Sav­ing lives vs. sav­ing econ­omy

Gov­er­nors are taken aback when Trump sug­gests restrictio­ns could end by Easter.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Mege­rian

Gov­er­nors are taken aback when Trump sug­gests coro­n­avirus restrictio­ns could end by Easter.

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump and some of the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent gov­er­nors plunged into heated de­bate Tues­day over how much death they’re willing to risk to get the econ­omy run­ning again dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Pub­lic health ex­perts warn that they don’t yet know whether the United States is suc­ceed­ing in slow­ing the spread of the virus by shut­ting down schools, shops and restau­rants and telling mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to work from home. Trump, none­the­less, has re­peat­edly said in re­cent days that he wants to quickly ease restrictio­ns.

“I’d love to have the coun­try opened up and just rar­ing to go by Easter,” he said in an ap­pear­ance on Fox News, where he fielded questions from hosts and view­ers. The hol­i­day would be a “beau­ti­ful time” to have “packed churches,” he later said. Doc­tors have dis­cour­aged gath­er­ing in crowds dur­ing the pan­demic.

Trump re­peat­edly down­played the threat of the virus by com­par­ing it to sea­sonal flu, de­spite ev­i­dence that the new virus is more deadly and con­ta­gious. The re­ported U.S. death toll from the ill­ness caused by the coro­n­avirus was 790 as of Tues­day evening.

“We’ve never closed down the coun­try for the flu,” Trump said. “So you say to your­self, what is this all about?”

His re­marks drew sharp re­join­ders and re­sis­tance from gov­er­nors in both par­ties — the of­fi­cials who have the fi­nal say over lim­i­ta­tions on daily life in their states.

“If you ask the Amer­i­can peo­ple to choose between pub­lic health and the econ­omy, then it’s no con­test,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Demo­crat, said at a news con­fer­ence Tues­day. “No Amer­i­can is go­ing to say ‘ac­cel­er­ate the econ­omy at the cost of hu­man life.’ ”

“My mother is not ex­pend­able. And your mother is not ex­pend­able,” he said. “We’re not go­ing to ac­cept a premise that hu­man life is dis­pos­able.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Repub­li­can, also pushed back against Trump’s sug­ges­tion of a rapid re­turn to nor­mal.

“We are go­ing to get our econ­omy back, but we have to get through it, pro­tect as many lives as we can, and then move for­ward. I’m look­ing for­ward to that day, but it’s not yet here,” he tweeted.

DeWine, whose state had 567 known cases of ill­ness from the virus and eight deaths by Tues­day evening, was one of the first gov­er­nors to or­der the clo­sure of his state’s schools and restau­rants and some other busi­nesses.

Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan, an­other Repub­li­can who has put in place sim­i­lar restrictio­ns, seemed an­noyed by Trump’s sug­ges­tion of loos­en­ing restrictio­ns while he was try­ing to keep his state un­der wraps.

“Some of the mes­sag­ing com­ing out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t match” what gov­er­nors are try­ing to con­vey to the pub­lic, Hogan said. He re­ferred to Trump’s time­line as an “imag­i­nary clock” and sug­gested Mary­land was weeks away from the peak of COVID-19 cases caused by the virus.

Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som, a Demo­crat, has avoided tan­gling with Trump over the pan­demic but re­jected the no­tion that his state would see busi­nesses re­open next month.

“I think April for Cal­i­for­nia would be sooner than any of the ex­perts that I talked to be­lieve is pos­si­ble,” he said at a news con­fer­ence Tues­day.

Govern­ments at all lev­els in the last few weeks have taken steps to slow the spread of the coro­n­avirus through so­cial dis­tanc­ing — urg­ing peo­ple to limit gath­er­ings and phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers.

The goal is to pre­vent a rapid spike in cases that could over­whelm hos­pi­tals with crit­i­cally ill pa­tients. Health ex­perts con­sulted by the White House have es­ti­mated that COVID-19, if left un­con­trolled, could kill over 2 mil­lion Amer­i­cans over the next sev­eral months.

Al­though the vast ma­jor­ity of the restrictio­ns with which the coun­try is liv­ing have been or­dered by state and lo­cal govern­ments, not Wash­ing­ton, Trump a lit­tle over a week ago urged peo­ple to ob­serve so­cial-dis­tanc­ing restrictio­ns for a 15-day pe­riod, end­ing March 30. He said Tues­day that the guide­lines would re­main in place “a lit­tle bit longer th an that,” but hadn’t set a dead­line.

Later Tues­day, at a White House brief­ing, Trump ap­peared to back away a bit from his Easter time­line, say­ing “we’ll only do it if it’s good” and that per­haps restrictio­ns could be eased in some parts of the coun­try but not oth­ers. He added that he would be guided by rec­om­men­da­tions from the med­i­cal ex­perts on his coro­n­avirus task force, Drs. Deb­o­rah Birx and An­thony Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Diseases.

