with Brent D. Griffiths
At The White House
LITTLE AND LATE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released some long-delayed guidelines meant to facilitate the reopening of businesses, bars, restaurants, child care centers, camps, schools and mass transit systems. But they're coming days — even weeks in some cases — after most states began lifting restrictions.
Surprise: The just-released “advice is less detailed than draft recommendations the agency sent to the White House for review last month,” according to our colleagues Lenny Bernstein, William Wan, Josh Dawsey, and Holly Bailey.
The now-public checklists total only six pages — a dramatically scaled-down version from the original 63-page document initially drafted by the CDC. “The nation is still awaiting that detailed technical guidance, which the White House has held up and not shared publicly,” our colleagues report. “The delay has left the responsibility for decision-making about reopening to states and localities. It has also left many health experts clamoring for greater transparency.”
- “We need to unleash the voices of the scientists in our public health system in the United States so they can be heard, and their guidances need to be listened to,” Rick Bright, the ousted top U.S. vaccine official, said during a House hearing yesterday.
- “And we need to be able to convey that information to the American public so they have the truth about the real risk and dire consequences of this virus.”
Guidance for churches is notably missing: “The CDC originally also authored a document for churches and other religious facilities, but that wasn’t posted Thursday. The agency declined to say why,” report the Associated Press's Mike Stobbe and Jason Dearen, who first reported this month that the decision to shelve the more detailed guidance drafted in April came from the highest levels of the White House.
“Early versions of the documents included detailed information for churches wanting to restart in-person services, with suggestions including maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings. The faith-related guidance was taken out after the White House raised concerns about the recommended restrictions, according to government emails obtained by the AP and a person inside the agency,” per Stobbe and Dearen. “On Thursday, a Trump administration official also speaking on condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the propriety of the government making specific dictates to places of worship.”
- Guidance for faith communities has been a hotly-debated topic within the Trump administration: “Among the most contentious issues are the guidelines for faith communities and restaurants. While sharing menus, passing the offering plate and crowding members of a choir together raise the risk for transmission, some officials said the guidelines are likely to be controversial,” our colleagues Lena H. Sun and Josh Dawsey reported at the end of April.
- “Churches don’t like being told how to operate,” an administration official with knowledge of the debate told Lena and Josh at the time. “There was a decision to say ‘consider’ so we aren’t infringing. Churches aren’t going to want to give up hymnals or choirs or normal services.” And President Trump himself has been eager for churches to resume in-person worship.
- Yet places of worship could be ripe for the spread of coronavirus. Take this outbreak among a choir in Mount Vernon, Washington: “Public health officials studying the Covid-19 outbreak among members of a Washington choir found numerous ways the virus could have spread, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” CNN's David Williams reports. “The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”
The White House has said the initial guidelines were “overly specific” and still being revised: “A CDC spokesman said additional recommendations may still come from the agency,” our Post colleagues report. "The six decision trees were ready for release, so the administration decided to put them out while other guidelines make their way through the review process."
More roadblocks on push to release: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)'s resolution calling for the CDC to immediately release all of the guidance documents for public consumption was blocked by Republicans on Wednesday.
- “The country needs the guidance of the nation’s best medical and scientific experts. These literally are matters of life and death,” Schumer said. “And that’s exactly why the CDC prepared this guidance. America needs and must have the candid guidance of our best scientists — unfiltered, unedited and uncensored by President Trump or his political minions.”
- What went down: “Any individual senator can block a measure seeking to advance by unanimous consent, and Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, objected to the resolution Wednesday,” CNN's Ali Zaslav reports. “He argued Schumer is just trying to add 'bureaucratic hurdles' to 'shutter the economy' using the CDC's 'over prescriptive guidelines.'”
And there are other edits to what was released publicly: “The decision tools have been undergoing review by different federal officials, and they’ve been edited from earlier versions,” the AP reports. “For example, an earlier draft of the one-page document on camps obtained by the AP asked organizers if their program would limit attendance to people who live nearby. If the answer was no, the camp was advised not to reopen. That local attendance limitation was dropped and was not in the version posted Thursday.”
- More: “And in that document and others, language has been dropped that asked if the organization is in a community that is still requiring significant disease mitigation. If the answer was yes, the organization was advised not to reopen.”
- “Many of the changes provide more wiggle room than what was in the initial versions: For example, in the document for people who run child care centers, the older version obtained by the AP stated that CDC recommended ‘checking for signs and symptoms of children and staff.’ The new guidelines add ‘as feasible’ to the end. Similar new language about feasibility appears in sections about promoting healthy hygiene such as hand washing and employees wearing cloth masks.”
