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America Weighs Health Versus Economy, As Divide Grows On When To Reopen

Customer service agent April Brown wears a protective mask and gloves as she helps people at the baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last month.
John Bazemore
Customer service agent April Brown wears a protective mask and gloves as she helps people at the baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last month.


The tension in America between the national government and states' rights is as old as the republic itself. That tension is about to play out in a starkly political way and on a grand scale over the next several weeks, as states consider how to reopen in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

President Trump seems to be itching for states to reopen — frankly, faster than his own administration's guidelines recommend.

Trump touted at Tuesday's White House coronavirus task force briefing that 20 states are making plans to reopen. "They're going to be doing it safely," he said. "They're going to be doing it with tremendous passion."

Trump has been excusing protesters, who aren't abiding by social distancing guidelines, and his own attorney general is saying he might support going after states with rules that, in his view, go "too far."

"We have to give businesses more freedom to operate in a way that's reasonably safe," Attorney General William Barrsaid on conservative Hugh Hewitt's radio show. "To the extent that governors don't and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce — our common market that we have here — then we'll have to address that."

Already, a red state-blue state divide is emerging. Democratic-led states, like New York, California and Michigan, are taking a slow approach to reopening, putting emphasis on health and citing data on testing, hospitalizations and deaths as guideposts.

Republican-led states are stressing the massive economic toll — and with good reason. A Pew Research poll found that 43% of Americans say they have lost jobs or wages because of coronavirus shutdowns.

But the question is, how fast is too fast?

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is facing criticism for announcing that by the end of the week "gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools & massage therapists" can reopen.

Various mayors around the state questioned the decision, calling it "reckless" and "irresponsible." Atlanta's mayor said she was "at a loss."

Trump said Tuesday he would be speaking with Kemp, calling him "very capable," and said he would ask him whether people who would be frequenting some of these businesses would get tested first. But there is no plan for widespread testing in Georgia.

Everyone wants the country back open. But Georgia and other states that are reopening are about to become experiments in uncharted water.

In the meantime, Congress, trying to fill the void at least temporarily, is likely set to pass another — expensive — relief package Thursday.

The briefing in brief:

President Trump speaks about the coronavirus at the White House Tuesday.
Alex Brandon / AP
President Trump speaks about the coronavirus at the White House Tuesday.

Here are highlights from Tuesday's White House coronavirus task force briefing:

  • Georgia reopening: Kemp's announced plans to end his state's shutdown don't meet the administration's recommended benchmark of a two-week decline in new cases, as suggested in Trump's "Opening Up America Again" guidelines. When pressed by reporters on how the state could responsibly allow services like hair salons, which necessitate people being in close proximity to one another, to reopen, coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx sidestepped the question. "If there is a way that people can social distance and do those things, then they can do those things," she said. "I don't know how, but people are very creative."
  • 60-day immigration moratorium: Trump said Tuesday an executive order to shut down U.S. immigration is coming Wednesday. Trump said it would be a 60-day suspension that "will put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens." He added that the move is about jobs and health care resources. The order will have exemptions, he said, including for farmers. The move plays to Trump's anti-immigration instincts. He's showed a willingness to build walls and tighten who can come into the country in good economic times — and bad.
  • People walk past the governor's mansion to protest stay-at-home orders put into place due to the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday in Jefferson City, Mo.
    Jeff Roberson / AP
    People walk past the governor's mansion to protest stay-at-home orders put into place due to the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday in Jefferson City, Mo.

  • Trump misleads about protests: Trump misled on a couple points related to the anti-coronavirus-restrictions protests in various states. First, many of the protesters are not social distancing; in fact, that's kind of the point of the protests. And yet, Trump said Tuesday, "They're doing social distancing if you can believe it. ... The groups I have seen have been very much spread out." Who knows what the president has seen, or says he's seen, but this is just not true, writ large.
  • Second, polls have shown that most Americans are more concerned that the country would reopen too soon (rather than too slowly): Pew Research Center— 66%, Yahoo/YouGov — 60%, NBC/WSJ— 58%. And yet Trump claimed a false equivalence during Tuesday's briefing: "People want to make a living; they want to get back to work; they don't want to do this. You have a lot of people anxious about getting back to work. ... There are two groups — they're big groups, both of them." They're hardly equal. What's more, less than a quarter in the YouGov poll said they supported the protesters.
  • An antibody testing warning: Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that four antibody tests have been FDA-approved, but he warned that 140 others are pursuing approval. He's concerned with tests that are not approved claiming they are — and potentially giving people a false sense of security if that test shows them to have antibodies. That said, it hasn't been proven yet that people who get COVID-19 are immune from getting it again.
  • Itching for Ivy money back: President Trump went after Harvard University for its acceptance of $9 million in aid from the coronavirus relief fund. Tying the university's aid to a recent small business loan accepted and ultimately returned by burger giant Shake Shack, Trump said he was going to ask the school to repay the money. Harvard clarified after the briefing that the funds it received did not come from the small business fund and that it plans to allocate the entirety of the federal funds it received to student financial assistance following a backlash. Harvard's endowment is valued at nearly $41 billion.
  • North Korea: Trump responded to reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was in failing health, saying he did not know more about the dictator's status. "We don't know," he said. "We don't know. I've had a very good relationship with him. I can only say this, I wish him well." Over the years, Trump has oscillated between praise and harsh condemnation of Kim, publicly describing him both as "heedless and erratic" and "smart" as recently as December. It was odd and revealing that Trump seemed to be relying on public news reports — rather than the best information of what might be known from the intelligence community.
  • Quote of the briefing:

    "I look forward to comparing my numbers to my children's numbers. I think I'll do better."

    — President Trump commenting on furloughs of workers at the Trump Organization, operationally run by sons Don Jr. and Eric. But Trump didn't stay out of it completely. One of his golf courses is in Florida, and he noted that with no revenue coming in, it's hard to keep people employed. He added, "Florida, you can't use golf courses. That one, I'm not sure I agree with."

    Other key coronavirus stories from NPR:

    NIH Panel Recommends Against Drug Combination Trump Has Promoted For COVID-19

    Without any proof of whether it works, President Trump has repeatedly advocated use of a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat COVID-19 patients. "What do you have to lose?" Trump has asked. Well, a panel convened by the agency run by Dr. Anthony Fauci is recommending doctors not prescribe the combination of drugs because it increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.

    After The ICU, Many COVID-19 Survivors Face A Long Recovery

    For many survivors of the disease caused by the coronavirus, full recovery may never come, with long-term impacts ranging from organ damage to PTSD.

    What Happens If U.S. Reopens Too Fast? Documents Show Federal Coronavirus Projections

    Some 300,000 Americans could die — more than triple current estimates — from COVID-19 if social distancing measures are abandoned, federal health experts estimated in early April.

    Timeline: What Trump Has Said And Done About The Coronavirus

    Trump's message has been like pinball when it comes to the coronavirus. Follow the bouncing ball on what he's said and done with this useful timeline.

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    Domenico Montanaro
    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
    Alana Wise
    Alana Wise covers race and identity for NPR's National Desk.
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