President Trump said Friday that determining when it will be safe to drop social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the coronavirus is “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
With hospitalization rates from COVID-19 falling in New York and California but the overall number of cases still rising in the United States, Trump spent much of Friday’s briefing by the coronavirus task force addressing the question of when the country could expect to return to normal. While state governors hold the power to lift restrictions that have crippled economic activity across the country, Trump framed the issue as his own burden.
“I don’t know if I’ve had a bigger decision than that, if you think, right? I mean, think of that decision, somebody said, ‘It’s totally up to the president,’ and it is. I don’t know if I’ve had a bigger decision,” Trump said. “But I’m going to surround myself with the greatest minds. Not only the greatest minds in numerous different businesses, including the business of politics and reason and we’re going to make a decision and hopefully it’s going to be the right decision. I will say this, we want to get it open as soon as we can.”
Trump said that next week he would announce the formation of an “opening our country council,” designed to coordinate jump-starting the economy, which would include some state governors. But he repeatedly stressed that he would ultimately be the one in charge.
“I can listen to 35 people. At the end, I’ve got to make a decision, and I didn’t think of it until yesterday, I said, ‘You know, this is a big decision.’ I want to be guided,” Trump said. “I want to be guided by them [Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx], I’m going to be guided by our vice president. I’m going to make a decision based on a lot of different opinions. Some will maybe disagree, and some will — I’d love to see it where they don’t disagree.”
One key question at the briefing was raised by Jeff Mason of Reuters, who noted that the statistical models now predicting a lower number of total deaths from COVID-19 — as few as 60,000, down from a range of 100,000 to 240,000 — “are based on social distancing continuing through May.” He continued: “If you were to open the economy on May 1 or sometime during that month, would that impact the models in terms of the deaths that you expect?”
Trump quickly turned the microphone over to Birx, who conceded the premise of the question — that the modeling assumes a continuation of social distancing precautions through the end of next month — but quickly segued to discussing how “the models are informed by the data, and you can see how much that model has shifted on the amazing work of the American people.” In a complex answer that invoked “multivariate analysis” and the widening “confidence bands” on the graphs of expected deaths, she implied that other steps, such as contact tracing, which some states have put into effect, could make it feasible to relax some of the more stringent social distancing guidelines.
Trump then reclaimed the lectern to give a more direct answer, based on his long-standing desire not to have “a cure that’s worse than the disease”: “Couldn’t it lead to death? Staying at home leads to death also, and it’s very traumatic for this country. Staying at home, if you look at numbers, that leads to a different kind of death, perhaps, but it leads to death also.”
Still, the president acknowledged that abandoning social distancing too soon could result in new flare-ups of the virus, as has been seen in countries like South Korea and Japan. All of these factors, Trump said, would contribute to what he called the “biggest decision of my life.”
“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God it’s the right decision. But I would say, without question, it’s the biggest decision that I’ve ever had to make.”
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