While coronavirus reigns, Trump can't jump-start the economy by himself

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

President Trump has signaled that he is ready to get the United States back to work, even if that means opening things up before the recommendations of medical experts — seeking, as he said, not to make the cure worse than the disease. While Trump is projecting confidence about the country getting back to normal, it’s unclear what exactly he could do to get Americans back to work and boost the economy.

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," said Trump during a Fox News interview on Tuesday, less than three weeks before the holiday, which falls on April 12. During the interview, the president, as he has in recent appearances, downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus, comparing it with deaths caused by the flu and automobile accidents. Ending social distancing strictures by Easter would run contrary to advice by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 15 that called for stopping gatherings of 50 or more for at least eight weeks. When Trump was asked who suggested Easter to him, he said, “I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It's a great day.”

Some of Trump’s allies have been warning that keeping millions of Americans at home could lead to an extended economic recession that would have worse consequences than the disease itself. Because there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, medical professionals battling the disease are at risk, and a surge of cases combined with a shortage of protective gear and intensive care beds could overwhelm hospitals. 

Trump’s proclamation of his desire to be back to normal by Easter came on the same day leaders issued full lockdowns in the United Kingdom and India, joining other nations across the world.

“Without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope, because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses,” said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party.

Until this past weekend, Trump was a vocal supporter of social distancing steps to slow the pandemic. But he has not imposed such measures on the whole country — and probably could not, except by declaring martial law. He has advocated following CDC guidelines about limiting gatherings and social contact, washing hands and disinfecting surfaces. But steps such as closing schools, restaurants, theaters and shops have been taken by state or local officials, or by businesses themselves.

Stonecrest Mall in Stonecrest, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Trump does have the power of the bully pulpit because his daily briefings on the virus reach millions. He’s seen his approval rating go up, as polls show a majority of Americans approve of his handling of the crisis, which he has blamed at various times on the government of China, on the “broken system” for testing he said he “inherited” when he took office more than three years ago, or on news media perpetrating a “hoax” to make him look bad. There’s little reason to doubt that if Trump began broadcasting every day that it was time for Americans to return to their normal life, millions would heed his advice. But in jurisdictions where a governor or mayor had put restrictions in place, tweets or statements from Trump would not supersede those orders.

There is also the question of whether businesses that typically draw crowds would see their regular business. Would younger people who are less at risk for the disease still flock to bars, as happened in many places on St. Patrick’s Day weekend? Probably. But would Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association cram thousands into stadiums and arenas for games if medical experts were warning against it — risking headlines about how they helped spread the coronavirus in their city? What about movie theaters, concert venues, malls and airports? If the headlines in the U.S. echo those of European countries that are 10 to 14 days ahead in the virus cycle — “Spain turns ice rink into a morgue as coronavirus deaths pile up,” as an example — how eager will Americans be to get back to work?

On Tuesday, CNN reported that the White House was exploring measures to “open” up the economy, but the options under consideration were gradual ones that would relax guidelines systematically based on age or geographic location. Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the administration was looking at ways to tailor policy to specific regions.

“The question is, really, can we be laser-focused rather than generic across the country?” Birx told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on the “Today” show. “In other words, can we use our data in a laser-focused, granular way to really look at what’s happening on the ground and adjust our public health messages based on what is actually needed by the number of cases and the work that we’re doing with the communities?”

If Congress fails to provide an adequate legislative response for working Americans — whether that’s increased unemployment insurance, direct cash payments or various types of debt or housing relief — then there will be pressure to get back to work, but if large parts of the population are still staying home, it’s difficult to imagine the economy or stock market recovering the ground it has lost in the past month. Other countries have put forward legislation to reimburse businesses for a portion of their payrolls if they keep workers on the job, but the package currently being worked on in the U.S. is not as robust.

Trump’s comments about attempting to jump-start the economy before the virus has been contained have received pushback from many, including a number of state leaders from his own party.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan talks about the state's response to the coronavirus on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who was a leader in the coronavirus response, made clear his view that the government’s first priority should be saving lives. “Protecting people and protecting our economy are not mutually exclusive,” DeWine said at a Tuesday press briefing. “The fact is, we save our economy by first saving lives. And we have to do it in that order.”

“Some of the messaging coming out of the administration doesn’t match,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, in an interview with CNN. “We don’t think that we’re going to be in any way ready to be out of this in five or six days or so, or whenever this 15 days is up from the time that they started this imaginary clock.”

“This situation is not going to be over in a week,” said Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota. “We have another eight weeks until we see our peak infection rate.”

Prominent Republicans in Congress were also critical of the idea.

“There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” wrote Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of the top Republicans in the House.

“Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world,” wrote Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Monday. On Tuesday, Graham said of the balance between the economy and stopping the virus: “Any decision needs to be based on health care data with the goal of ensuring we defeat the virus — not promoting its spread.”

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