States have been forced to make tough decisions. While the White House issued safety benchmarks in mid-April that states should meet to initiate a gradual reopening, the president's calls for the country to reopen quickly and the lack of detailed guidelines has caused confusion. The situation is especially dramatic in states in which Republican legislators have been resistant to coronavirus restrictions implemented by Democratic governors.
- In Wisconsin, for example: “Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers warned Thursday of ‘massive confusion’ after the state Supreme Court tossed out the Democrat’s stay-at-home order and Republicans said they may leave it up to local governments to enact their own rules for combating the coronavirus pandemic,” the AP's Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond report.
- “The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with some bars opening immediately while local leaders in other areas moved to keep strict restrictions in place to prevent further spread of the virus,” they write. “If Wisconsin is to have a statewide plan, Evers will have to work with the same Republicans whose lawsuit resulted in Wednesday’s Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling. After a Thursday meeting with Evers, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the two sides may not be able to reach agreement and that a statewide policy might not be needed.”
And most states are broadly not meeting the government's initial benchmarks for reopening, as our colleague Paige Winfield Cunningham has reported, which specify that states should see a “sustained reduction” of confirmed infections for 14 days before “proceeding to a phased comeback” or a reduction in positive tests as a percentage of total daily tests.
- Only North Dakota and Kentucky have met the federal criteria for starting to end shutdowns, per former health wonks from the Obama and Trump administrations who are color-coding all 50 states to indicate how well they’re fighting coronavirus, as Paige reported yesterday. (North Dakota began reopening on May 1; Kentucky is starting to reopen next week.)
All this means businesses looking ahead are taking matters into their own hands. McDonald's has issued a longer reopening guide than the one released by the federal government: The company “asking restaurant owners in the U.S. to make dozens of changes to ease coronavirus concerns before reopening their dining rooms, including commitments to clean bathrooms every half-hour and digital kiosks after each order,” per the The Wall Street Journal's Heather Haddon. “The world’s largest fast-food company by sales is also asking its hundreds of U.S. franchisees to enforce social distancing in its restaurants, and either close their public soda fountains or deploy a staff member to monitor them, according to a 59-page dine-in reopening guide.”
- “The illustrated guide, written by the company last week, outlines the challenges that McDonald’s expects employees to face as states begin to allow for sit-down restaurant service while upholding social-distancing rules … The guide also shows how complex — and expensive — reopening dining areas will be and raises questions about the cost structure of that business for franchisees while concerns about the pandemic remain.”
- “New purchasing recommendations, including foot-pulls to allow customers to open bathroom doors without using their hands, could lead to new expenses and logistical considerations for McDonald’s hundreds of U.S. restaurant owners, franchisees said. The guide includes a list of products such as a $310 automatic towel dispenser and a $718 touchless sink. All service workers also need to be outfitted with masks and gloves, and restaurants need to make face shields available for customers in jurisdictions requiring them.”
On The Hill
HOUSE SET TO VOTE ON LATEST STIMULUS PACKAGE: “Speaker Nancy Pelosi is projecting confidence that the House will pass Democrats’ massive coronavirus relief bill [later today], even as she and her leadership team are still working to secure the votes,” Politico's Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle report.
- Senate Republicans have deemed the legislation DOA: “Both liberals and centrists in the caucus are grumbling about the roughly $3 trillion measure. House Republicans have overwhelmingly said they oppose the bill, and some Democrats are unable to travel to the Capitol to vote amid the pandemic, leaving Pelosi and her whip operation with tight margins to clear the bill,” Politico reports.
The White House might be changing its tune on state aid: “White House officials have privately signaled that they are willing to provide tens of billions of dollars in relief to states as part of a bipartisan deal with Democrats in the coming weeks, despite President Trump’s reluctance and strong opposition from conservative group,” Robert Costa, Jeff Stein and Seung Min Kim report.
- The thinking is this is the only way the GOP will get what it wants: “Many White House officials now believe that providing new funding to states to deal with challenges related to the pandemic will be necessary if they want to secure their own priorities, such as tax breaks and liability protections for businesses.”
OUSTED VACCINE OFFICIAL TORCHES ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC: “[Rick Bright] and an executive of a medical mask maker in Texas each told Congress they believe lives were lost because of missteps by the Trump administration in its early handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” Aaron C. Davis, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner report.
