In response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has assumed the role of a wartime president. He has marshalled an unprecedented force of private and public sector efforts to protect American lives and halt the virus’ progress. He is giving daily extended briefings to assure the nation that we are on it. Think FDR fireside chats.
During a nationwide town hall meeting last week, Trump gave America his target date for getting our country back to work: “It’s such an important day for other reasons but I’ll make it an important day for this too. I’d love to have the country opened up and raring to go by Easter,” Trump said.
For the record, Easter Sunday is April 12. That’s 14 days from now. On Sunday, Trump called that target date "aspirational'' and extended the federal coronavirus guidelines on social distancing through April.
The longer we lock down our nation’s economy with business closures and stay-at-home policies, the more likely we can “flatten the curve,” a new household term, and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed as it has been in China, Italy and Spain. What we don’t seem to know is how long is enough. It would be a health disaster to reopen our society too soon.
The president’s message is that at some point we will have locked down so long that we will crush our economy, and our children will be left with a deep economic hole from which they may never see light. People also can die in a collapsed economy, whether from malnutrition, illness or depression. There are other bad side effects: A collapsed American economy would make the world a more dangerous place.
Trump’s goal of getting our economy restarted asap is important. But if he wants to convince the American people on a chosen restart time, he needs more than an announcement of a date. He needs to communicate his plan, one that responds to concerns that he may be restarting too early:
First, the opening-up should not be universal. There likely may be areas where restrictions could be relaxed -- but not in those areas that are experiencing a wave of increased cases.
Second, the Trump administration must continue to work closely with governors, providing national coordination for the evolving state stay-at-home and quarantine policies. The administration blocked foreign nationals from China from entering the United States. However, there are also impacts of people traveling within America from highly infected areas in our country. Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered the quarantine of travelers from states highly infected with the virus. State leadership is good, but national coordination is critical.
Third, continue and accelerate the massive ramp-up of the nation’s health care system – ventilators, respirators, hospital beds, personnel, medical team protective wear and other badly needed supplies. Set a specific goal for capacity in each area that will be met by any restart date, If the goals aren’t met, delay the restart.
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Fourth, protect and isolate those in greatest risk: our elderly and those with serious medical problems. Group homes are especially vulnerable. Friday, ABC News reported that 147 nursing homes in 27 states have reported at least one resident with COVID-19. With a reported 16,000 U.S. nursing homes and many more retirement homes, we need a robust national plan aimed at protecting these elderly residents.
Examples of policies being implemented in some facilities are cancelling of group activities, daily health screens for residents, isolation for symptomatic patients and limiting who gets in - only the necessary caregivers. Caregiving employees carrying the virus are a big risk. Reducing that risk may require staff wearing surgical masks and being screened when they enter – taking temperature, cleaning of hands, questionnaires on exposure, etc. Similarly, guidance should be given for self-isolation for the elderly and those with medical problems who do not live in a group home. We need to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Finally, there should be a pivot moment before a restart trigger is pulled, when the president meets with his very talented health advisers, evaluates the progress to date, and gets their advice on the then-current risks.
As Trump discusses a target date to move forward economically, he needs to reassure a nervous public that, whenever we restart America’s powerful economy, we will not delay or lose ground on the massive effort underway to crush what the president calls the “invisible enemy” that threatens our nation and world.
Rick Baker is the former mayor of St. Petersburg, an adjunct fellow at The Manhattan Institute and author of The Seamless City.