Social limits needed through summer, Birx says, as some states ease coronavirus restrictions

Laura King
Debi Dang works on the nails of a customer at Allure Nail Bar in Atlanta, Georgia. Governor Brian Kemp has eased restrictions allowing some businesses such as hair and nail salons to reopen.  (Tami Chappell / AFP via Getty Images)

Social distancing must continue through the summer, White House coronavirus-response coordinator Deborah Birx said Sunday, even as some states began moving to ease shutdown and stay-at-home guidelines meant to stem the spread of the pathogen.

As the U.S. death toll from the virus neared 55,000 — the highest fatality total for any country, and nearly equaling the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War — a nationwide debate intensified over the weekend about how best to balance economic imperatives and public-health needs amid the pandemic.

Some governors, mostly in the South, who have given the go-ahead to reopen some businesses defended their decisions in television interviews, while counterparts in other states, backed by health experts, warned that abandoning restrictive guidelines too soon could trigger a deadly resurgence of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Vice President Mike Pence spurred hopes for a revival of summertime activity when he predicted last week in a radio interview that the pandemic would be “behind us” by the Memorial Day weekend, less than a month from now.

Birx, who appeared on a number of Sunday television interview shows, did not directly address that prediction when asked about it on NBC's "Meet the Press." But she said that for the next several months, any gatherings or commercial activity would need to incorporate physical separation between people.

“Social distancing will be with us through the summer, to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases,” Birx said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force, speaks as President Trump listens during the daily briefing on COVID-19 on Tuesday at the White House.  (AFP / Getty Images)

Other public health experts, including Thomas Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, expressed sharper skepticism about Pence’s projected timeline. “I don't think it's likely that we will be at that position by Memorial Day,” Inglesby said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” citing rising rates of infection in about half of the country.

“As we ease up on social distancing measures and economies begin to very carefully reopen, we are at risk of recurrence or re-spikes in the illness,” Inglesby said. “So I think everyone needs to be aware that even as we're beginning to open up again, there is a clear chance of a rise in cases in states that are doing that.”

Pressed as to whether he would feel comfortable getting a haircut or a massage, even if he and the service provider were in protective gear, Inglesby said that in most parts of the country, “I don’t think so.”

States including Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alaska and Georgia have begun allowing businesses previously deemed nonessential, such as beauty salons and gyms, to reopen.

Scott Gottlieb, who was the Food and Drug Administration commissioner early in the Trump administration, added to the widespread criticism that Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, in particular, was moving too fast.

On Friday, businesses in the state including fitness centers, nail salons and tattoo parlors were cleared to receive customers. Beginning on Monday, movie theaters can open, and dine-in service will be allowed at restaurants, with some safety precautions.

Natascha Updegrove, a stylist at Three-13 Salon, Spa and Boutique, cuts Karon Gilmore's hair on the first day that Georgia reopened salons, spas, gyms and bowling alleys.  (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

“Georgia’s certainly jumping the gun, I think, getting started too early relative to where they are in their epidemic,” Gottlieb said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

While President Trump has said he is leaving it up to governors how soon to allow businesses to reopen — an about-face from his prior claim of “absolute” authority in the matter — he also signaled support earlier this month for protesters in a handful of states who demand a speedy end to restrictions. Most polls indicate that a majority of Americans want to proceed more cautiously to lift restrictions on activity.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he intended to avoid a too-rapid return of business activity. “I’m going to be very cautious,” said Hogan, who chairs the National Governors Assn. “We’re going to make decisions [based] on science.”

But governors whose states are easing restrictions said they felt confident in their decision-making.

“We believe it’s time to have a measured reopening,” said Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, where spas, nail salons and barber shops have been allowed to reopen. A limited reopening for churches is planned for next Sunday.

Asked on “Fox News Sunday” about a near-tripling last week in Oklahoma's number of reported coronavirus cases, and an appeal from the state medical association's chief to hold off on easing restrictions, Stitt said simply, “We’ll continue to watch the trends.”

Colorado’s governor, Democrat Jared Polis, allowed his statewide stay-at-home order to expire Sunday. Businesses providing personal services, such as hair care, dog grooming and personal training, can reopen, with precautions. Stores will be able to reopen on a phased-in basis, and medical facilities can begin performing elective surgery. Bigger workplaces will be able to operate at reduced capacity on May 4.

He was asked on CNN's "State of the Union" whether his decision "could theoretically cost your constituents their lives."

“We always wish,” Polis replied, that “next week’s information, and next month’s information” were available now about the outbreak’s course. But, he added, "That’s not the world we live in. We have to make the best informed decisions, based on data and science, with the information we have.”

The president, while criticized for being late to taking the coronavirus outbreak seriously, quickly made revival of economic activity a cornerstone of his administration’s pandemic response. Trump and his senior advisors, contradicting many economic experts, have repeatedly predicted a strong recovery once businesses reopen.

Despite the U.S. jobless rate hitting Depression-era levels last week, with unemployment claims topping 26 million, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said Sunday he expected a strong rebound by the U.S. economy over the summer.

“I think as we begin to reopen the economy in May and June you’re going to see the economy really bounce back in July, August, September,” Mnuchin said on Fox.

Meanwhile, Trump’s seeming suggestion late last week that Americans ingest or inject disinfectant to fight off coronavirus infection continued to be countered with appeals to disregard the president's musings. Governors and mayors have pointed to an increase in people calling poison-control hotlines in their states.

Maryland's Hogan said on ABC that he wished Trump’s messaging was more “fact-based.”

“I think when misinformation comes out, or if you just say something that pops into your head, it does send a wrong message,” he said.

While Trump said on Friday, after his remarks triggered an outcry, that he was being sarcastic, the video of his exchange plainly suggested otherwise. Birx, who appears in the video, sitting near Trump and looking discomfited, did not defend the president’s comments in her TV appearances. But she said he spoke in the context of discussing promising studies about sunlight and the virus.

Birx said on CNN that it “bothers me that this is still in the news cycle, because I think we're missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing as an American people.”

In the NBC interview, she was asked whether Trump’s repeated promotion of unproven or dangerous treatments undermined the experts around him. Birx, seeming frustrated at the questioning, said she and others on the White House task force “made it very clear … this is not a treatment.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has repeatedly sparred with Trump over his handling of the pandemic, also expressed exasperation, but over the president and his latest foray into the realms of science and medicine.

“We spend a lot of time on what the president said,” the San Francisco Democrat said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “'Disinfectant in the body’ — you know what they call that?” Pelosi said. “They call that embalming.”