DENVER — Governors across the country forged ahead Monday with plans to reopen their economies, even as the nation hit a grim milestone of 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus and public health experts warned against lifting stay-at-home orders too quickly.
Numerous states, including some of the largest, began the process of lifting shelter orders in what could be a pivotal stage in the US response to the pandemic.
Texas, with its population of nearly 30 million, made one of the most expansive moves toward reopening when Governor Greg Abbott announced that retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and malls would be allowed to reopen with limited capacity Friday. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine unveiled a more incremental reopening plan that would allow manufacturing work to resume and offices to reopen next week. And in Colorado, businesses tried to navigate new rules allowing some of them to open their doors Monday.
The moves came as President Trump promised to help the states ramp up testing and called on them to consider reconvening schools before the end of the academic year rather than waiting until the fall, as many districts have decided or are expected to do.
In a conference call with the governors devoted mainly to ventilators and testing, Trump raised the idea of bringing students back to classrooms in the next few weeks. “Some of you might start to think about school openings,” he said, according to an audio recording. Addressing Vice President Mike Pence, who was also on the call, he added, “I think it’s something, Mike, they can seriously consider and maybe get going on it.”
The testing plan commits the federal government to help each of the 50 states test at least 2 percent of their populations every month, while making clear that the states are still primarily responsible for testing and that Washington is only the “supplier of last resort.” Rather than the more comprehensive surveillance testing sought by many public health experts, the administration is focused on “sentinel” testing of targeted sites that are particularly vulnerable, like nursing homes and inner-city health centers.
“We want to get our country open,” Trump said at a White House briefing that paraded a group of business executives who promised to help with testing.
New coronavirus infections and deaths appear to be plateauing on a national level, but they are still surging in some of the states and counties reopening this week.
As the known death toll from the virus crossed the bleak threshold of 50,000 people, according to a New York Times tally, the total number of confirmed cases in the country topped 983,000. Health experts worry that reopening prematurely without sufficient testing, protective equipment, and other safeguards could fuel another spike in cases that may not be detected in official numbers for two weeks.
“There’s a belief that we’ve brought our numbers down; we’re out of the woods. That is completely not the case,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “They’ve seen a decline in the sickest patients, but there’s a lot of infection that can spread silently, and suddenly you’re back where you started.”
The efforts to reopen across the country were creating a patchwork of contradictory rules that could undermine weeks of messages urging Americans to stay home and could endanger the entire nation’s ability to beat back the pandemic.
In states that were hardest hit, leaders have been more tentative. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday said that what he called low-risk businesses upstate could begin reopening by mid-May, but he cautioned that shutdown orders were likely to be extended for many parts of the state.
Even as the states take different approaches, Attorney General William Barr signaled that he had reservations about the way some officials were reopening their economies. He asked federal prosecutors around the country Monday to look out for emergency state or local orders issued to contain the coronavirus pandemic that could also violate “constitutional rights and civil liberties” and to fight them in court if needed.
Several of the states that are reopening still do not have widespread testing or systems in place to track infections.
In the seven weeks since Trump promised that anyone who needed a test could get one, the country has conducted about 5.2 million tests, far more than any other country but the equivalent of about 1.6 percent of the total population. That is a small fraction of what public health experts say is necessary to ensure a safe and gradual reopening of schools, businesses, and other public venues.