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Trump’s guidelines for reopening states amid coronavirus pandemic will leave decisions to governors

President Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump unveiled Thursday broad guidelines for states to follow as they begin reopening amid the persistent coronavirus pandemic while leaving the specific plans to the governors.

The guidance, formally introduced by the president at the evening White House briefing, provides state leaders a phased list of criteria to lift social distancing restrictions. For governors to start the process, they must first show coronavirus cases in their state are decreasing.

“We’re starting our life again. We’re starting rejuvenation of our economy again in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion,” Trump said.

The guidance doesn’t set a specific timeline, and Trump wouldn’t hypothesize what the country will look like by milestone dates like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. But Trump predicted there are 29 states that can begin the opening soon and several that could start the process right away, though he didn’t name them.

President Trump has often said responsibility for fighting the novel coronavirus lies with states, rather than with the federal government. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“I think you’re going to have some nice surprises over the next few days,” he said. “And I think it’ll be much faster than people think.”

Earlier Thursday, Trump explained the parameters to governors on a conference call, assuring them, “You’re going to call your own shots,” according to a recording of the call obtained by The Washington Post. But he emphasized that the federal government will be involved to support the states in the process.

Trump’s decision to defer to the governors is a change from his stance earlier this week, when he declared he had “total authority” to unilaterally open the country — a statement that drew blowback from governors and even some congressional Republicans who argued the assertion was contrary to the Constitution.

The guidelines suggest that before reopening, states should first see a decrease in confirmed coronavirus cases over a 14-day period. That suggestion is in line with the recommendations of public health experts, who have said that due to the virus’s 14-day incubation period, states should refrain from moving toward relaxing their restrictions until they have seen a sustained reduction in new cases for at least that long.

The White House plan also states that hospitals should be able to “treat all patients without crisis care” and have a “robust testing system in place for at-risk health care workers” before proceeding to a phased reopening.

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One tension point is testing capacity, and Trump stated as he has previously that the states, not the federal government, are “going to lead the testing.”

But some governors appealed to Trump for more testing kits and supplies, pointing to shortages of key equipment in their states.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) said that his state recently got the “great Abbott machines,” referring to the highly sought-after rapid-response tests developed by Abbott Laboratories — but “two weeks later, we don’t have testing kits to actually use them.”

“Testing supplies do remain a challenge,” Bullock said.

Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, described a role for the federal government in connecting states with laboratories that have available testing.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) released a blueprint Thursday evening outlining how his hard-hit state could begin lifting restrictions that includes ramping up testing with the federal government as a partner in the effort.

Shortly before, Cuomo appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show, where he broadly agreed with Hannity’s assessment of what New York will look like when it begins to phase out of safety measures: temperature checks before entering any building, masks and gloves required indoors.

The White House guidance describes three phases for a gradual return to normalcy. In Phase 1, large venues like restaurants, movie theaters, sport stadiums and gyms may reopen if they can “operate under strict physical distancing protocols.” But bars should remain closed, as well as schools and day cares, the guidance says.

In that first phase, people are encouraged to continue practicing social distancing, vulnerable populations to stay home and employers to allow telework.

If there’s no indication of a coronavirus rebound, a state can move into Phase 2, which allows schools to open, nonessential travel to resume and large venues to begin to ease physical distancing.

Phase 3 lifts most remaining safety restrictions, though it still advises large venues continue “limited” social distancing.

Trump rejected that these phases represent a “new normal,” remaining committed that one day restaurants and sports venues will again be filled.

“There’s not going to be a new normal where somebody has been having for 25 years 158 seats in a restaurant and now he’s got 34,” Trump said during the briefing. “That wouldn’t work. That’s not normal. No, normal will be if he has the 158 seats. And that’s going to happen and it’s going to happen relatively quickly we hope.”

Trump also held a conference call with senators earlier Thursday. During the call, the president largely held back and listened to the senators, as both Democrats and Republicans alike pressed him on the need for more broad testing availability, according to senators on the call and other officials briefed on it.

Democrats in particular expressed wariness to the president about reopening the economy until the testing was robust enough, according to one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conference call.

Still, some GOP senators also spoke of their vision for what a restart of the economy would look like.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who participated in the call Thursday, said the reopenings should be staggered, county by county, state by state, depending on each locality’s circumstances — and that Trump was “definitely” receptive to that position. Braun warned in an interview that the economy was “very close to the point of irreparable damage.”

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to test comprehensive enough and with enough confidence where it would assuage the fears of people who want that in place before you reopen the economy,” Braun said.

But the eagerness of Trump and some other Republicans to reopen the stalled economy alarmed the Democrats on the call, who all pressed the president for more expansive testing. Trump and Vice President Pence told senators that the current testing capacity was about 120,000 tests per day, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who also participated on the call.

“We need to do this in a methodical way and not just rush forward and put lives at risk,” said Duckworth, one of the 13 Democratic senators selected for the president’s task force on reopening the economy.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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