The White House is urging businesses to open their doors again in hopes of triggering a swift revival of the U.S. economy, despite warning signs that nationwide reopenings may be premature.
Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to President Donald Trump, said Monday the White House has data showing that essential businesses over the past four weeks have begun to operate without major coronavirus flare-ups. He said it is likely safe for non-essential businesses to reopen as well.
“It looks like people have figured out how to get back to work and to do so safely,” Hassett said during an interview with CNBC. “We’ll figure out what practices we need to engage in in order to operate safely.”
However, the White House declined to provide the data that Hassett cited. And over the past two weeks, outbreaks have been reported at meatpacking plants, distribution centers and warehouses across the country that have remained open.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro nonetheless echoed Hassett’s claims during a CNN interview, saying the performance of aerospace companies and other “essential industries” shows the nation is ready to return to work -- albeit with social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines.
“We’re all going to take safe measures as we go forward,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters. “We can still go back to work and do so in a safe way -- have social distance, wash our hands and put in place the measures” outlined by coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx.
Hassett described the White House data as comparisons between areas with many “essential” businesses and those with fewer such workplaces. He said at the beginning of the U.S. outbreak, the virus spread faster in the former areas than the latter, but that the variance has declined over time. He concluded that essential businesses “have figured out how to get back to work and to do so safely.”
Convincing business owners it is safe to reopen and customers to return to stores is a significant challenge for Trump, who faces a public that remains skeptical despite the deep economic damage caused by the virus that has infected more than 968,000 Americans.
Seven in ten Americans said the nation’s top priority should be slowing the spread of the virus “by keeping people home and social distancing, even if the economy is hurt in the short-term,” according to a poll released last week by CBS News and YouGov. Just 30 per cent said the priority should be getting people back to work, “even if it means more people might be exposed to coronavirus.”
And the president in particular is distrusted by many Americans. Just 23 per cent of Americans consider him a trustworthy source for information on the coronavirus outbreak, according to survey published last week by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago. Fifty-two percent trust their state and local government leaders, by comparison.
Several recent outbreaks have reinforced concerns about reopening too soon. Three of the largest pork processing plants in America -- Smithfield Food Inc. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; JBS in Worthington, Minnesota; and Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. in Waterloo, Iowa -- have temporarily suspended operations after workers contracted the virus, CNN reported.
The closures have sparked concern about food shortages. Together, the three plants account for 15 per cent of U.S. pork production, according to CNN. More than 150 of the country’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties that have high rates of coronavirus infections, according to an analysis by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday issued new guidance for meatpacking plants to continue operations, urging workers to keep six feet of distance inside the facility “where possible” and staggering arrival and departure times.
A New Jersey mayor last week called for the closure of an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in the town of Carteret after Business Insider reported 30 employees tested positive for Covid-19. Earlier this month, workers at a Tracy, California, Safeway Inc. distribution center called for better safety protocols after 51 workers there were infected and one died.
But reopening the country has become paramount for Trump, who had pinned his re-election on the strength of the U.S. economy.
‘Use Common Sense’
Trump balked at strict social distancing guidelines almost immediately after his administration recommended them in mid-March, saying he hoped the country could re-open for business by Easter. He later backed off that deadline, but his administration on April 16 issued new guidelines for a phased re-opening.
“Remember, the Cure can’t be worse than the problem itself. Be careful, be safe, use common sense!” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
White House officials are looking at limiting the liability of businesses in cases where workers, or possibly customers, fall ill from the virus, according to top economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
It’s not just Trump who is itching for people to get back to work. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state is the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, announced Sunday a phased reopening plan that could begin as soon as May 15.
“There is no doubt that, at this point, we’ve gone through the worst,” he told reporters in Albany. “And as long as we act prudently going forward, the worst should be over.”
Yet medical experts continue to warn that the country won’t look the same as before the virus hit, even as cities and states begin to lift anti-virus restrictions.
Birx said Sunday she has “great hope” that more of the country could begin to emerge from strict stay-at-home guidelines over the next few months, but cautioned that social distancing measures that have radically altered American life will likely remain in some capacity throughout the summer.
But in her interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” she said the U.S. needs a “breakthrough in innovation” on testing in order to screen more Americans and to pave the way for a broader and more permanent reopening.
“We continue to watch this very closely. But that is where the projections take us,” Birx said. “And trying to understand what we can do as a people to ensure -- social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases.”
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