of COVID-19.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
On May 3, 2020, President Donald Trump reassured citizens that the U.S. economy will safely reopen during a Fox News virtual town hall hosted at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, and co-moderated by FOX News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

Eager to spur an economic recovery without risking lives, President Donald Trump on Sunday insisted that “you can satisfy both" – see states gradually lift lockdowns while also protecting people from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 60,000 Americans.

The president, fielding questions from Americans in a virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial, acknowledged valid fears on both sides of the issue. Some people are worried about getting sick; others are reeling from lost jobs and livelihoods.

But while Mr. Trump increased his projection for the total U.S. death total to 80,000 or 90,000 – up by more than 20,000 fatalities from what he had suggested just a few weeks ago – he struck a note of urgency to restart the nation's economy, declaring “we have to reopen our country.”

“We have to get it back open safely but as quickly as possible,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump's comments Sunday came on the heels of Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing Sunday that New York will join with states from Massachusetts to Delaware to create a regional supply chain for masks, gowns, ventilators, testing supplies, and other equipment vital to fighting the disease.

The states are joining together after months of dealing separately with what Mr. Cuomo said was a “totally inefficient and ineffective” purchasing process that pitted all 50 states against each other, as well as the federal government, and other entities, driving up prices as supplies dried up.

New York buys about $2 billion worth of medical equipment supplies per year, Mr. Cuomo said. The other states joining the consortium together spend about $5 billion per year. Working together, they’ll have stronger purchasing power and improve their clout with global suppliers, Mr. Cuomo said.

Debate over social distancing measures continued this weekend amid the reopening of state economies that tanked after shopping malls, salons, and other nonessential businesses were ordered closed in an attempt to slow a virus that has killed more than 66,000 Americans, according to a tally of reported deaths by Johns Hopkins University.

A New York City police officer who was caught on video Saturday pointing a stun gun at a man and violently taking him to the ground over an alleged social distancing violation has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation.

Bystander video showed the plainclothes officer, who was not wearing a protective face mask, slapping 33-year-old Donni Wright in the face, punching him in the shoulder and dragging him to a sidewalk after leveling him in a crosswalk in Manhattan’s East Village.

“There will unquestionably be a careful look at what happened there,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell said Mr. Wright “took a fighting stance against the officer” when he was ordered to disperse and was arrested on charges including assault on a police officer and resisting arrest. Mr. Wright had not been arraigned as of Sunday afternoon, prosecutors said.

In Arizona, two sheriffs are refusing to enforce Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order as the state continues to deal with the coronavirus. Mohave County Sheriff Doug Schuster and Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb both said they aren’t going to hand out fines, citations or arrest people who disobey the governor’s mandate that has been extended through May 15.

Mohave County is in northwestern Arizona with Pinal County located south of Phoenix. Of Arizona’s 15 counties, the state’s two most populous – Maricopa and Pima – have the most COVID-19 cases by far.

“I’m not going to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens,” Sheriff Schuster told Phoenix TV station KTVK. “As a sheriff, I cannot in good conscience issue citations or arrest people for not social distancing.”

“It’s unfortunate that we’re here but I need to make a stand for the people and for freedom,” Sheriff Lamb said. “I don’t want to cite, fine, or arrest fine people.”

Mr. Ducey already has laid out consequences for violating his stay-at-home order: a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail.

In Ohio, an order for people to wear face coverings while in stores was reversed this past week because it “went too far," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday. He said on ABC's “This Week,” the mandate was “a bridge too far" and added, “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do." Similarly, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the mayor quickly rescinded a face mask order Friday after verbal and physical threats of violence were reported against store and restaurant employees.

After more than a month of being cooped up at the White House, Mr. Trump returned from a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for the virtual town hall hosted by Fox News Channel.

The president said of his monumental backdrop: "We never had a more beautiful set than this.”

As concerns mount about his reelection bid, Mr. Trump stuck to his relentlessly optimistic view of the nation's ability to rebound soon.

“It is all working out,” Mr. Trump said. “It is horrible to go through, but it is working out.”

