Easing restrictions? States and tribes are not so sure

President Donald Trump steps out of the Oval Office to speak about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Associated Press

New guidelines, expected to be announced Thursday, are aimed at clearing the way for an easing of restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus

The Associated Press

President Donald Trump said he's prepared to announce new guidelines allowing some states to quickly ease up on social distancing even as business leaders told him they need more coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment before people can safely go back to work.

The new guidelines, expected to be announced Thursday, are aimed at clearing the way for an easing of restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while keeping them in place in harder-hit places. The ultimate decisions will remain with governors and tribal governments.

"We'll be opening some states much sooner than others," Trump said Wednesday.

But in a round of calls with business leaders earlier in the day, Trump was warned that a dramatic increasing in testing and wider availability of protective equipment will be necessary for the safe restoration of their operations. 

The new guidelines come as the federal government envisions a gradual recovery from the virus, in which disruptive mitigation measures may be needed in some places at least until a vaccine is available — a milestone unlikely to be reached until next year.

Trump said at his daily briefing that data indicates the U.S. is "past the peak" of the COVID-19 epidemic, clearing the way for his plans to roll out guidelines to begin to "reopen" the country.

He called the latest data "encouraging," saying the numbers have "put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines for states on reopening the country."

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, added that data from across the country showed the nation "improving" but that Americans had to recommit to social distancing to keep up the positive momentum.

She said nine states have fewer than 1,000 cases and just a few dozen new cases per day. She said those would likely be the first to see a lifting in social distancing restrictions at the direction of their governors under the guidelines set to be released Thursday.

On the other hand, the Navajo Nation announced its restrictions will continue with nightly and weekly curfews. Tribal police enforced the weekend lockdown by setting up checkpoints in Navajo communities. They issued more than 100 criminal nuisance citations for violating it on Friday and Saturday, Navajo Nation police spokeswoman Christina Tsosie said.

Enforcement of the lockdown over Easter weekend was the largest coordinated effort ever for the department, Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said.

"We're asking everyone to comply so we don't have to write any tickets," he said.

Nate Sandoval spent Wednesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, buying meat and other groceries for his family and neighbors back home in the Navajo community of To'hajiilee. He prefers remote areas to the city and said his 10-year-old daughter has plenty to do over the weekend — play with her dogs, basketball, archery. 

But Sandoval said the lockdown would be more effective if roadblocks were better placed within the community. During the last lockdown, he said residents easily bypassed a single checkpoint, hit the dirt roads and left.

"There were no cops driving around to check on people who literally were driving around the reservation," he said.

Several tribal governments have restricted travel and other movement as part of COVID-19 responses.

Some Republicans push back on closures

"It's very much time to start having that conversation and start figuring that out," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has shared his views with Trump.

The push to revive the economy is being influenced and amplified by a potent alliance of big money business interests, religious freedom conservatives and small-government activists, some with direct dial to Trump. They are gaining currency as a counter-point to the health professionals who warn of potentially deadly consequences from easing coronavirus stay-home restrictions too soon. 

The mobilization is reminiscent of the tea party rebellion a decade ago, when conservatives roared against federal intervention in recession recovery. It's drawing a similar band of deficit hawks alarmed by the $2.2 trillion rescue package, religious congregants who say their right to worship is being violated and conservative lawmakers warning of a slide toward big government "socialism" with expanded safety net programs.

"How do you rein in some of the tyrannical enforcement?" said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, in a radio interview. 

Economist Stephen Moore is leading a new coalition to fire up activists nationwide. The conservative Heritage Foundation put forward a five-point re-opening plan. Republicans discuss options almost weekly on the House GOP's private conference calls.

"It's about promoting liberty and freedom," Moore said. "It's about stopping spending that will bankrupt the country and getting the $20 trillion engine that is the American economy started again as soon as possible — as in tomorrow."

These Republicans warn that the public health emphasis has failed to take into account the broader societal toll of a prolonged shutdown and potential for a Great Depression. The government cannot keep throwing around money to prop up the economy, they say. 

However House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a stark warning for Americans to "ignore the lies" and "listen to scientists and other respected professionals" to protect themselves and loved ones.

"All of us want to resume the precious and beautiful lives that America's unique freedoms provide," Pelosi wrote in a letter to Democratic colleagues. "But if we are not working from the truth, more lives will be lost, economic hardship and suffering will be extended unnecessarily."

Some leading Republicans are pushing health care solutions. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the health committee, wants a "Manhattan Project" for testing, referring to the wartime effort to develop nuclear weapons, to give Americans confidence that children can return to school in the fall. 

Across the nation, though, end-the-shutdown protests are flaring up.

In Texas, conservative state legislators said in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott it's ultimately the "individual Texan's responsibility" to keep themselves safe. Many are backed by Texas oilman Tim Dunn, who co-authored a similar letter to Trump.

On Wednesday, drivers staged "Operation Gridlock" at the Michigan state capitol after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to toughen rather than relax what already was one of the nation's strictest stay-home orders. 

This comes as the White House wants to move quickly to open up at least part of the economy. The president consulted dozens of high-profile CEOs, union officials and other executives via conference calls Wednesday.

He received a mixed message from the industry leaders. They, too, said they want to get the economy going but had worries about how to safely do so.

In a tweet midway through Trump's round of conference calls with the executives, the president said the participants were "all-in on getting America back to work, and soon."

But participants in a morning call that included dozens of leading American companies raised concerns about the testing issue, according to one participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussion.

Another person who participated in Wednesday's calls said it was stressed to Trump that expansion of testing and contact tracing was crucial, as well as guidelines for best practices on reopening businesses in phases or in one fell swoop. 

The participant said those on the call noted to the administration that there was about to be a massive rush on personal protective equipment. Many businesses that are now shuttered will need the protective equipment to keep their employees and customers safe. 

Trump was told "the economy will look very different and operations will look very different," one participant said.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was among several representatives from major sports leagues to speak with Trump. During a Fox News Channel interview ahead of the calls, he credited the president with gathering some of the "best of the best" to help shape his approach on reopening the economy. Still, Cuban did not embrace Trump's push to reopen parts of the economy May 1.

"This is such a moving target that I think the biggest mistake we can make is rush to a decision," said Cuban, who previously had been critical of Trump's response to the pandemic. "But I'm going to help him in every way I can, whatever he needs me to do."

The panel, which Trump dubbed the new Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, also could help give Trump a measure of cover. If cases surge once restrictions are lifted, as many experts have warned, Trump will be able to tell the public he didn't act alone and the nation's top minds — from manufacturing to defense to technology — helped shape the plan.

Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, who participated in one of the calls with Trump, said there was also discussion about tax relief as well as "making sure that people are optimistic about the economy and they feel safe coming back to work." 

"I think you'll see steps to reopen the country at different rates in different states in the not too distant future," Nolan said. 

The launch of the council was not without hiccups.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka didn't know until he heard his name announced in the Rose Garden on Tuesday that he would be part of the advisory group, according to Carolyn Bobb, a spokeswoman for the union.

"We were not asked," Bobb said in an email. It was "just announced."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Trump has appointed some "smart people" to his task force who could offer state leaders helpful guidelines as they negotiate the way forward.

"There are certain roles that only the federal government can play and should play, but I think the governors are going to make their own decisions within those recommended guidelines," Hogan said.