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Trump foments resistance to Democratic-imposed shutdowns, but some Republican governors are also wary of moving too fast

President Trump speaks alongside members of the coronavirus task force during a White House briefing on April 16, 2020.
President Trump speaks alongside members of the coronavirus task force during a White House briefing on April 16, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Friday amplified his call to reopen the country, suggesting citizens should “liberate” themselves even as governors and local officials in areas he said were ready to return to normal expressed concern about moving too soon.

Republican governors have been slow to embrace Trump’s call to lift statewide stay-at-home orders in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that is killing thousands of Americans. And Democratic governors have increasingly denounced what they describe as a lack of federal leadership in a response effort plagued by shortfalls in testing and equipment.

On Friday, Texas announced a plan for loosening restrictions on economic activity. But the proposal by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) made few immediate changes to the stay-at-home order and left many decisions for the end of the month after consultations with a new “strike force” of business leaders and medical professionals.

“We’ll be focusing on all strategies that may open up Texas while also keeping us protected from the expansion of covid-19,” Abbott said Friday, announcing plans to ease restrictions on some retailers and hospitals even as the state’s stay-at-home order remained in effect.

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak and the Trump administration’s response

Trump on Friday took aim at Democratic-led states, tweeting about a need to “LIBERATE” places such as Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia while seeming to side with protesters there who are rebelling against restrictions that match the Trump administration’s own social-distancing recommendations. Conservative groups have bolstered the protests, lending support and guidance in an effort to create a nationwide movement in favor of restarting economic activity on a broad basis despite the health concerns.

The effort by Trump and some of his allies to portray a country split between a few hard-hit hot spots and a much larger expanse of America ready to quickly get back to work is at odds with hesitancy among state and local leaders about lifting the restrictions before the coronavirus crisis is more firmly under control.

Several governors in recent days have taken steps to reopen their states’ economies gradually while including caveats that maintain social-distancing rules.

In addition to Texas, Vermont will undergo a “phased restart” of its economy beginning Monday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said. And Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz, said outdoor activities including boating and hiking can resume this weekend as businesses including golf courses, shooting ranges and bait shops open their doors.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said a lifting of restrictions would begin April 24 — in phases, because “once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open.”

Though Trump has focused most of his criticism on Democratic governors, including another tense back-and-forth Friday with New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo, Republican officials may be the president’s biggest obstacle in his push for quick reopenings in parts of the country where the coronavirus outbreak has been more limited.

Republican governors in places such as Missouri and Mississippi did not adhere to the president’s call Thursday for less-hard-hit states to “very quickly” begin relaxing their stay-at-home orders. Though Trump declared on Thursday that some states were ready to begin lifting their restrictions immediately, several Republican governors responded by extending the orders.

Some administration officials say the White House has not done enough to focus on testing, an issue that has become a growing source of tension between local officials and the president, who has dismissed concerns by declaring that he has done a great job.

But there have been major failures, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The administration’s plans to work with Google and other top companies to facilitate testing and create drive-through labs across the country have been all but forgotten. Several types of testing kits that have been sent out are not being used, and there is no expectation internally that testing will be significantly stepped up in the coming weeks, officials said.

Questions about testing dominated a contentious, hour-long conference call between Vice President Pence and Democratic senators Friday afternoon as the lawmakers pressed administration officials on the availability of testing and on other specifics, according to senators and other officials who were on the call. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private discussion.

At one point, a normally mild-mannered Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Pence and other administration officials that the government’s failure to develop a national testing regimen for the virus was a “dereliction of duty” and declared that “I have never been so mad about a phone call in my life.”

Local officials’ frustration at the lack of widespread testing is mounting at the same time that the White House has shifted considerable responsibility to governors and mayors in deciding how and when to relax strict social-distancing measures. In some cases, local Republicans and Democrats are unified in urging caution despite the president’s eagerness to see economic activity resume.

Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) of Kansas City, Mo., is used to being at loggerheads with the state’s Republican governor, Mike Parson, on most issues.

But on Wednesday, as the state reached about 150 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and nearly 5,000 cases of infection, the mayor’s phone rang.

It was the governor, previewing plans he would announce the following day to extend to May 3 his stay-at-home order, initially set to expire April 24, and committing the state to increased testing and other benchmarks before allowing businesses to reopen. Lucas, who already was preparing to direct city residents to stay at home through May 15, said he told the governor about the outbreak’s toll in Kansas City, where about two-thirds of victims of covid-19, the illness cause by the virus, are black.

“I know politics are becoming a big part of this — when to open and when not to,” Lucas said in an interview. “But we’ve worked well together.”

Trump struggles to convince black leaders his administration will respond to racial inequities on coronavirus

Trump suggested Thursday that several states lift restrictions May 1, and he encouraged some to do so even earlier as he proclaimed, “America wants to be open.” But some Republican governors have been chastened by the surge of cases in their states, including in rural areas, as well as by the shortage of supplies and the dearth of public-health infrastructure, according to interviews with health officials, business advocates and county and municipal leaders in several Midwestern and Southern states.

