(Corrects DeMint title to former Heritage Foundation President; adds current Heritage Foundation President Kay James)
WASHINGTON, May 1 (Reuters) - Conservative groups advising the White House have issued an array of coronavirus economic reopening plans with a common theme - Americans should go back to work immediately to halt the economic and societal damage from prolonged lockdowns.
The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has coalesced in recent days around the same message - the need to reopen quickly. The White House did not renew federal guidelines on social distancing that expired April 30, and President Donald Trump is expected to go to Arizona next week, after a month without travel.
Just as the virus has infected the states unevenly, some state and local governments are opening malls, movie theaters and hairdressers while others remain in the stay-at-home posture that at one point kept most of America’s 320 million people indoors.
Both the White House and the groups advising it are missing detailed, centralized plans for virus testing and containment, which many health officials, historians, and economists say here are needed to avoid a new surge of infections and longer-term economic damage.
A Harvard University study here published last week argued that 5 million tests per day by early June would be needed to deliver a "safe social reopening." Such testing would need to ramp up to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy, the researchers said.
While Trump has said that number would be reached “very soon,” his top coronavirus testing official, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Brett Giroir, told Time magazine on Tuesday that there was “absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even five million tests a day.”
Since the coronavirus was discovered in the United States in January, more than 1 million have been infected while 6.2 million people have been tested here. The United States, with the most virus fatalities in the world at about 63,000, lags most countries hit hard by the virus on tests per positive case discovered, according to a Reuters tally from official websites.
GIVING STATES THE LEAD
A coalition of groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, which have supported return-to-work protests at state capitals, calls for the administration to “immediately reopen the economy while implementing the best workplace practices to protect the health of our citizens.”
The “Save Our Country Coalition” counts economist and tax cut advocate Arthur Laffer, a Trump favorite and mentor to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, as its honorary chairman.
The group this week published a list of principles here that also emphasize halting massive U.S. rescue spending, cutting taxes and protecting states' rights and individual liberties.
There are no recommendations on how coronavirus testing and tracing should be done to ensure that work and public spaces are kept safe. “Any widespread testing programs must strictly adhere to and embody Constitutional protections,” the list says.
Stephen Moore, a conservative commentator who is a member of Save Our Country and of Trump’s economic recovery task force, said it was important that U.S. states take the lead on such issues because of their differing situations.
“It’s really important that we get the economy open as safely and quickly as possible and the continued lockdown will have profoundly negative impact on Americans’ health and their well being,” Moore told Reuters.
A post on the FreedomWorks website argues that businesses “will use common sense discretion” in reopening and those who do not run their operations safely will fail in the marketplace.
According to the White House, states must have “robust testing” programs in place for at-risk healthcare workers before reopening, but state governors including New York’s Andrew Cuomo say they neither have the budget nor the supplies to do so.
South Korea, among the first countries to bring a major coronavirus outbreak under control, is relying here on a intensive, central-government run contact tracing and testing campaign to keep the virus under control without lockdowns.
CONSERVATIVE WISH LISTS
The Heritage Foundation, whose current president, Kay James and former president, Jim DeMint, have both been named to Trump’s reopening task force, mentions testing in a reopening plan, but rejects calls for universal, federally-backed testing as a condition of lifting restrictions.
Instead, the conservative think tank's official-sounding "National Coronavirus Recovery Commission" recommends here that testing be done by random sample to determine the prevalence of the virus within specific communities. Workplace testing regimes should be developed by individual companies, with employers paying the costs.
The group also included some longstanding demands, such as recommending states make public education funding portable and repeal “unreasonable day care licensing requirements” that raise costs and limit return-to-work options.
Some Trump administration officials have emphasized that getting the virus under control is the only way to restore consumer and economic confidence.
“I for one am incredibly focused on testing. As we roll out more testing, I think that this is something that is going to get people more and more comfortable,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters on Wednesday.
LONG TERM ECONOMY
New York University's Paul Romer is among the economists who have rolled out their own reopening plan here. His, with assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, focuses solely on testing as a way to restore confidence, advocating $100 billion in federal up-front spending on tests.
The former World Bank chief economist argues that lifting the lockdowns without a clear containment strategy will keep consumers in fear and will do little to recoup the $500 billion per month in lost output that the U.S. economy is now suffering.
Romer told Reuters that he sees economists and policy advisers on the left and right “looking at this through a kind of psychological lens of denial” and “don’t want to come to terms with reality that our options right now are much worse than a year ago.”
He said the options were allowing the coronavirus to sweep through the population to achieve so-called herd immunity that could lead to 1 million deaths in the next year, fear that drives consumers to pull back long term, or mass testing to boost confidence.
“The only way to reduce the fear is to have a credible plan for testing,” Romer said. “I’m not going to go to my dentist if I’m worried about the dentist infecting me with the virus, and vice versa.”
Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Heather Timmons and Grant McCool
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