President Donald Trump is getting what he wants: The country is opening up come what may, despite alarming indications that the coronavirus pandemic is intensifying its assault.
Trump says the virus is now reduced to just the “embers” and “ashes” of a spent pandemic as patience for nationwide lock downs fades and states aggressively open up.
The facts say the opposite. Another 1,299 Americans died on Tuesday and more than 112,000 people in the US have died from the disease. There are now more than 2 million confirmed cases in the United States.
Trump is not marking these deaths, just as he was reluctant to immediately honor the first 100,000 Americans who passed away before that terrible milestone was reached – barely two weeks ago. And this is well before the feared fall resurgence of Covid-19, in the absence of reliable treatments and with a vaccine still months away.
The President has been cajoling for reopenings for weeks, banking on the ebbing patience of a gregarious and industrious people who don’t take well to being told to stay home. He’s been ostentatiously moving around the country without a mask – even if such behavior by the head of the government sets a poor example and shuns precautions that could keep Americans alive. Trump is not just defying the virus – he’s poking a stick at officials’ warnings to avoid large gatherings, planning a rally in Oklahoma next week and others in four states where infections are heading up after that. Vice President Mike Pence – who heads the White House coronavirus task force – on Wednesday tweeted a photo of his visit to crammed-together campaign workers, none of whom were wearing masks or social distancing. He later deleted the tweet.
Increasingly, as airlines add flights, schools prepare classes for the fall and Americans balk at the idea that trips to the beach are off, it seems he may have made a shrewd bet – at least within the narrow political calculus that motivates his actions. More and more people seem willing to live with the disease and its awful cost – at least those who have not personally experienced its deadly potential – if it means recapturing a semblance of their normal lives.
“Americans are on the move and they can’t be tied down and they can’t be restrained,” Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said on Wednesday.
But such decisions are coming without the honest, unprejudiced advice of a President whose most fundamental duty is to keep Americans safe and who has suppressed the ability of public health officials to speak to the nation from an authoritative White House backdrop.
The notion of a prolonged battle against a virus that is the “worst nightmare” of the government’s top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, doesn’t fit into the President’s electoral plans. That’s one reason why Fauci, and the administration’s other top coronavirus expert, Dr. Deborah Birx, haven’t been seen at a presidential podium in days.
The default position of the President and many state governors is now implicitly that the country has stopped trying to halt the disease in its tracks – but will just have to live with it – though the apparent position has been reached without public discussion. There’s been no moment when the President has come clean about the costs of opening up with the nation he claims has already “prevailed” over the disease.
“We want the continued blanket lockdown to end for the states. We may have some embers or some ashes, or we may have some flames coming, but we’ll put them out. We’ll stomp them out,” Trump said Friday.
’100,000 more deaths by September’
Given an apparently unstoppable opening trend, one prominent expert now expects a further 100,000 people to succumb to the virus by September, amid evidence of a spike in hospitalizations since Memorial Day broke the back of the resolve of many citizens to stick to social distancing.
Some states that embraced Trump’s vows to open up the economy have fast-rising infections. While nationally, new cases have plateaued or slightly dipped as worst-hit epicenters such as New York and New Jersey emerge from the storm, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the fight against Covid-19 is still far from its endgame.
“I think right now, most Americans are not ready to lock back down, and I completely understand that. Here’s the bottom line, though, which is that – I understand people are willing to live alongside this virus,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Wednesday.
“It means that between 800 and 1,000 Americans are going to die every single day. We’re going to get another 100,000 deaths by September. So, that’s a catastrophic cost,” Jha said, offering the kind of factual analysis that’s no longer dispensed from the White House.
Since Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer, more than a dozen states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have recorded spikes in hospitalizations, according to data from CNN aggregated from the Covid Tracking Project. Infections are rising in 18 states, according to CNN data. The virus is steady in nine states and down in 21. Two states, Michigan and Massachusetts, are not included in the count for temporary technical reasons to do with how they are processing data.
Aggressive openers Texas and Florida have both seen recent increases in infections. Arizona just told its hospitals to activate emergency plans amid an increase of cases.
A reckoning over race sparked by the death of George Floyd in a new example of police brutality drove the worst pandemic in 100 years from the headlines for days. But the virus doesn’t respect an epochal moment in a nation’s story – health experts fear and expect that mass demonstrations only helped the virus spread – and will show up in hospitalizations and deaths in weeks to come. Already, some members of the Washington, DC, National Guard on duty during marches and protests have tested positive for Covid-19.
Andy Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, pointed to studies showing that stay-at-home orders had likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.
“Once we come back out, if we come back to exactly our old habits, it’s going to spread just as fast,” Slavitt told CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday night.
“So we have to be out and take the kind of precautions that are safe precautions. We can get back to normal life. We can live with this virus. But if you’re in a place with these red areas like Arizona, North Carolina, Arkansas, you should be very, very careful.”
Trump plans to openly defy virus with resumption of campaign
Trump denied the threat from the pandemic until it was too late. He failed to properly invoke wartime powers to equip hospitals with protective equipment for doctors and nurses and failed to set up a comprehensive national testing system, then put it all on the states. Even as the pandemic appears to worsen in North Carolina, he’s castigating its Democratic governor for his reluctance to host the Republican National Convention with a crowd that could turn into a massive viral cloud – even as sports leagues ready plans for reopening without fans in the seats. Trump will hold a rally in Oklahoma next week, which is far from the worst-hit US state, but did record a spike in the last few days.
The President is not alone in wanting life to get back to normal – even if his instincts are being mainly driven by the imperative to get the economy moving in time for the final straight of his reelection campaign. Americans of all ages and political stripes want their lives back.
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The longer the virus stalks the country, the deeper are the economic costs of a shuttered economy and the mental and emotional scars of life truncated. Americans are voting with their feet – last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, people flocked the boardwalk and many weren’t wearing masks. Elsewhere, crowded restaurant terraces didn’t exactly appear to represent a good example of social distancing. States are announcing all kinds of openings.
Schools are set to open in the fall in Rhode Island and Virginia. Arkansas is moving into Phase 2 of social distancing next week, even though there were 288 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours. Elsewhere, zoos and theme parks will be coming back. In many cases authorities are asking residents to observe social distancing, and restaurants and educational establishments to operate at reduced capacity. But opening is happening.
“The state is best served moving together even though we have various regions with a current spike in cases,” Arkansas’ Hutchinson said.
Such comments reflect the reality that there is no political incentive really for any politician to talk publicly about the possibility of a return to stay-at-home orders that public health experts may recommend in the best of all possible worlds.
But it’s still unclear how the political consequences of a resurgent pandemic clashing with aggressive openings may play out.
According to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS, half of Americans say they are not yet comfortable returning to their normal lives. And most – 56% – disapprove of the way the President is handling the pandemic. Some 73% of Republicans do however feel comfortable going back to normal while only 23% of Democrats feel that way.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is zeroing in on Trump’s denial of the pandemic and his chaotic leadership to drive a broader argument also taking into account his recent inflaming of the Floyd protests to stake a case that the President is simply unfit to lead. Five months from the election, we know one thing for sure: Covid-19 is very much going to be a backdrop as Americans vote in November.