WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that the White House would be extending its social distancing guidelines through April 30 – a month longer than an initial 15-day timeline when they were implemented on March 16.
“The peak in death rate is likely to hit in two weeks,” Trump said. “Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.”
The announcement marks a departure from Trump's comments last week in which he said he hoped to open up the country by Easter, which falls on April 12, with "packed churches all over our country." He suggested it was a “beautiful” time to ease up on the social distancing guidelines that are aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus to prevent overwhelming the health care system, but that have crippled the U.S. economy.
Trump said Sunday that the White House task force would be sharing further data and finalized plans on Tuesday, and that he expects “we will be well on our way to recovery" by June 1.
The guidelines call on Americans to avoid social gatherings involving groups of 10 or more, to stay away from public spaces like restaurants and bars, to avoid discretionary travel and to practice increased hygiene. They also asked Americans to stay home if they are sick and for older individuals to stay away from other people.
The coronavirus task force guidelines are voluntary but many states and cities have issued their own stricter orders, including telling residents to "shelter-in-place" and shuttering schools and businesses. As states continue to crack down on public life, Trump's suggestion of relaxing the social guidelines raised questions about how Americans could go back to work when schools and businesses remained closed.
Trump's own health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, who leads the coronavirus task force, brushed off the president's Easter deadline as a "flexible" one.
Fauci projected millions of Americans will contract COVID-19 and between 100,000 and 200,000 people could succumb to it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's worst-case-scenario earlier estimated at least 200,000 could die from the virus this year.
When asked by USA TODAY on Sunday whether floating Easter as a possible date to lift the social-distancing restrictions was a mistake, Trump dismissed his previous deadline as "an aspiration."
"We had an aspiration of Easter but when you hear these kind of numbers and you hear the potential travesty," Trump said, "we don't want to have a spike up."
Trump also said that the U.S. could see a peak death toll around Easter before the number of cases begin to decrease.
"We've gone through too much. So that was an aspiration," he added.
The president also threw cold water on an earlier idea of opening up early portions of the country that are less hard hit. He said he thought it was unlikely that he would pursue that idea during the extended period of the guidelines in April.
“I don’t think so,” Trump said.
"I was given a pretty strong look by these two people,” Trump said, referring to Fauci and Birx.
Analysts said Trump had little choice but to support extending the guidelines – the virus continues to race through the nation, and the U.S. has apparently not hit peak infections.
Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb weighed in on Twitter, noting "April will be a hard month."
"This is a historic moment. We'll all know where we were, and what we did, to support each other. This will show the best of America as we pull together to thwart this pathogen, preserve life, and build the technology to end the threat of #COVID19," he wrote.
Political scientist Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tweeted: "Trump pushing back potential reopening of economy to April 30. Right thing to do. The experts are leading the actual policy response. Much more relief for US workers will be necessary."
Meanwhile, critics said Trump should not have set a deadline in the first place.
Chris Lu, Cabinet Secretary for President Barack Obama tweeted: "So: -Things aren’t 'under control' -The country isn’t reopening on Easter -People shouldn’t take malaria drugs -We’re not quarantining NY, NJ and CT Maybe the president of the United States should check with someone before he opens his mouth ... "
Other Trump critics noted Trump seemed surprised by projections that up to 200,000 people could die.
"The dramatic projections of how many Americans could die without aggressive mitigation tactics are not new," tweeted David Axelrod, former political adviser to President Barack Obama. "They’ve been discussed for weeks. How can it be that he @POTUS just heard them, as he just suggested?"
Contributing: David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Trump extends social distancing guidelines to April 30