White House says it ordered CDC to revise reopening guidelines

Brianna Ehley

The White House has ordered the CDC to revise a guide to reopening public places amid the coronavirus pandemic because it didn't align with President Donald Trump’s strategy of giving states the final say, according to a spokesperson.

The agency's draft guidance was “too prescriptive,” the White House spokesperson said, adding it amounted to “counter messaging” as the administration pushes governors to come up with their own plans for restarting businesses, schools, churches and other institutions.

“There were some conversations that maybe CDC can find a way to revise this, that is perhaps in the same vein as the president’s guidelines ... so it’s not the federal government dictating down to states,” the spokesperson said, adding that CDC Director Robert Redfield was part of the discussions.

CDC spokesperson Ben Haynes said he was unfamiliar with discussions surrounding a revision.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the White House rejected the 17 pages of recommendations for safely reopening restaurants, child care facilities and other establishments, as well as public transit, quoting an unnamed CDC officials as saying agency scientists were told it "would never see the light of day."

Guidelines for churches included a recommendation to stream services, limit the number of congregants on the premises and to offer drive-in services for high-risk individuals. The guidelines also recommended that restaurants and bars increase standing occupancy to allow for social distancing.

The CDC developed the guidance as dozens of states began lifting lock down orders or other restrictions to reopen their economies. The White House has stressed the virus is affecting states and communities in different ways and that decisions should be made by governors and local leaders.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the CDC had already been advising states informally on best practices for reopening but said a formal guide is more helpful.

“This is the kind of thing states really need from the CDC,” Plescia said. "When it’s official, formal guidance, you can go out and use that guidance in the community and it has a lot of credibility.”

He added that the advice CDC is giving states “hasn’t been formally vetted or approved.”

State and local health departments have turned to the CDC in past public health crises, viewing it as the central federal agency responsible for communicating to the public. But since March, the White House has shifted much of that work to its coronavirus task force.

A CDC spokesperson said the agency is working with all 50 states and providing recommendations and guidance on how to respond to the virus, including best practices for reopening. It is unclear if or when the agency will release revised formal guidelines for businesses and other establishments.

“Concrete CDC guidance is and has been incredibly valuable and has been turned to by health departments and other decision makers in communities over the course of the response,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “Clear guidance ensures that all communities have access to the same advice and best practices and allows them to act quickly.”

Businesses have also been clamoring for more specific guidance from the federal government on how they should proceed as states reopen.

Business Roundtable CEO Josh Bolten last week told President Donald Trump and other executives at a White House meeting that the administration’s road map for reopening was a good start but added, “Since we are now on the cusp of many places being ready to reopen more fully, we think more specific guidance is needed.”

The International Franchise Association, which has a seat on Trump’s reopening task force, is planning to release its recommendations for changes that businesses need to make to ensure employees and customers are safe as they reopen, according to a copy of the plan obtained by POLITICO.

The blueprint suggests businesses consider adopting practices such as staggered work schedules, limiting occupancy levels and frequently disinfecting workspaces. Other recommendations include ensuring that workers and customers are social distancing, providing hand sanitizer throughout the business and offering contactless payment options.

The blueprint also provides specific safety recommendations for industries that often have direct contact with customers, including the automotive, education, hotel, restaurant and senior health services sectors.

While the guidelines are directed towards franchises, a spokesperson for the IFA said they’ll “certainly be applicable to nonfranchise businesses.” According to the IFA, 74 percent of franchise businesses in the country are closed due to Covid-19.

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.