WASHINGTON — President Trump said Tuesday that he wants to reopen the country for business by Easter, on April 12, despite widespread warnings from public health experts that the worst effects of the coronavirus are still weeks away and that lifting the restrictions now in place will result in unnecessary deaths.
The president said he believes a crippled economy and forced social isolation would inflict more harm than the spread of the virus. But experts have warned that the spread could be slowed if businesses remain shuttered and people remain in their homes as much as possible.
Large parts of the United States and the world are moving in the opposite direction than Trump suggests: India announced a “complete lockdown” of the country’s 1.3 billion people. The Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed for a year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in Britain. And Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said cases of COVID-19 were doubling every three days, with a peak expected in the third week of April, when an expected 140,000 New Yorkers would need to be hospitalized.
The president’s remarks came on a day in which top Democrats and Trump administration officials closed in on a deal for a $2 trillion economic stabilization plan. Wall Street cheered the progress on Capitol Hill, with the Dow Jones industrial average surging to its best day since 1933.
The Dow burst 11.4 percent higher, while the more closely followed S&P 500 index leapt 9.4 percent as a wave of buying around the world interrupted what has been a brutal month of nearly nonstop selling.
Economists and investors alike are still expecting to see some dire economic numbers in the days and weeks ahead.
“Today was a good day, but we would not necessarily see this as turnaround time,” said Adam Taback, chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Trump, sitting in the Rose Garden earlier in the day
for a Fox News “virtual town hall” on the coronavirus, said that “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” and that he wants to ease restrictions he said are responsible for harming a flourishing economy.
“You are going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said, misidentifying the virus. “You are going to have suicides by the thousands — you are going to have all sorts of things happen. You are going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”
Public health officials were horrified by Trump’s statement, which threatened to send many Americans back into the public square just as the peak of the virus is expected. But at the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the task force members, said that any new guidelines would not pertain to hot spots like New York and that there could be “flexibility in different areas” based on data.
“We need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak,” Fauci said.
Trump, however, did not budge on the April 12 date, which he said he did not arrive at by examining any data. “I just thought it was a beautiful time,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?’’ Trump said. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country.”
Later Tuesday, at the coronavirus task force’s daily news briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, announced that anyone who has recently left New York City should self-quarantine for 14 days after leaving the metropolitan area. The region is where about 60 percent of all of the new cases are coming from.
None of the analyses that have been publicly discussed modeling the spread of the coronavirus in the United States suggest that there will be a resolution of the pandemic anywhere close to Easter. Fauci himself has said it was possible that the country would see a peak in the number of cases around May 1.
But Trump said he expects that people could return to work and still practice social distancing, which requires maintaining a separation from others of about 6 feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can socially distance ourselves and go to work, and you’ll have to work a little bit harder,” the president said. “You can clean your hands five times more than you used to. You don’t have to shake hands anymore with people.”
But if people are told they can head back to work, commuting by bus or subway while thousands of new infections are confirmed each
day, “the virus will surge, many will fall ill, and there will be more deaths,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
As a practical matter, however, Trump cannot reopen the country. He can issue guidelines, as he did last week, when he announced a 15-day plan that included closing schools and telling people to avoid groups of more than 10 as well as bars, restaurants, food courts, and discretionary travel.
But the decision of whether to return to business as usual is up to the states.
In New York, Cuomo has already ordered all nonessential businesses to close and all nonessential workers to stay home. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, has also issued a stay-at-home order and has said he is likely to extend an order shuttering all schools.
But health experts said there also needs to be a nationwide approach and that it is not clear that patchwork, state-by-state policies alone could be effective.
“This disease will not respect state borders and city borders, and will move around this country just like it’s moved around the world,” said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Despite Trump’s insistence, it was unclear how serious he was about his Easter deadline. On Tuesday, Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, insisted that the president does take advice from the health experts on his task force. “He also listens to the governors,” Adams said.
And later, Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, described it simply as a “goal.”
Trump has long tied his own political success to the surge of the stock market, and he has been eager to send a message to the business community and to the markets that the economic standstill caused by the coronavirus and the response to it will not last forever.
Dr. Keith Martin, a physician who heads the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, said simply that if restrictions were lifted prematurely, “President Trump will have blood on his hands.”
Trump’s likely Democratic opponent joined in the criticism of the president.
“He should stop talking and start listening to the medical experts,” former vice president Joe Biden said in an interview with CNN. “What is going on with this man?”
But Trump again reiterated Tuesday that he does not view the highly contagious coronavirus as any more dangerous than the flu. “People die from the flu,” he said. “But we’ve never closed down the country from the flu.”
The president also noted with frustration that “we lose much more than that to automobile accidents.”
While it is true that deaths resulting from those causes outnumber deaths from the virus to date, projections from the CDC estimated that deaths from COVID-19 in the United States could range from 200,000 to 1.7 million.