Trump will defer to governors on easing coronavirus restrictions
The new guidelines could pave the way for some states to lift or ease restrictions in the next few weeks, especially in rural, Republican-led states that have seen fewer infections.
WASHINGTON - Facing intense pushback on his efforts to swiftly reopen the shuttered economy, President Donald Trump told the nation's governors Thursday to "call your own shots" in determining how quickly to ease social distancing restrictions in their states even as another huge spike in jobless claims showed the growing devastation of the pandemic.
Trump is expected to announce new federal guidelines at a White House briefing with three tiers of criteria for public health and disease conditions before most businesses can reopen, rather than issue a blanket approval for resuming economic life.
Trump's deference to governors in a conference call, confirmed by a participant, marked a reversal from his dramatic claims early this week that "the president calls the shots" and has "total" authority to override state and local decisions, assertions that constitutional scholars said were not supported by law.
It's also an acknowledgment that despite his rhetoric, Trump cannot order mayors and governors to end the stay-at-home restrictions that have forced shops, restaurants, offices and nonessential services to close in most of the country.
Grim new evidence of the economic tailspin came as the Labor Department reported more than 5.2 million new jobless claims last week, bringing the total to more than more than 22 million in a month - essentially wiping out employment gains since the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
Any effort to swiftly lift stay-at-home orders, as some of the president's outside advisers have called for, has been resisted by public health authorities, who warn that too little testing is underway to let people safely return to schools and work without risking a deadly new coronavirus outbreak.
Still, the new guidelines could pave the way for some states to lift or ease restrictions in the next few weeks, especially in rural, Republican-led states that have seen fewer infections.
Authorities in New York and nearby states, the epicenter of the country's outbreak, as well as states in the Middle Atlantic region, plan to keep restrictions in place for several weeks, if not months. California has banded together with Oregon and Washington to set their own pace, and several Midwestern states announced Thursday that they would be closely coordinating next steps.
"We'll be opening some states much sooner than others," Trump said Wednesday, saying some could ease restrictions before May 1, when current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing are set to expire.
The president held conference calls with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on Thursday morning, followed by calls with governors in the afternoon. He is expected to publicly announce the new guidelines at a White House briefing.
The president opened the call with House members by praising his own response to the pandemic, according to one lawmaker who took part and spoke on condition of anonymity because the call was not public.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about the lack of testing and contact tracing available - making clear to Trump that both must be expanded before social distancing guidelines are eased, the lawmaker said.
"The sense that I got is that the president is yearning for the economy to be open, and to be open with a boom," said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat who spoke up about testing on the call. "My worry is that if the economy opens too soon, the only boom will be another explosion" of the deadly virus.
At least 28,628 Americans have died so far of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins Medical University. More than 638,000 Americans have been diagnosed with the coronavirus infection.
After intending to run for reelection on the strength of the U.S. economy, Trump has been desperate to get people back to work and to see the stock market bounce back. After weeks of insisting governors should take the lead in dealing with supply shortages and other problems, he recently began to assert that he would take charge - and take credit - for reopening the economy.
"I'm going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it's the right decision," Trump said Friday. "But I would say without question it's the biggest decision I've ever had to make."
He has brushed off warnings from public health experts that the country needs to increase testing for the coronavirus to ensure additional outbreaks can be quickly isolated to prevent another wave of infections.
On Tuesday, Trump said he had recruited scores of bankers, corporate chiefs, health care executives, labor leaders and others for what the White House called Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, saying he intended to seek their advice on the path forward.
But the effort, which included several conference calls Wednesday, appeared to be window dressing. Many of the participants did not know they were included until Trump read their names aloud in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
A person familiar with one of the conference calls said business leaders warned the president that expanded testing was needed before Americans could safely return to work, but the message was largely drowned out by Trump's determination to solicit praise from the participants.
"It was a joke. It was a complete farce," said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the call. "It was not a serious conversation."
The lack of preparation for the calls started another round of finger-pointing in the White House among some of the entities involved, which included the Treasury, the National Economic Council and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner's team, which has inserted itself into many aspects of the government's response to the pandemic.
James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has 1.4 million members, participated in one of the calls and expressed his disappointment afterward.
"Until we can ensure worker safety, we cannot put our members and workers at further risk by opening the economy up too soon," he said in a statement. "It's important that we listen to the medical professionals to ensure that the health and safety of workers and their families is our first priority."
But Trump faces pressure to ease the lockdown from some conservative economists, business leaders and media figures, and signs of a backlash appeared in some areas.
Tight restrictions in Michigan, which has suffered the third-highest death toll, drew protests outside state government buildings in Lansing, the capital.
Some protesters brought rifles, wore Trump paraphernalia or brandished Confederate flags. Although many stayed in their cars while causing gridlock in the streets, others crowded together on the sidewalks in defiance of social distancing rules.
The White House has chosen dozens of lawmakers to advise the president on next steps. The group's broad political representation - mostly moderate Democrats and Republicans, along with several conservatives and progressives - could help provide expansive political cover for plans to reopen the economy.
"Though we continue to share obvious and pronounced disagreements, the task at hand is too important for partisanship," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of the members selected.
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.)
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