- What else Rick Bright told Congress: “Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint after he was removed from a senior post at the Department of Health and Human Services last month, said his superiors dismissed urgent warnings in January and early February about an impending shortage of N95 respirator masks,” our colleagues write.
For a few hours, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority captivated Washington: “[His] testimony represented a critical moment in the virus crisis: He’s the first federal health official to publicly criticize the Trump administration so harshly, and in such detail, given his prominent position in the biomedical world,” Politico's Sarah Owermohle and Dan Diamond report.
Other key takeaways from Bright’s testimony, per our colleague Aaron Blake:
- Early inaction cost lives and led to reliance on substandard gear: “And not only that: We were forced to procure these supplies from other countries without the right quality standards,” Bright said. “Some of those masks are only 30 percent effective. Therefore, nurses are rushing in the hospitals thinking they’re protected, and they’re not.”
- The administration pushed unproven drugs: “I believe part of the removal process for me was initiated because of a pushback that I gave when they asked me to put in place an expanded access protocol that would make chloroquine more freely available to Americans that were not under the close supervision of a physician and may not even be confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus.”
- Getting a vaccine quickly will be tough: “I still think 12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so.”
Trump and other top Republicans teed off on Bright: HHS Secretary Alex Azar lit into Bright outside the White House, telling reporters “everything he talked about was done” and questioned why Bright, who was reassigned to a National Institutes of Health, was not at work. Bright said he had been on sick leave and was using vacation time to testify.
- The president attacked him on Twitter: “I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright,” Trump tweeted, “never met him or even heard of him, but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”
BURR STEPS DOWN AS INTEL CHAIR: “A burgeoning insider trading investigation scrutinizing members of the U.S. Senate led the chairman of its Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, to step down after FBI agents seized his cellphone, seeking evidence related to stock sales he made before the coronavirus pandemic crashed global markets,” Devlin Barrett, Seung Min Kim, Spencer S. Hsu and Katie Shepherd report.
- Other senators are talking to law enforcement: “Aides to Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) acknowledged that the senators had been in contact with federal law enforcement. Feinstein had been questioned by FBI agents about stock sales, which she has said were done by her husband and without her knowledge, a spokesperson said. Loeffler’s office acknowledged she had turned over documents related to stock sales she says she did not actively participate in.”
FBI agents received approval from the “highest levels” of DOJ before serving the warrant for Burr: The bureau served Burr's lawyer “and then went to Burr’s Washington-area home to take possession of the device,” our colleagues write. “Investigators also obtained a search warrant to examine data in the senator’s cloud storage for his iPhone.”
TRUMP TURNS TO FLYNN THEORY TO BASH OBAMA: “The president’s government appointees and allies in Congress are using their powers to generate a political storm aimed at engulfing [Joe] Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and [former president] Obama, who polls show is the nation’s most popular political figure, making him a potent threat to Trump as a Biden surrogate,” Philip Rucker, Matt Zapotosky, Robert Costa and Shane Harris report.
- The focus on unmasking is central to this: Acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell went to the Justice Department's headquarters last week to personally deliver “a list he had declassified of former Obama administration officials, including [Biden], who had sought to remove the cloak of anonymity from references in intelligence documents that turned out to be of Flynn,” our colleagues write.
- Unmasking is commonplace in government: “But in the case of Flynn, Trump and his allies used the list of names to claim Obama, Biden and their appointees deliberately sought to sabotage the incoming Trump administration as part of a long-running conspiracy they have dubbed ‘Obamagate.'”
The ultimate goal: “Rewrite the history of the Russia investigation as Trump has long sought, by casting Flynn as a martyr wronged by nefarious bureaucratic elites,” our colleagues write.
In the Media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
The Trump organization has received at least $970,000 in taxpayer money for room rentals: “The payments create an unprecedented business relationship between the president’s private company and his government — which began in the first month of Trump’s presidency, and continued into this year, records show,” David A. Fahrenthold and Joshua Partlow report.
Developing countries could be devastated by covid-19's aftermath: “The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic may prove more devastating than the disease itself for the world's poorest countries as the global economy hurtles into recession, people lose jobs by the hundreds of millions and the risk of hunger grows, U.N. officials and aid experts fear,” Liz Sly reports from Beirut.
Pompeo keeps declining Senate run: “Trump recently encouraged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reconsider running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas but Pompeo rebuffed the request,” Josh Dawsey and John Hudson report. The state's filing deadline is June 1 and Republicans are afraid that former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach would be so unpopular that the seat might flip and potentially hand Democrats the majority.