As U.S. coronavirus death toll nears 100,000, Trump hits the links

Melissa Etehad
The president's motorcade arrives at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., on Saturday.  (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. nears 100,000 people — more than double the number of reported deaths as any other nation — President Trump kicked off the Memorial Day weekend by going golfing at one of his private courses.

Videos on social media showed the president's motorcade arriving at Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia on Saturday morning, marking the first time Trump has hit the links since he declared the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency in March.

Despite increasing caseloads in hot spots around the nation, Trump has urged state and local officials to ease stay-at-home orders in order to reopen their economies and public spaces. On Friday, he demanded that churches across the U.S. be allowed to welcome worshipers back this weekend — at the same news conference that a top administration health official expressed concerns about the persistently high number of cases in the Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., areas.

Americans eager to head back outdoors faced a mixed bag of options for how to mark the holiday weekend, with all 50 states having at least partially reopened.

Although most amusement and water parks remain closed, governors in South Carolina and Tennessee lifted restrictions on those in their states in time for holiday crowds. Beaches were open in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware but with strict social-distancing protocols.

Bicyclists ride on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, N.J., on May 15. The city's beach was among those reopening with restrictions.  (Wayne Parry / Associated Press)

At New York City beaches such as Coney Island, swimming and contact sports like volleyball are still not allowed. In 16 New York state parks with beaches, group activities remain prohibited, but swimming is allowed so long as people remain six feet apart.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised early beachgoers for keeping their distance from one another.

“People were great,” Cuomo said Saturday. “They are doing what they are supposed to do, and we thank them.”

Across the U.S., those venturing outdoors are expected to follow a wide assortment of social distancing measures as governors continue to implement individual sets of regulations for what businesses and recreation areas can reopen.

Pressure to reopen businesses comes as the jobless rate across the nation continues to climb.

More than 2.4 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the number of jobless claims filed since the crisis began to nearly 39 million, according to figures released by the Labor Department on Thursday.

For the first time since March, New Yorkers were able to host small dinner parties and barbecues after Cuomo signed an executive order late Friday allowing gatherings of up to 10 people as long as participants kept six feet apart and followed hygienic protocols.

Cuomo, a Democrat, said Saturday he didn't believe the loosening of restrictions would affect the state’s infection rate nor its ability to continue slowly reopening local economies, so long as people follow proper social distancing measures.

“You can have a safe gathering of 10 people; you can also have a wholly unsafe gathering of 10 people,” Cuomo said.

In neighboring New Jersey, the number of people allowed to gather in groups outdoors was increased from 10 to 25 under the terms of an executive order signed Friday by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.

New Jersey residents looking to do something other than strolling popular boardwalks or beaches can also now make use of several recreational campgrounds. Indoor gatherings continue to be limited to 10 people.

Meanwhile, with the national death toll at more than 97,000 as of early evening Saturday, according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the Trump administration has continued to pressure state and local governments to reopen.

The Justice Department warned officials in Los Angeles and Illinois on Friday to loosen what it called “heavy-handed” stay-at-home orders.

“Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lock down of the residents in the city and county of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions,” Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote in a letter to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Yet the letter was made public on the same day that White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, speaking at a news conference hosted by Trump, singled out Los Angeles and Chicago as two of three areas where the persistent spread of the virus remained a major concern.

In undertaking his golf foray Saturday, Trump drew the ire of those who had long kept close tabs on his Twitter musings.

In 2014, Trump criticized then-President Obama for playing golf during the Ebola outbreak that took two lives in the United States.

“President Obama has a major meeting on the N.Y.C. Ebola outbreak, with people flying in from all over the country, but decided to play golf!” Trump tweeted six years ago.

Divisions over what activities to participate in and what social distancing measures to follow have devolved into a bitter partisan debate as states and local governments adapt to a "new normal."

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, is asking residents to avoid shaming people who are choosing to wear masks in public and is urging people to avoid viewing such decisions along “ideological or political” spectrums.

“If someone is wearing a mask," Burgum said Friday, "they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support.”

Trump, who has opted not to wear a mask, was criticized by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, for not wearing one in public while touring a Ford factory in her state on Thursday.

“As you saw in the footage, all of the Ford executives wore the masks. All of the employees were wearing masks. All of the press were,” Whitmer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

“And it’s really important that anyone with a platform has a responsibility to make sure that they model precisely what we’re asking everyone else to do,” Whitmer added.

Public health officials in Ohio's Franklin County, meanwhile, apologized this week for issuing special mask guidelines to people of color that many found offensive.

The recommendations, which were issued in April after people of color expressed concern over being racially profiled if they wore masks out in public, asked that they avoid coverings with colors associated with “gang symbolism” or fabric that elicited “deeply held stereotypes.”

The document also encouraged people of color to avoid tying scarves around their head because it could “indicate unsavory behavior, although not intended.”

“Some of the language used came across as offensive and blaming the victims,” Franklin County Public Health said in a statement. “We have listened to the opinions that have been expressed and are using the voice of the public to inform any new guidance we put out.”

Several states, including South Dakota, Arkansas and Maine, have seen a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent days as testing has increased.

In Arkansas, the number of new cases jumped to 163 Friday, bringing the state's total to 5,775. The largest rise in single-day new cases in the state since the outbreak began was reported Thursday, when 450 new cases were confirmed.

“During this Memorial Day weekend, we want to be out, and we want to enjoy ourselves. But let's be safe and disciplined at the same time," said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, on Saturday. "Increased cases indicate that there are more people out there who could potentially spread the virus."

In Missouri, Idaho and elsewhere, the number of confirmed cases continues to drop.

And in hard-hit New York, the number of COVID-19 deaths within a 24-hour period Friday was 84, Cuomo said.

It was the first time since late March that the one-day death toll fell below 100.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.