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Congress, and the the country, weigh reopening America

With the Senate back in session this week, policymakers across America must balance competing priorities of public health and economic wellbeing.

Shawn Thew/Reuters
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) talks with Sen. Angus King (I-ME) prior to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense Spectrum Policy and the Impact of the Federal Communications Commission's Ligado Decision on National Security during the coronavirus disease ( COVID-19) pandemic on Capitol Hill in Washington May 6, 2020.

Dear reader:

This week, the halls of Congress might seem like a pretty good metaphor for the state of the nation.

On one side of the Capitol, the GOP-controlled Senate has returned and is back in session. The face masks and social distancing are jarring notes amidst the chamber’s elaborate, historic decorations. But senators are proceeding with business, if not exactly business as usual. There was a confirmation vote on Monday afternoon. Hearings proceeded on Tuesday.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House is still out and the corridors are largely empty. Democratic leaders scrapped plans to reconvene after some rank-and-file members argued that they would be setting a bad example for the country to meet in the midst of a pandemic, while putting their own health at risk.

Meanwhile, the U.S. itself is being pulled in opposite directions. Some governors, with the support of President Donald Trump, are moving cautiously to relax restrictions and reopen their states, in the hope of saving the economy. Others have been reluctant to loosen stay-at-home orders, cognizant that many public health authorities warn it could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. 

In truth, the national mood isn’t definitively black-and-white, open-or-shut.

States that are opening up aren’t really throwing wide all the doors and saying “let’s get back to normal.” Many of the moves are small steps – permitting small numbers of customers into stores, for example. Current opening activities “are often in relatively narrow categories,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted on Wednesday.

And a majority of Americans say they oppose the reopening of many commercial establishments, according to a new Washington Post/University of Maryland poll. Even if businesses are open, customers may largely stay at home.

The Trump administration appeared to bow to this anxious political reality on Wednesday. Recently, officials had floated the idea of shutting down the White House coronavirus task force, turning instead toward reopening the economy. But in the face of sharp criticism, President Trump appeared to reverse course, announcing it would remain in business, though perhaps with some new members.

“The Task Force will continue on indefinitely,” he tweeted.

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