Many public health experts believe the nation cannot safely reopen fully until a vaccine is developed. Mr. Trump declared Sunday that he believed one could be available by year’s end.

U.S. public health officials have said a vaccine is probably a year to 18 months away. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, said in late April that it is conceivable, if a vaccine is soon developed, that it could be in wide distribution as early as January.

Though the administration's handling of the pandemic, particularly its ability to conduct widespread testing, has come under fierce scrutiny, the president tried to shift the blame to China and said the U.S. was ready to begin reopening.

“I’ll tell you one thing. We did the right thing and I really believe we saved a million and a half lives,” the president said. But he also broke with the assessment of his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saying it was “too soon to say" the federal government had overseen a “success story."

Mr. Trump's impatience also flashed. While noting that states would go at their own pace in returning to normal, with ones harder hit by the coronavirus going slower, he said that “some states, frankly, I think aren’t going fast enough." He singled out Virginia, which has a Democratic governor and legislature. And he urged the nation's schools and universities to return to classes this fall.

Federal guidelines that encouraged people to stay at home and practice social distancing expired late last week.

The U.S. economy has suffered, shrinking at a 4.8% annual rate from January through March, the government estimated last week. And roughly 30.3 million people have filed for unemployment aid in the six weeks since the outbreak forced employers to shut down and slash their workforces.

The president's advisers have nervously watched Mr. Trump's support slip in a number of battleground states and he was told last month that if the election were held that day, he would lose to Democrat Joe Biden. The president's aides believe restarting the economy, even with its health risks, is essential to a victory in November and are pushing for him to pivot away from discussions about the pandemic and onto an American comeback story.

To that end, Mr. Trump will begin traveling again, with a trip to a mask factory in Arizona planned for Tuesday. The president also is set to speak in June at commencement for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Returning to campus for commencement will require graduates to self-isolate for 14 days, but Mr. Trump insisted the event poses no risk to the cadets.

The town hall, which included an appearance by Vice President Mike Pence, included a rare mea culpa: The vice president said he should have worn a facemask during a visit last week to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic. Mr. Pence's failure to wear a mask violated the clinic's guidelines and drew significant criticism.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Senate planned to reopen Monday, despite the area's continued status as a virus hot spot and with the region still under stay-at-home orders. The House remains shuttered as debate continues on what the next stage of the economic recovery may look like.

State and local governments are seeking up to $1 trillion in coronavirus costs, but have been met with some objections by congressional Republicans.

Mr. Trump said that while he thought common ground could be found with Democrats over an infrastructure package, “we’re not doing anything unless we get a payroll tax cut. That is so important to the success of our country.”

That proposal has been met with objections from both parties.

The leaders of California and Michigan are among governors under public pressure over lockdowns still in effect while states such as Florida, Georgia, and Ohio are reopening. 

White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx is calling it “devastatingly worrisome” to see protesters in Michigan and elsewhere not wear masks or practice social distancing as they demonstrate against stay-at-home orders. “So we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent,” she said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said Sunday that the armed protesters who demonstrated inside her state's Capitol “depicted some of the worst racism” and “awful parts” of U.S. history by showing up with Confederate flags, nooses, and swastikas.

Mr. Trump on Sunday night singled out Ms. Whitmer and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, for criticism even as he praised the federal coordination with most governors. He also complained that some Democrats would rather “people get sick” than given him any credit for pushing the use of a malaria drug for treating COVID-19, though it has not been proven to be safe and effective for that use.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a statement of interest siding with a Virginia church suing the state’s governor over restrictions because of the coronavirus. The filing was made Sunday in support of the Lighthouse Fellowship Church.

The lawsuit alleges the church’s pastor, Kevin Wilson, was issued a criminal citation because he held a service with 16 people on April 5. Authorities allege the church violated the state’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

The Justice Department’s filing, citing the lawsuit, says the church had maintained social distancing and had extensive sanitizing of common surfaces. The church said attendees had to stay 6 feet apart and use hand sanitizer before entering the building.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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