Florida and Texas to ease some coronavirus restrictions as Trump pushes for reopening

Jacksonville, Florida Re-Opens Beaches After Decrease In COVID-19 Cases
People on the beach in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday. Florida's governor told local officials they could open up beaches so people could exercise. (Getty Images)

Pressured by President Trump to reopen the economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, governors across the nation on Friday laid out varying paths as they tried to balance public health with the crushing financial pressures facing the nation’s workers. Texas is opening its parks and Florida's governor told local officials they could let beachgoers return.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that his state would reopen state parks, allow retailers to offer to-go sales and let physicians and nurses perform diagnostic tests and surgeries that had been put on hold to ensure hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients.

Additional openings — possibly including restaurants and movie theaters and an easing of the state's stay-at-home order — will be announced April 27, he said.

"We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus," Abbott said as he announced the creation of a "strike force" to guide the effort to reopen his state's economy.

More than 36,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University. Public health officials have repeatedly emphasized that effective testing is needed before state and local restrictions can be safely lifted, but problems have limited the number of tests that can be done. Officials at a White House briefing Friday said there were enough tests to complete the first phase of the Trump administration's reopening plan.

Abbott, when asked for specifics on what he said would be an increase in testing, said that in late April and early May, "it'll be going up quite a bit."

He said the restriction changes, which start next week, include safeguards such as social distancing requirements to minimize the risk of transmission. Abbott also announced that K-12 schools and colleges would be closed for the remainder of the academic year and set new measures to protect residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was harshly criticized for allowing spring breakers to crowd his state’s shores as the coronavirus spread across the nation, said Friday that local officials could reopen beaches if they could do so safely.

“Do it in a good way. Do it in a safe way,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale.

Beaches in Jacksonville opened for limited hours at 5 p.m. Friday, the city's mayor announced. Activities such as swimming, fishing and surfing are allowed, but beachgoers are not permitted to sunbathe or barbecue. Social distancing requirements were in effect but images showed people walking relatively close to one another without face masks.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday also committed to a phased reopening of businesses while simultaneously announcing that schools would not reopen for the remainder of the academic year.

"I know that the possibility of getting life back to normal sooner rather than later is what hard-working Iowans want, and it’s absolutely what I want too," she said.

Abbott, DeSantis and Reynolds made the remarks a day after the president presented a three-phase plan for the nation to get back to work. Although Trump on Thursday emphasized that the decision to reopen state economies was ultimately up to governors, on Friday he took to Twitter to prod them.

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" the president tweeted. He followed with “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” All three states are led by Democratic governors.

Trump tweeted the messages shortly before a group called "Liberate Minnesota" protested outside Gov. Tim Walz's house over his decision to extend his state's stay-at-home order into May. Similar protests took place this week in California, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina and Utah.

"I, along with my staff, are fighting a biological war,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said, when asked to respond to Trump’s tweet. "I do not have time to involve myself in Twitter wars."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called the tweets "unhinged rantings" that are putting people at danger of contracting the coronavirus and potentially inciting violence. Trump, Inslee said, is undermining his own administration's "sensible" plan to gradually restart the economy.

Trump, speaking to reporters during his evening White House briefing, defended his tweets, claiming the three states had overreached with their restrictions. He also defended the protesters, many of whom violated social distancing mandates.

"These are people expressing their views ... they seem to be very responsible people to me," he said when asked whether he's worried about the gatherings spreading the coronavirus.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has sparred with the president and is on Democrat Joe Biden's short list for a running mate, pushed back at the protesters who chanted "Lock her up!" outside the state Capitol in Lansing this week. She said she hoped to ease some restrictions in her state on May 1 but it would depend on the science.

"It's better to be six feet apart right now than six feet under," she said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

She was among the governors, particularly those in the hardest-hit states, who warned Friday that reopening their economies too quickly could result in a spike in new infections and deaths.

“Operate too fast … in three days and we’ll be right back where we started,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his daily briefing.

In New York City, all parades, rallies and other large nonessential public events scheduled to take place in May are canceled, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said residents of his state should expect restrictions to remain in place until the crisis eases. He acknowledged bubbling frustration in the state, which has seen an increase in deaths but a decrease in the number of new infections.

"I know social distancing is hard," Murphy said. "I know it’s not fun. I know it’s going to be a few more weeks, at least. If you want to be mad at me, go ahead. But my No. 1 goal — my entire focus — is on defeating this virus and getting our state back to where we can reopen."

In California, which has avoided the death rates seen elsewhere because of early shut-downs, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of a task force of business and elected leaders to guide the state's economic recovery as unemployment climbs and the state endures a "pandemic-induced recession."

There was wide agreement among governors about the need for greater testing capacity. A major obstacle is a of lack of testing kits, including the reagents necessary to do the tests. Once again, states and the federal government are competing to purchase the supplies, often from China.

Trump insisted that there were plenty of testing materials available for states to use, but he said that was not the federal government's responsibility.

"The governors are responsible for testing," Trump said during his evening White House briefing.

Administration officials later clarified that there were enough tests for the first phase of Trump's guidelines to reopen the economy, which would continue existing restrictions on travel and gatherings but would allow restaurants, churches and sports arenas to open if they could enforce strict social distancing.

More than one-third of the deaths in the U.S. have occurred in New York state. The daily count of deaths and new infections remained roughly stable in the state, but Cuomo noted that the number of hospitalizations and intubations had declined.

New York's governor has often avoided fighting with Trump as he sought federal aid from the president. But the pair repeatedly clashed on Friday, with the president tweeting during Cuomo's news briefing that the governor ought to "spend more time 'doing' and less time 'complaining.' Get out there and get the job done. Stop talking!"

Cuomo countered that the president should stop watching television and do his job, and sarcastically responded to the president's listing of all that the federal government had done for the state, including helping turn the Javits Convention Center into a field hospital.

"I don’t know what I’m supposed to do — send a bouquet of flowers?” he said. “Thank you again, Mr. President, for the Javits. Thank you for the U.S. Navy ship Comfort, which is just doing your job as president. It’s not really thank you like you wrote a check yourself, but thank you.”

Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Washington and the Associated Press contributed to this report.