WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Monday said he is considering scaling back steps to constrain the spread of the coronavirus in the next week or two due to concerns that the impact on the economy has become too severe.
But loosening restrictions on social distancing and similar measures soon would likely require him to override the internal warnings of senior U.S. health officials who have said that the United States has not yet felt the worst of the pandemic, according to several people with knowledge of the internal deliberations.
Trump said at a news conference Monday night that at some point soon the damage being done to the economy could be worse than the threat of the virus spreading further. He said the decision could be based geographically, with areas of the country with a low number of positive cases moving back to a normal routine while areas such as New York remain under restrictions.
"America will again - and soon - be open for business," he said. "Very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself."
When asked whether he would make the decision to loosen social distancing recommendations even if it went against the advice of federal public health officials, Trump said: "If it was up to the doctors they might say shut down the entire world."
Trump later said he would consider the advice of public health officials before making a decision.
He said that any decision would come when what the White House has dubbed "15 Days to Slow the Spread" ends March 30 and that the restrictions could continue for another week or more but not for months.
"This could create a much bigger problem than the problem you started off with," the president told reporters.
He also compared the effort to combat the virus to auto crashes.
"You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we are talking about," Trump says. "That doesn't mean we are going to tell everybody no driving with cars."
Leading public health experts have told administration officials and Republican lawmakers that prematurely scaling back of social-distancing measures would hamper efforts to mitigate the virus and would devastate hospitals, according to the people with knowledge of the conversations, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations. More than 30,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, a number expected to significantly increase in the coming days and potentially overwhelm the nation's health-care infrastructure.
But the push to reopen parts of the economy has gained traction among some Republican lawmakers in the Senate and the House, said two people with knowledge of the matter.
Conservative economists Steven Moore and Art Laffer have been lobbying the White House for more than a week to consider scaling back the recommendation that restaurants, stores and other gathering spots be closed, although exactly what that would entail remains unclear. Wall Street and conservative media figures have also embraced the idea.
Trump has begun canvassing his advisers, GOP senators and other allies about what his course of action should be, according to a senior administration official. He is worried about the impact of soaring unemployment numbers and severe economic contraction on his 2020 reelection bid, and has fielded phone calls for much of the weekend from alarmed business leaders. He is fixated on the plummeting stock market, is chafing at the idea of the country remaining closed until the summer and is growing tired of talking only about the coronavirus, one person said.
Three people who have recently spoken with the White House economic team, including Moore, confirmed the push for restoring normalcy to the U.S. economy and returning workers to their jobs.
Trump signaled his concerns with the outbreak restrictions and the economy in a tweet late Sunday night.
"WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF," Trump said. "AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized the tweet Monday as part of a scattershot response to the crisis.
"The president will not take responsibility," she said. "He's a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well-coordinated science-based governmentwide response to this. Thank God for the governors, who are taking the leads in their states, and for some of the people in the administration, who speak truth to power."
Some Republicans also oppose changing course.
"It would be a major mistake to suggest any change of course when it comes to containment," Sen. Lindsey Graham, S.C., a close ally of Trump's, said in an interview. "I just spoke with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci [the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the president's coronavirus task force] - he believes that, if anything, we should be more aggressive and do more. . . . You can't have a functioning economy if you have hospitals overflowing. People aren't going to go to work like that."
One senior administration official said that there is a widespread understanding among government officials about the need to reopen the economy but that proposals have not yet been presented to Trump. The administration has looked at options such as whether people can go back to work if they are able to avoid public transportation, or whether they can return to their jobs if they are not in areas with high infection rates.
Internally, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and officials from the Office of Management and Budget are pushing to get the economy back on track as quickly as possible, according to people familiar with the matter.
"The president is right. The cure can't be worse than the disease," Kudlow said on Fox News Channel on Monday. "And we're going to have to make some difficult trade-offs."
One option under consideration is a gradual scaling back of current restrictions, where people younger than 40 who are healthy go back to work on a certain date, followed by people ages 40 to 50, according to one person briefed on the discussions.
"You have a classic case of the public health people saying, 'We have to keep everyone sequestered for as long as this takes without any regard to the economic cost.' The economics team is saying, 'If this lasts seven to 10 weeks, there won't be much of an economy to save. From my sources, the view in the White House is shifting toward getting the economy reopened," Moore said. "There has been a pivot."
Moore added: "I'm not in any way disparaging the public health people. They are vital to this process. But you can't have a policy that says we're going to save every human life at any cost, no matter how many trillions of dollars you're talking about."
Health officials have said there needs to be flexibility on the restrictions, even as they have argued for robust social distancing measures to be put in place.
"There is a discussion and a delicate balance about what's the overall impact of shutting everything down completely for an indefinite period of time. So, there's a compromise," Fauci told Science magazine in a recent interview. "If you knock down the economy completely and disrupt infrastructure, you may be causing health issues, unintended consequences, for people who need to be able to get to places and can't. You do the best you can."
While Trump has focused on the 15-day timeline, health experts said that is not expected to be enough time to defeat the virus's spread.
Hospitals have been sounding the alarm that they are facing severe shortages of protective equipment and ventilators to treat increasing numbers of patients. Cases in the United States are rapidly increasing and have not yet reached their peak. The nation still does not have comprehensive data about the spread of the virus, its mortality rate, or data about available intensive care unit beds, ventilators and other hospital equipment.
Public health experts are strongly warning against the idea of loosening social distancing measures. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said "every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of" believes the United States should be tightening the restrictions.
"We haven't yet even seen signs that the growth is slowing, much less reversing. Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them," Lipsitch said. "If we let up now we can be virtually certain that health care will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of."
But pressure is also mounting on Trump from top business leaders and conservative media outlets alarmed about the effect on the economy. James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, warned Sunday that the unemployment rate in the nation could reach 30% in the second quarter amid the outbreak. The stock market, a key selling point of Trump's reelection bid, has been floundering.
Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled "Coronavirus Perspective," that plays down the extent of the spread and the threat.
Some Wall Street figures have begun calling for measures to mitigate the economic impact of the public health response to the pandemic.
"Extreme measures to flatten the virus 'curve' is sensible - for a time - to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure," Lloyd Blankfein, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, said on Twitter, referring to the curve of cases on a chart. "But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue - and beyond. Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work."
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The Washington Post's Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Felicia Sonmez and Erica Werner contributed to this report.
This article was written by Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jeff Stein, and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.