“The governor may allow rural areas to start to open back up next month, but we don’t want to do it too soon,” said Danny Talkington, the presiding commissioner in Stoddard County, a southeastern expanse of Missouri where 83 percent of voters favored Trump in 2016. “We know some people are starting to hurt financially from being down. That’s still better than getting back in too soon.”

The governors are at pains to balance loyalty to the president — who enjoys widespread popularity in their states — with the advice of their own medical experts.

“Every meeting we have with the governor and high-level staff consists of some version of, ‘We have no idea what’s going to come out of his mouth,’ ” said the top health officer in one Southern state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private conversations about the president. “They feel like they need to be prepared if the president comes out and undermines what we’re trying to do.”

Parson wasn’t the only Republican governor who was late to issue a statewide directive but is now holding off on lifting restrictions.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who did not tell all Mississippians to stay at home until April 3, on Friday extended his order, which was to expire on April 20, saying, “I have to ask for you for one more week.”

Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who acted on the same day, spoke frankly this week about the consequences of reopening quickly: “We’re going to have new cases pop up.” And Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, who issued her order on April 4, said this week, “We want to get folks back to work as soon as we can. But we want to do it as smart as we can.”

The effort to develop shrewd planning is encountering hurdles. As multiple states planned to ramp up testing, starting this weekend, medical directors said their capacity was limited by problems including with Abbott Laboratories’ point-of-care tests.

Health officials in Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri said their states had secured 15 machines each from the federal government, but they have yet to obtain the cartridges that allow health-care workers to run the tests.

“It’s like getting a printer without the ink,” said Nathaniel Smith, the secretary of health in Arkansas.

Randall Williams, the Missouri health director, said proper use of the Abbott machines would allow the state to conduct an additional 1,000 tests per day, beyond the 5,000 being done now. He said Missouri had received the machines more than a week ago and has distributed them throughout the state. He said he didn’t understand what was causing the holdup in distributing the critical component of the testing devices. “We check with the CDC on this every day,” Williams said. “They’re not there yet.”

The problems run even deeper in Alabama.

Scott Harris, the state’s top health official, said testing is available in only 57 of the state’s 67 counties, “on some kind of regular basis, though not necessarily daily.”

The difficulty has been most acute in a heavily African American part of the state known as the Black Belt, where supplies, such as testing swabs, have been in short supply, Harris said, and where even advanced methods such as drive-through testing fall short.

“It’s easy to organize a drive clinic, but for people who don’t drive, that’s not a good option,” he said.

Another problem is limited infrastructure for contact tracing, the labor-intensive process of informing people who may have been in contact with an infected patient, which experts believe is necessary to ease restrictions safely.

Ordinarily, Harris said, the state has “a single-digits number of people who do this work.” Now about 50 are doing it, and there are plans to recruit others, including possibly medical students. Kim Tedford, the medical director in Madison County in western Tennessee, also has had to improvise, enlisting a handful of nurses, as well as two dental hygienists normally detailed to schools, to make calls.

“Like in many things, you get what you pay for,” said Hilary Babcock, an infectious-diseases specialist at Washington University in St. Louis and medical director for the infection prevention and epidemiology consortium at BJC HealthCare, a multi-hospital system in the city. “The state of Missouri, like many states, has not been a big investor in public-health infrastructure, so we don’t have great support for the kind of contact tracing that is really needed to be sure that potentially exposed people don’t expose others.”

The fear is that new cases won’t just be sporadic.

“We’re anticipating our surge at the end of May, beginning of June,” said Alisa Haushalter, the head of the health department in Tennessee’s Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, said this week the state was still weighing when and how to reopen. But Haushalter said county restrictions would likely outlast any immediate move by the governor to lift the statewide lockdown.

“We kind of have a rhythm and we need to stay the course,” she said.

During Friday’s call with Pence, administration officials told the Democratic senators that the government should have enough tests by the end of April to conduct surveillance, or population-based testing, that is meant to help governors move through “phase one” of the three-step strategy outlined by the White House this week to reopen the economy.

But the administration could not provide details such as a specific target for the number of coronavirus tests it wants to have available, and other basic metrics, multiple Democratic senators told The Post.

“Testing is the number one criteria for reopening the country, and yet in the last few days, the president has effectively, the administration has effectively, offloaded the testing responsibility to the states, which they’re not equipped to do,” King said in an interview after the call with Pence.

Republicans have been more sympathetic to the president’s view and argued that much of the responsibility of ensuring that residents were getting tested for the virus lies with the states, even though the administration once promised that 27 million tests would be available by the end of March. About 3.5 million tests had been conducted by Friday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

“We don’t have enough testing. The president can’t make that happen,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in an interview Friday. “Our delivery system is a local health-care delivery system, and the public health-care system is run by the states.”

Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.