Fauci had pre­vi­ously said that he and other health ex­perts might need weeks to de­ter­mine whether the coun­try was mak­ing progress. At the brief­ing, he said the key is­sue was fig­ur­ing out “what’s go­ing on in those ar­eas of the coun­try where there isn’t an ob­vi­ous out­break.”

“You can look at a date” for eas­ing restrictio­ns, “but you’ve got to be very flex­i­ble,” Fauci said.

Pub­lic health ex­perts have cau­tioned that speed­ing to­ward loos­en­ing guide­lines would be un­wise.

“We’ve gone through a lot of trou­ble by shut­ting so­ci­ety down,” said David Katz, found­ing di­rec­tor of Yale Univer­sity’s Yale-Grif­fin Preven­tion Re­search Cen­ter. “You don’t want to rush to undo that.”

But Trump is ea­ger to find ways to boost the econ­omy, which has stalled since the coro­n­avirus be­gan spread­ing across the coun­try. The stock mar­ket re­mains wounded de­spite re­bound­ing on Tues­day, and un­em­ploy­ment claims are in­creas­ing as busi­nesses lay off work­ers now that con­sumers are ma­rooned at home.

“It’s been very painful for our coun­try, and very desta­bi­liz­ing for our coun­try,” Trump said. “We’re go­ing back to work much sooner than peo­ple thought. And peo­ple can go back to work and they can also prac­tice good judg­ment,” he said, adding that peo­ple can be safe by wash­ing hands to limit trans­mit­ting the virus.

He warned that eco­nomic prob­lems could cre­ate their own pub­lic health is­sues, say­ing fi­nan­cial dis­tress could lead “thou­sands” to com­mit sui­cide, and liken­ing the coro­n­avirus threat to car crashes. “We didn’t call up the au­to­mo­bile com­pa­nies and say, ‘Stop mak­ing cars; we don’t want any cars any­more,’ ” he said. “We have to get back to work.”

Those com­par­isons lack com­pa­ra­ble scale. The Great Re­ces­sion af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 led to an es­ti­mated 12,940 sui­cides across North Amer­ica and Europe, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try, and car ac­ci­dents caused about 36,000 deaths in 2018, the lat­est year that fed­eral sta­tis­tics are avail­able.

But Trump has been hear­ing from many con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors and politi­cians who say the restrictio­ns are ex­ces­sive.

“There cer­tainly are risks with re­open­ing the econ­omy,” said Steve Moore, a for­mer eco­nomic ad­vi­sor to Trump’s 2016 cam­paign who re­mains in touch with the White House. “That’s in­dis­putable. The real ques­tion is, what are the risks of not re­open­ing the econ­omy?”

Some went a step fur­ther, sug­gest­ing grand­par­ents may be willing to take more risks to help the coun­try.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a se­nior ci­ti­zen, are you willing to take a chance on your sur­vival in ex­change for keep­ing the Amer­ica that all Amer­ica loves for your chil­dren and grand­chil­dren?’ ” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Repub­li­can, told Fox News on Mon­day. “And if that’s the ex­change, I’m all in.”

Cuomo and oth­ers say those ar­gu­ments amount to sac­ri­fic­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble for the sake of those who are al­ready bet­ter off. “We’re not go­ing to put a dol­lar fig­ure on hu­man life,” Cuomo said.

Katz, the Yale ex­pert, is sen­si­tive to con­cerns that eco­nomic prob­lems could cre­ate new is­sues. “There is more than one way for lives to be lost or ru­ined,” he said.

For now, the coun­try lacks enough data to make clear rec­om­men­da­tions about whether peo­ple can go back to work. Most im­por­tant, he said, re­searchers need to know more about how the dis­ease af­fects young peo­ple. “Are we at greater risk across the age spec­trum?” he said. “Sadly, it’s a pos­si­bil­ity. We need to know if it’s a re­al­ity.”

If young peo­ple are in­deed less vul­ner­a­ble, as in­di­cated by ex­pe­ri­ences with the coro­n­avirus in other coun­tries, there could be a way to ease back into nor­mal life by fo­cus­ing health­care re­sources on the el­derly, Katz said. As more data can be an­a­lyzed, pol­i­cy­mak­ers can make smarter choices, he said.

“We can an­swer that ques­tion in as lit­tle as two or three weeks,” he said.

Doug Mills Pool Photo

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP said Tues­day on Fox News that Easter would be a “beau­ti­ful time” to have “packed churches” — prompt­ing warn­ings from health ex­perts and gov­er­nors of both par­ties. He later backed off some­what, say­ing he would be guided by his task force.

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