Governors edged Friday toward relaxing restrictions to combat coronavirus after President Donald Trump released new national guidelines, but they cautioned that testing shortages and other hurdles could hinder progress to revive the economy.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday plans to reopen state parks Monday, to ease limits on surgeries Wednesday and to reopen retail businesses for pickup, delivery and mail orders April 24.
“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott said.
But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has faced the biggest outbreak with more than 200,000 cases and 12,000 deaths, said the only quick fix would be a vaccine or better anti-viral treatment, which could be months or more than a year away. Until then, reopening the economy will be incremental, to avoid flaming another outbreak.
“You’re not going to hear any day soon, it’s over, the nightmare ends and we wake up,” Cuomo said Friday during his daily news conference. “It’s going to be incremental and we have to be smart.”
Charting a course to reopen
Trump issued guidelines Thursday to ease restrictions for social distancing and for reopening parts of the economy during three phases, such as schools, restaurants and theaters. Each phase requires a 14-day period of a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases.
But in a key shift, Trump said governors would determine the pace of lifting restrictions.
"We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time," Trump said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the current chair of the National Governors Association, described the recommendations as “pretty good." But he also said that his state is looking at its own metrics for when to reopen and has been doing so for several weeks.
“We’ll gradually start easing things off and opening things up when we believe it’s safe to do so,” the Republican governor said Friday during a virtual event organized by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
Hogan stressed that governors have their own public health experts and economists studying the timing on when to reopen.
“We all want to get the economy opened up and states back open as quickly as possible but we’re not going to do it in a way that endangers the lives of thousands of our citizens,” he added.
Like other governors, Hogan noted that Trump’s remarks this week claiming to have authority to make the decision “put everybody in a big uproar” but said that the president “completely reversed himself” days later. Hogan said that reversal was a “good decision.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who initially resisted a stay-at-home order until early April, said Thursday that he would use the guidelines to create a plan for “safely returning to more routine operations.”
“In the coming days, I will outline how Georgia will move forward,” said Kemp, whose statewide restrictions expire April 30. “Many Georgians are ready to get back to work, and the fundamentals of our economy remain strong. I am confident that we will successfully rebound from this public health emergency.”
Hawaii’s Democratic Gov. David Ige said the state does not meet the criteria established by the White House for a phased opening because it requires a downward trajectory in coronavirus cases over a two-week period.
“We’re making progress, but we’re not there yet,” Ige said, according to Hawaii Public Radio. “So please continue your hard work and perseverance. We will get through this together.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat repeatedly praised by Trump for his handling of the virus, expressed skepticism about reopening a state with 80,000 cases, for lack of robust testing to track the virus.
“We’re not ready,” Murphy told reporters flatly. “They’re basically saying the governors are the ones who will determine a lot of this. We agree with that.”
Consensus: Expanding testing is key
Key requirements for states to ease their restrictions are to increase testing, so that infections can be traced and isolated, and reviving their economies. But significant hurdles remain for both.
Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, has said the county needs to test 750,000 people a day, or about 4 million per week, to track the virus. But only about 1 million tests are conducted per week, according to Ron Klain, former White House ebola coordinator during the Obama administration and an adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
“This is kind of a bipartisan view of heath care experts that you need to have the testing,” Klain said Friday at a Politico interview. “Why? Because if you’re not testing at least 1% of the population every week, or three to four million people, you don’t really know how bad the disease is, how many hidden cases we have, where it’s being spread and so on and so forth.”
Cuomo said his state is developing the capacity that hasn't existed for large-scale testing that the coronavirus will require. New York has 300 labs in hospitals for virology testing, but they must all be coordinated, he said. Even if private companies provide test kits, the labs need chemicals to get results that are only available from China, he said.
“That is a piece of the equation that I can’t figure out,” Cuomo said. “The federal government cannot wipe its hands of this.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would use the Trump administration’s guidelines as a baseline for reopening the state, but perhaps not follow every detail. Florida has been one of the leaders in testing, with 225,000 results so far, he said.
