A three-phase plan the Trump administration unveiled Thursday for individual states to reopen post-pandemic leaves that decision largely up to individual governors – a step back from the president’s “total authority” assertions from earlier in the week.
That means that for states like New Jersey and New York – two of the hardest hit in the country – plans for a regional approach to reopening Mid-Atlantic economies can continue largely on the same course, as the rate of new COVID-19 positive cases starts to flatten in the area.
“The curve has flattened and the peak in new cases is behind us,” U.S. President Donald Trump said at a White House press briefing Thursday evening. “We’re opening up our country. America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open. A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.”
But, at his Wednesday afternoon daily press conference in Trenton, Gov. Phil Murphy said in New Jersey that “[t]he house is still on fire.”
“The curve may be flattening but we’re still going up, not coming down,” he added.
Trump on Thursday reiterated that governors – or even groups of states – can take a slower approach should the need arise.
“New Jersey’s been hit unbelievably hard,” Trump said. “Last thing we want is, let’s say, New York to come back too soon or New Jersey to come back too soon.”
Under the plan, before states and local governments can even consider entering phase one, they need to make it through a “gating” period: Two weeks of consistent downward trends in the number of new COVID-19-like cases, a drop in the number of new infections and positive tests, and both a mass testing program and the ability for hospitals to treat all COVID-19 patients.
“If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that,” the president said. “And if they believe it is time to reopen, we will provide the freedom to accomplish that task.”
The first phase calls for schools to stay closed and people to continue working from home. Gatherings should stay at no more than 10 people, while large venues such as dine-in restaurants, theaters, places of worship, gyms and sporting venues should adhere to strict social distancing. Only outpatient elective surgeries should be allowed to resume.
Phase two calls for lifting restrictions on non-essential travel and allowing gatherings of up to 50 people. Telecommuting and physical distancing would still be encouraged. Schools and summer-camps would be allowed to reopen, as would bars but with reduced capacity.
Both phases call for at-risk populations, such as the elderly, to stay at home.
During the third phase, at-risk populations would still be encouraged to avoid large crowds as much as possible, and maintain physical distancing. Normal staffing levels at worksites can resume, as can visits to hospitals and long-term care facilities, such as senior centers. Large venues can reopen with limited social distancing protocols, while gyms and bars can resume normal operations.
“This is a gradual process. As the caseload in a state continues to go down, restrictions can continue to be eased,” Trump said.
Murphy has reiterated a specific order for how the state’s economy – now in a near-total state of lockdown – could potentially reopen. And, its need to ramp up testing to a level not yet seen, especially because there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19.
Businesses that reopen would need to maintain 6-foot social distancing practices, and state and local health officials would need the capacity to quickly employ “contact tracing” to gauge the origins of any COVID-19 cases so they could isolate any potential new outbreaks, Murphy argued.
“The notion that we’re going to go back to some sort of, ‘let’s just turn the clock back to three months ago’, I just don’t see it,” Murphy said Wednesday. “People talk about a new normal and I think that’s a reality.”
Trump’s recommendations are non-binding, and Murphy has cautioned that the state may have to look at restricting travel into New Jersey from states in the country that had less rigorous social distancing measures, or were late to adopt them.
“I’m not going to make the people in this state go through hell and back to flatten that curve … all the isolation and social distancing and staying at home, only to have some lowest common denominator throw gasoline on the fire,” Murphy said in March.