President Trump’s guidelines for reopening the United States won’t result in a quick resumption of normal, pre-virus activity. But their emphasis on safety first is right on the mark.

Trump’s plan emphasizes that areas seeking to reopen must meet stringent public health targets before each of its three stages. Flu and covid-19 cases must be on a downward trajectory for two weeks before a state or county can enter phase one. Those criteria must be re-satisfied for any place to begin phases two or three. If a region backslides and starts to show signs of another coronavirus outbreak, the process ends and they go back to the starting point.

This will inevitably disappoint those who have been agitating for a quick resumption of national economic activity. It will also disappoint those on the right who have said the virus’s danger has been exaggerated. But Trump’s plan places him squarely on the side of science as well as public opinion.

Surveys have shown that Americans overwhelmingly have a “safety first” attitude toward the pandemic. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center released Thursday found that two-thirds of respondents were worried that restrictions on public activity would be lifted too soon. Even a majority of Republicans were more concerned about lifting the restrictions too soon. The poll was taken between April 7 and 12, after more than 15 million people lost their jobs and while religious institutions were canceling services for Passover and Easter. The public nevertheless overwhelmingly agreed with Trump’s guidelines that safety, not liberty or the economy, should be the first priority.

Another poll shows that Americans want safety first even if it causes a recession or depression. The international pollster Kekst CNC is tracking public attitudes to the coronavirus crisis in four countries: the United States, Germany, Britain and Sweden. Their first U.S. poll was taken at the end of March and asked respondents what their priority was in addressing the outbreak: limit the spread of the disease even if it causes a recession or depression; or avert a major recession or depression, even if it means the disease, infections and death spread. Two-thirds of Americans and a majority of Republicans chose to protect lives rather than jobs.

The guidelines’ emphasis on regions reopening rather than the entire country also makes sense. Many parts of the United States have not seen a significant outbreak or recorded a single death. In some that have, in part because of rapid action and lockdowns, the virus is largely under control. When areas are able to show that they have sufficient testing and treatment capability, they will be able to enter phase one and begin the slow walk back to normalcy. That might not happen tomorrow, but it probably won’t be too long until some counties and even some states enter the protocol.

Trump has struggled throughout the crisis to present a consistent public message. He has veered from dismissing the virus as no more dangerous than the flu, to instituting social distancing guidelines and to openly pining for the country to reopen by Easter. On Thursday, however, he displayed the right tone of somber recognition that his optimistic hopes won’t be met with a reassuring, hopeful vision. The plan, largely crafted by his medical team, seems to have provided the ballast he sorely needs. That by itself can only help a nation that longs for a stable, prudent hand at the helm.

It will be months before American life feels normal again. Trump’s plan gives us a path to that time and should ensure that public health is the primary consideration as we begin our national recuperation. Regardless of how one feels about the president, we should all be thankful his team has struck the right balance.

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The D.C. restaurant Little Sesame could have closed because of coronavirus but is using its kitchen to serve the city's most vulnerable instead. (Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

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