WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Wednesday his coronavirus task force would shift its primary focus to reviving U.S. business and social life, while acknowledging that reopening the economy could put more lives at risk.
In a series of tweets, Trump said the White House task force he formed in March would not wind down, as he suggested on Tuesday, but would instead add some advisers and center its attention on “SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.”
Trump changed his mind after the reaction to his Tuesday announcement showed how popular the task force was, he said.
Asked later if Americans will have to accept that reopening will lead to more deaths, Trump told reporters: “You have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years and we have to do something. Hopefully that won’t be the case, but it could very well be the case.”
Governors have faced mounting pressure to ease stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures that have ravaged the economy, throwing millions of Americans out of work, even as those measures succeeded in fighting the virus.
Public health experts warn of a new surge in cases if reopenings occur without vastly expanded diagnostic screening and a system to trace who has been in contact with newly infected patients so they are also isolated and tested.
Citing moves by about 30 states to relax restrictions this month, University of Washington researchers on Monday revised their model to project nearly 135,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths by early August, almost double their previous forecast.
The United States is already more than halfway there, with at least 71,000 lives lost to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, out of 1.2 million-plus Americans known to be infected, according to a Reuters tally.
Trump’s Twitter comments drew swift criticism from the leading Democrat in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who warned against easing restrictions prematurely.
“If you undermine science, if you underfund testing, if you exaggerate the opportunity that is out there for the economy at the risk of people dying, that’s not a plan,” Pelosi told MSNBC. “Death is not an economic motivator, stimulus. So why are we going down that path?”
White House guidelines recommend that new case numbers trend downward for 14 days and that wide-scale testing and contact tracing exist before shutdowns are phased out.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and best known member of Trump’s task force, acknowledged he was losing the argument against reopening the country too quickly.
“There are counties and cities in which you can do that safely now, but there are others that if you do that, it’s really dangerous,” he said on CNN Tuesday night.
While New York state, New Jersey and other early U.S. hotspots have lowered their infection curves since mid-April, a number of states, mainly in the Midwest, have posted sharp spikes in new cases and deaths. Minnesota has set a record for new cases nine out of the last 14 days, including 728 cases on Wednesday.
Trump said the White House will add two or three new members to the task force who will focus on reopening. Fauci, who has at times openly contradicted Trump’s assertions about the pandemic, would remain on the panel along with Dr. Deborah Birx, a leading immunologist who has served as its coordinator.
As part of its new mission of spurring economic revival, Trump tweeted that the panel would remain “very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics” - two areas crucial to a long-term return to normalcy.
Governors who have started lifting restrictions have said business reopenings will be gradual and that people should continue to observe social distancing and to cover their faces while out in public.
But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has clashed with Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp over his moves to reopen, voiced alarm at seeing throngs of people out celebrating the annual Cinco de Mayo holiday on Tuesday.
“What was very clear was that people didn’t get anything past the message that we were open up for business,” she told CNN on Wednesday. “They didn’t get to the part that said that this was still a deadly virus.”
Democratic governors of hard-hit states have at times clashed with Trump over easing restrictions.
But even California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has announced plans to loosen restrictions if data continues to improve.
Los Angeles’ downtown flower market opened on Wednesday for the first time since the shutdown after the city’s mayor gave some businesses the green light.
“It’s good that the stores are reopening. I have two kids. It has been hard,” said florist Gregorio Garcia, 35, as he pruned roses inside his open-front shop.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state is the worst-hit by far, has outlined criteria for relaxing restrictions after a three-week decline in hospitalizations and a downward trend in the death count.
The New York City subway was halted on Wednesday from 1 to 5 a.m. so workers could deep-clean and disinfect trains after an order from Cuomo last week, in what was reportedly the first scheduled shutdown in the system’s 115-year history.
Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Lucia Mutikani and Jeff Mason in Washington, Maria Caspani and Nathan Layne in New York, Lucy Nicholson in Los Angeles, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman