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Executives paint push to reopen nation as haphazard

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s attempt to enlist corporate executives in a push to reopen parts of society amid the coronavirus pandemic got off to a rocky start Wednesday, with some business leaders complaining the effort was haphazard and warning that more testing needs to be in place before restrictions are lifted.

The president spent much of his day hosting conference calls with company executives, industry groups, and others he announced Tuesday as part of a hastily formed outside advisory council devoted to the issue.

Advisers said the effort was aimed at building national momentum to reopen much of the country’s economy by next month. Trump said guidelines for such an effort will be announced Thursday.


‘‘Today, I spoke with the leaders of many of our nation’s most renowned companies and organizations on how to achieve the full resurgence of the American economy,’’ Trump told reporters at the daily coronavirus briefing in the Rose Garden on Wednesday evening. ‘‘We want to get our country open again.’’

But across the business world, there was private unhappiness with how the White House handled the announcement of the advisory council — which it has dubbed its ‘‘Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups’’ — and others warned that Trump’s goal of a May 1 reopening date for much of the country was unrealistic.

Many of the chief executives urged the White House to focus more on mass testing, according to several participants on the calls. Public health experts have argued that widespread testing is a key prerequisite to reopening the economy because it would determine who is infected and needs to be isolated, giving Americans greater confidence that they can safely return to work and public life.

Trump seemed to downplay the issue while speaking Wednesday in the Rose Garden.

‘‘We have the best tests in the world,’’ Trump said. ‘‘And we will be working very much with the governors of the states. We want them to do it. . . . The states are much better equipped to do it.’’


Some of the groups involved in the calls were notified in advance of Trump’s announcement, while others heard their names for the first time during the Rose Garden event Tuesday night.

‘‘We got a note about a conference call, like you’d get an invite to a Zoom thing, a few lines in an e-mail, and that was it. Then our CEO heard his name in the Rose Garden? What the [expletive]?’’ said one prominent Washington lobbyist for a leading global corporation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. ‘‘My company is furious. How do you go from ‘Join us on a call’ to, ‘Well, you’re on our team?’ ”

Two White House officials defended Wednesday’s calls, describing them as a chance for business leaders to share their ideas and provide the president with anecdotes and personal takes on the timeline for reopening the economy, ‘‘with some telling him it looks like May 1 for their companies and others saying June,’’ according to one of the officials.

But participants in the calls — which took place in four rounds and included representatives from more than a dozen industries, including banking, sports, agriculture, and health care — painted a picture of a chaotic approach by the White House.

‘‘Trump made it very clear he was ready to go on May 1,’’ a person who was on one of the afternoon calls said. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call, added that Trump seemed to bask in the praise from CEOs, who repeatedly opened their comments with compliments for the president.


Public health experts — including several members of Trump’s administration — have said in recent days that a target date of May 1 is not realistic. In addition to the issue of mass testing, experts have argued that because the virus has an estimated incubation period of up to 14 days, 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 New York Times, quoting public health officials and political leaders, reported that most of the country is not conducting nearly enough testing to track the path and penetration of the coronavirus in a way that would allow Americans to safely return to work.

Although capacity has improved in recent weeks, supply shortages remain crippling, and many regions are still restricting tests to people who meet specific criteria. Antibody tests, which reveal whether someone has ever been infected with the coronavirus, are just starting to be rolled out, and most have not been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration.

“It is great that we are flattening the curve,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, who is advising state and federal policymakers on the virus response.


“But for this next phase, where we are really aiming to detect and stamp out smaller outbreaks before they get so big, testing is critical for that,” he said. “So we have to plan ahead now for much larger capacity.”

By the end of May, he added, “we will maybe be up to 2 million tests a week, but we are definitely not at that level now.”

Nationally, an average of 145,000 people have been tested for the virus each day over the past week, according to the Covid Tracking Project, which reported a total of nearly 3.1 million tests across the United States as of Tuesday night.

Material from the New York Times was used in this report.