Two walk-in sites in Broward County staffed by the National Guard, Florida Department of Health and Sheriff’s Office opened Friday to conduct 200 tests per day for people with symptoms, he announced at a Fort Lauderdale news conference.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also said his state made great strides on testing, with 73,000 completed so far. Three schools – the University of North Carolina, East Carolina University and Duke University – are coordinating research to track infections, to get a better idea of how many people have the virus without symptoms.
“We need testing to be more widespread, and we need to use it to give us a better indication of where we are in this fight,” Cooper said.
Some friction for Trump, governors
The reliance on China to reopen the country became a source of friction between governors and Trump. After Cuomo mentioned the need for more testing supplies from China, Trump tweeted that the governor should “spend more time 'doing' and less time 'complaining.'"
But Cuomo said only the federal government can resolve international disputes over supplies. Cuomo said he thanked Trump repeatedly for the beds at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, for the Navy ship Comfort, for intervening with China to obtain protective equipment and for help finding ventilators.
“What am I supposed to do, send a bouquet of flowers?” Cuomo asked.
Cooper said the federal government has helped negotiate the worldwide breakdown in supplies and equipment, but more is needed.
“Easing restrictions here in our state without enough masks, gowns and gloves is like setting off on three-day camping trip with enough food for just one night,” Cooper said.
Same rules for hotspots or not?
The pace of reopening is expected to vary from state to state, and perhaps even from county to county. Part of what governors must weigh is whether to open some regions while continuing to clamp down on hotspots.
New York City has had the bulk of that state’s cases. But whenever attractions open up in one area, people may flock to it.
“I think it’s logical to think the reopening plan would take into consideration the differential in infection rates and overall hospitalization rate,” Cuomo said.
But he warned that the first barber shop or marina to open up could get overwhelmed by demand from people who are sick of being cooped up. The risk is that reviving the economy could also revive the spread of the virus.
“We are on the cusp,” Cuomo said. “We’re still in the midst of a public health crisis. Just because the numbers are flattening, let’s not take our eye off the ball.”
Cooper said it’s difficult to set restrictions county by county in North Carolina because people may live in one place, work in another and play in another. But the state will consider setting different rules for different regions.
“We aren’t there at that point yet, but that’s an option we’re keeping open,” Cooper said.
Getting back to work
Governors noted that the coronavirus devastated their economies and their state budgets.
“The situation we’re in now is unsustainable,” said Cuomo, who said the federal government will have to help cover state shortfalls. “You can’t keep the economy closed forever.”
In Florida, the disbursement of unemployment benefits was improving after being swamped with claims. About 100,000 payments were made this week, after 35,000 last week, DeSantis said. The figures compared to 350,000 payments during all last year, he said.
“It’s thrown a lot of Floridians out of work,” DeSantis said.
But DeSantis said about 43% of hospital beds statewide are unoccupied. He argued that most infections in hotspots happened indoors or in public transportation, so he will seek ways to allow people to go outside.
“I’ve always promoted essential activities with recreation,” DeSantis said. “Going forward, we’ve got to be promoting people to get outside. Do it in a safe way.”
In Texas, Abbott unveiled executive orders including the formation of a strike force, with further guidelines to be announced April 27. Schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
“Even more openings will be announced in May when it is determined that the infection rate continues to decline, that hospital capacity remains available and when testing capacities are sufficient to detect and contain outbreaks of COVID-19,” Abbott said.
In North Carolina, Cooper said he was consulting with business leaders about what kinds of conditions to set on reopening. Grocery stores, for example, have ideas about limiting the number of occupants. Restaurants and bars have other ideas. The Chamber of Commerce and small businesses are offering suggestions.
“We do want to open up North Carolina,” Cooper said. “We want to open it up in the right way with input from businesses about how they can protect their employees, how they can protect their customers, and how they can get back to work so we can put people back to work.”
Contributing: Maureen Groppe