President Trump has declared a national emergency, which he said would “unleash the full power of the federal government” to fight the pandemic. Congress appeared poised to pass a legislative package soon to bring relief to the most vulnerable. But doubts about the federal response have deepened as officials have offered conflicting information, and Trump has played down the threat posed by the virus.
Many large organizations have taken decisive action anyway, instituting telework policies, shuttering schools and abruptly canceling sports seasons. But the steps have been more tentative in other corners, where the information vacuum has left Americans taking less dramatic measures in hopes of retaining a semblance of a normal life.
In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop had been growing increasingly frustrated throughout the week with the lack of clear instructions from the state and federal government. He had tried to reach state officials for guidance, he said, but received only promises that directives were coming.
Trump’s prime time speech on Wednesday, meant to soothe an anxious public, came with no concrete steps he could take, Fulop said.
“There was very little in that speech that was useful to me,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t just want advice; I wanted clear directives.”
After seeking insight from local medical experts, Fulop asked large and midsize restaurants to keep rosters of their customers and established a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants carrying liquor licenses.
“How could we sit back and do nothing?” he said.
Anita Chandra, a public health expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, said clarity from the federal government during public health emergencies is crucial to saving lives and limiting exposure to risk. While local governments have their own disaster resources, they still rely on the federal government to coordinate.
“This has not been the kind of symphony that usually happens in emergency response,” she said. “People are trying to make do with piecing together information, piecing together resources, piecing together decisions that they have to make across industry sectors and across sectors of the government locally.”
In Arkansas, the Rev. Josh King met with the pastors of five other churches on Thursday to decide whether to continue holding service. Their religious beliefs told them that meeting in person to worship each Sunday remained an essential part of their faith, and some of their members signed on to Trump’s claims that the media and Democrats were overblowing the danger posed by the virus.
“One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus,” said King, lead pastor at Second Baptist church in Conway, Ark.
But King and his colleagues were concerned: They believed the virus was a serious threat, and mass gatherings such as church services could spread it. He and the other Arkansas pastors ultimately decided that they would hold services as usual this Sunday, with some extra precautions.
They hired cleaning teams to scour their buildings. They asked the greeters to open the doors, so no one would touch the doorknobs, and asked members to donate online or at the door, so they wouldn’t need to pass a communal offering plate. No more coffee after the service, they told members, and no hugs or handshakes either.
“In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype,” said King, whose church draws about 1,100 worshipers on a typical Sunday.
As questions of governance blurred last week with questions of politics and ideology, some who already mistrusted Trump decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.
In Takoma Park, Md., a liberal suburb of Washington, Elizabeth Tully and her husband decided on their own to begin working from home full-time in the name of “social distancing” — a term for increasing the physical space between people to reduce disease transmission.
Tully, 35, said she was guided by news articles she read that detailed what public health experts recommended elsewhere. She spent hours trying to learn as much as she could about how to protect herself and her young family — she learned about transmission curves and compared guidances issued by experts across the United States and in other countries. Ahead of their first full day at home, they rearranged their furniture to accommodate proper desks with computer screens to make their home more like an office.
Tully then looked to a familiar place for guidance: her neighborhood parenting email group. A thread she started was flooded with comments and questions from other parents, many of whom considered pulling their own children from school days before their districts made the decision to shut down.
“I think a lot of people have been struggling to make a decision on something that feels like an extreme behavior change when the threat still feels kind of invisible. We made this decision really reluctantly,” she said.
Public health experts have increasingly voiced support for such measures in recent days. On social media, the hashtag #StayHome has circulated widely, tweeted by medical experts, members of Congress and nonexperts alike.
Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the government, on Sunday said Americans are “going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing” when asked if measures to shut down workplaces, restaurants and bars were an overreaction.
The crisis sparked by the virus is unlike any that has faced the United States in recent memory. While containing the virus is the priority, public health experts say repeated missteps by the federal government have left the country behind in its capability to manage its spread.
