More than 81,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19, and public health experts warn that number will increase dramatically if the country is reopened too early.
The Trump administration’s leading infectious disease expert warned Tuesday that the consequences of reopening the country too early could be “really serious” and lead to new outbreaks of COVID-19 across the country.
Testifying remotely before the Senate Health Committee, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that if states and cities reopen too soon without following federal public health guidelines, they could cause “little spikes that then turn into outbreaks.”
“The consequences could be really serious,” Fauci said.
His concerns were echoed by Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who warned that “we are not out of the woods yet.”
Fauci and Redfield’s warnings come one day after President Trump declared victory over the coronavirus. “We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” Trump said during a press conference on Monday.
That contradiction underscores the conflict at the heart of the so-called “reopen” movement: Trump and some governors are largely ignoring public health officials’ concerns about a surge in coronavirus deaths as they lift restrictions on businesses and public settings.
More than 81,000 Americans have died from COVID-19—a figure that Fauci on Tuesday said “almost certainly” undercounts the real death toll. So why is Trump pushing to reopen the economy when doing so could cause that number to increase dramatically?
The Economy And The Election
The public health toll of the coronavirus pandemic has been absolutely devastating, but the economic consequences have also been a gut punch to the nation. More than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs and the nation’s unemployment rate has risen to a level not seen since the Great Depression.
As the economy has plummeted, so has approval of Trump’s response to the coronavirus. A new Washington Post-Ipsos poll released Tuesday finds that 56% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, while only 43% approve.
Trump, who planned to campaign for re-election on the strong economy, has instead seen that economy collapse in a matter of weeks, imperiling his re-election prospects. Nearly every single national poll since the beginning of April has shown the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden defeating Trump. More importantly, a series of swing-state polls show Biden defeating Trump in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If those polls bear out in November, Trump would lose. Several media outlets have reported that the campaign’s internal polls are similarly troubling.
Trump’s chances of a second term are slipping away, and critics believe his push to reopen the economy is driven by a desire to try and save his presidency. If the economy recovers, after all, he can claim credit for it. Armed with this belief that trying to prop up the economy is his best bet, Trump has called on his supporters to “LIBERATE” states under stay-at-home orders and tried to convince Americans that the worst of the coronavirus is over and that it’s time to save the economy.
But a quick economic recovery is far from guaranteed.
There Is No Economic Recovery Without A Public Health Recovery
Public health experts like Fauci have repeatedly warned that reopening the economy could cause a spike in coronavirus cases, which would further delay an economic recovery.
Economists have also warned there is no chance the economy rebounds as long as the coronavirus is spreading and instilling fear in Americans. A March survey of more than 40 leading economists found that 80% of them agreed that “abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the likelihood of a resurgence in infections remains high” would lead to more economic damage than extending the “lockdowns” to reduce the risk of a second surge.
A resurgence in infections is likely, given that most states continue to record a steady rise in cases and deaths. An internal Trump administration model projected the daily death toll would reach about 3,000 on June 1, a 70% increase from the current number of about 1,750. The model, first reported on by the New York Times, also estimated that the number of new cases per day would hit 200,000 by June 1.
Administration officials have since disavowed those projections—Trump called the Times report “fake news”—but another model, from the University of Pennsylvania, is even more grim. That model estimates that an additional 162,000 people will die by the end of June if states partially reopen, but people maintain social distancing. If they fully reopen and socially distance, that number surges to 233,000, for a total of 350,000 deaths by the end of June.
Even President Trump has acknowledged that reopening the economy will mean more deaths.
“It’s possible there will be some [deaths] because you won’t be locked into an apartment or house or whatever it is,” Trump told ABC’s David Muir in an interview last week.
Americans know this, too, which is why a significant majority oppose reopenings and lifting restrictions on businesses. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week found that 67% of respondents said they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store and 78% said they would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant. These views are driven by widespread concern over the virus, as 63% of Americans said they are still very or somewhat worried about contracting COVID-19 and becoming seriously ill; only 36% saying they are either not too worried or not at all worried.
These numbers underscore a key truth: You can’t force people to partake in the economy and resume consumption at pre-pandemic levels when they’re afraid for their lives. Trump may want to reopen the country, but the majority of ordinary Americans disagree and are not ready to return to restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and retail shops.
So Why Are Some States Going Along With Trump’s Push to Reopen?
More than 35 states have heard the concerns of public health officials, economists, employees, and ordinary residents, and decided to start lifting stay-at-home orders and reopen their economies anyway. Most of these states have also failed to meet the most basic reopening benchmarks established by the White House by last month. These broad guidelines recommend that states only begin to reopen once they show a downward trajectory in new cases or share of positive tests over a 14-day period, with hospitals able to treat all cases.
What’s more troubling is that currently, no states meet the four safety benchmarks for reopening issued by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Caitlin Rivers, one of the researchers who co-authored those standards, appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee last week and said that while some states have seen a decline in cases over 14 days, “there are no states that meet all four of those criteria.” Rivers, like Fauci and Redfield, also warned against states rushing to reopen, highlighting the devastating number of deaths it would cause.
So why are so many states reopening?
A handful of Republican governors resisted issuing stay-at-home orders in the first place, arguing they infringed on personal freedom and were not necessary in some areas of their states. Others, faced with pressure from Trump and right-wing protesters, have since lifted restrictions. These governors, like Trump, have emphasized the need to try to save the economy, despite the potential public health toll.
Some of these state leaders, such as Brian Kemp of Georgia and Kim Reynolds of Iowa, have been accused of lifting restrictions on businesses to try and force people back to work and off their states’ unemployment rolls.
The most likely reason, however, might just be that they are following Trump’s lead. Republicans who have defied Trump in the past have either lost re-election, left the Republican party, or been relegated to a constant barrage of attacks from the president. Most recently, Trump criticized Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, after the governor criticized the shortage of COVID-19 tests in the United States.
That, however, does not explain why some Democratic governors, like Jared Polis in Colorado, have also lifted orders and eased restrictions. Polis said that the number of Coloradans being hospitalized had fallen and that it was important to allow residents to earn an income.
The alternative to lifting state lockdowns is an expansion of the social safety net, an idea that has met stern opposition from the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Senate. House Democrats on Tuesday introduced a $3 trillion proposal that includes another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, an extension of unemployment benefits, $100 billion in renters assistance, and $75 billion for mortgage relief. Republicans, who in recent days have begun to fret over the national deficit, immediately rejected the proposal and do not appear to believe there is an urgent need for another stimulus bill.
The Democrats’ proposal also includes $875 billion in aid for state and local governments, who are facing huge budget shortfalls and desperately need help from the federal government. Republicans previously balked at proposals to help states and cities, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believed bankruptcy was a better route. His comments drew swift backlash.
RELATED: McConnell’s Refusal to Help States and Cities Could Plunge U.S. Into Depression, Experts Say
“If you want to send the country into an extended depression, sending state and local governments into bankruptcy is a great way to do it,” a local government budget expert told the Washington Post in April.
In the absence of further federal help, states and cities may be further pressured to reopen their economies, to try and prevent complete financial collapse.
If Trump and his fellow Republicans hold the line and refuse to provide aid, they might achieve their goal of encouraging more states and cities to reopen quickly, but the public health consequences—and in the long run, the economic consequences—could be devastating, as Fauci emphasized on Tuesday.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.