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White House seeks easing of shutdown in May, but some fear second viral wave

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is pushing to reopen much of the country next month, raising concerns among medical experts and economists of a possible COVID-19 resurgence if Americans return to their normal lives before the virus is truly stamped out.

Behind closed doors, President Trump — concerned with the sagging economy — has sought a strategy for resuming business activity by May 1, according to people familiar with the discussions.

In phone calls with outside advisers, Trump has even floated trying to reopen much of the country before the end of this month, when the current federal recommendations to avoid social gatherings and work from home expire, the people said. Trump regularly looks at unemployment and stock market numbers, complaining that they are hurting his presidency and reelection prospects, the people said.


Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.

Trump said at his daily briefing Thursday that the United States was at the ‘‘top of the hill’’ and added, ‘‘Hopefully, we’re going to be opening up — you could call it opening — very, very, very, very soon, I hope.’’

Multiple Cabinet secretaries in recent days have publicly expressed hope that the various government orders directing residents to stay at home and forcing nonessential businesses to close could be eased at least partially next month.

Asked Thursday during an appearance on CNBC whether he thought it was possible that the country could be open for business next month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, ‘‘I do.’’ A day earlier, Attorney General William Barr had called some of the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions ‘‘draconian’’ and suggested they needed to be reevaluated next month.

The White House cannot unilaterally reopen the country. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued federal guidance advising people to avoid social gatherings, work from home, and use pickup and delivery options for food, it is state officials who have put the force of law behind those suggestions.


The CDC guidance is set to expire April 30, but the states are free to choose their own paths. Already, the state directives have varied in timing and in severity, and that is certain to continue as they are rolled back.

White House advisers have contemplated scenarios in which some ‘‘hot spot’’ states will not be ready to reopen as quickly, the people familiar with the matter said. There have already been vigorous debates, with public-health experts and some presidential advisers warning against reopening too soon, while key members of the president’s economic team — and some conservatives in the vice president’s orbit — push for a quicker return to normalcy.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, said Thursday that some places might reopen sooner than others, and that hard-hit New York, for example, shouldn’t loosen its restrictions until there was a ‘‘very steep decline’’ in infections.

‘‘It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all,’’ he said.

Trump, said one senior administration official with direct knowledge of the conversations, asks regularly: ‘‘When can we reopen?’’

Health experts say ending the shutdown prematurely would be disastrous because the restrictions have barely had time to work, and because US leaders have not built up the capacity for alternatives to stay-at-home orders — such as the mass testing, large-scale contact tracing and targeted quarantines that have been used in other countries.


Even one of the most optimistic models, which has been used by the White House and governors, predicts a death toll of 60,400, but only if current drastic restrictions are kept in place until the end of May.

Trump is preparing to announce the creation of a second, smaller coronavirus task force aimed at combating the economic ramifications of the pandemic, according to people familiar with the plans.