The missteps — and the fact that the government had few answers — became obvious early on as the virus took hold.
Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde learned last Saturday that one of her most prominent priests had coronavirus, and four days later, she made the decision to close 88 churches, including Washington National Cathedral. Amid the flood of information and conversations, one thought continually rose to the top: Try not to get ahead of what public health officials are saying.
That mantra soon became untenable. She was in touch that Saturday with city health officials, but there were conflicting reports about how contagious the virus was. Should they cancel church Sunday? Should they tell the congregation that the Rev. Timothy Cole was the unnamed patient? Budde and church leaders spent hours talking with city officials but received no specific answers.
“I’m not blaming them,” Budde said of the city health officials. “We had a person right there with us. We were in contact, but we weren’t getting definitive answers.”
In coming days, as she considered closing more churches, she saw media reports citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked different from what was on the CDC website itself. Some reports said the CDC was telling all people older than 60 to stay home. She heard high-level experts — including former top health officials — on TV saying the same thing.
“We were parsing those hairs,” she said.
The pace of last week’s events produced whiplash in the theater world, where “most of us work so far in advance,” says Paul Tetreault, the director of Ford’s Theatre in the District. “We’ve already planned the ’20-’21 season, and we’re looking at ’21-’22.”
Tetreault initially thought he would be able to keep everything on track for the premiere of “Guys and Dolls,” which was set to open Saturday after five weeks of rehearsals. But that changed after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s decision to declare a state of emergency; a follow-up conference call with the Department of Health about nightlife further clarified “that social distancing was critical,” he said.
“To be frank, on Wednesday, we’d all decided, ‘Yes, we’ve got to go forward.’ On Thursday, we had all taken a 360-degree turn,” he said.
Val Ackerman, the head of the Big East college basketball conference, said she had looked to the New York City health department and the NCAA for cues about whether to keep the conference going. But the NCAA has neither a commissioner nor a single governing board. And, unlike in other cities, New York City health officials were slow to cancel large events.
A turning point came Wednesday when the NBA made the abrupt decision to suspend its season after a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; a second player on the team also tested positive Thursday, raising urgent questions about how many other teammates and audience members may have been exposed.
That set off a domino effect as, one by one, every major sports league in the United States announced cancellations.
Ackerman called another conference’s commissioner. Then she reached out to a contact at New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, who told her the city would soon be issuing directives to limit large gatherings. On Thursday afternoon, she decided — at halftime of a quarterfinal game — to cancel the remainder of the Big East tournament.
“Few of the people running sports leagues or sports organizations are qualified medical professionals,” Ackerman said in a news conference at Madison Square Garden.
The president, who said two weeks ago that the coronavirus scare was a “new hoax” seized upon by his political rivals, has been criticized for failing at times to convey the seriousness of the situation. Taking the president’s comments at face value, some of his strongest supporters have expressed skepticism about whether the coronavirus was a real threat.
But the reality of the situation has started to set in recently as schools and businesses began to shut down.
Alicia Kusky of Port Huron, Mich., said Friday she thinks the government has reacted swiftly and appropriately. Kusky, 39, said she believes the president had previously called the coronavirus “a hoax” because he was trying to prevent mass panic.
“He just didn’t want to cause pandemonium. But now it’s legit, and things are really happening, and we have to take safety measures,” she said. “Maybe I’m being naive about this but I feel good about our president taking action.”
Her immediate concerns were not political, she said.
She had already made peace with a canceled trip to Bellaire, Mich., owing to her compromised immune system after battling leukemia when she was younger.
Now, she needed to deal with the canceled fish fry at St. Mary Catholic Church, which meant abruptly finding a place to donate the unused food. With school canceled for her two daughters, who are 12 and 14 years old, she also needed to find time to pick up arts and crafts so they don’t get restless at home.
“The important thing is not to panic,” she said.
Michelle Boorstein and Fritz Hahn contributed to this report.