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April 17, 2020

The Trump Administration’s Path Back to Prosperity

Guidelines include “gating criteria” and three phases for restoring the U.S. economy.

President Donald Trump unveiled the long-awaited Guidelines for Opening Up America Again. It’s a completely reasonable and laudable approach to what Mark Alexander has called “the most difficult and complex policy decision by any president in decades.” The Trump administration’s plan lays out “gating criteria,” followed by three phases of reopening. “We are not opening all at once,” Trump said, “but one careful step at a time.”

The “gating criteria” include a “downward trajectory of [both] influenza-like [and] … covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period.” Documented cases must likewise demonstrate a downward trajectory, while hospitals must be able to “treat all patients without crisis care” and implement a “robust testing program for at-risk healthcare workers.” On the way to meeting these benchmarks, the White House plan lays out responsibilities for states, individuals, and employers. For the latter two groups, most guidelines are commonsense measures for protecting yourself and others from infection. For states, it means capacity to test, screen, monitor, and advise citizens.

Phase One is largely more of what we’ve been doing for the last month: Vulnerable individuals (defined as the elderly or those with serious underlying health conditions) should shelter in place, employees who are able should work remotely, and everyone should be social distancing, limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and minimizing nonessential travel. Employers should allow employees to return to work in phases and some may reopen in limited capacity (churches, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms) while other specific businesses (bars) and organizations (schools) should remain closed. Elective surgeries may resume.

Phase Two calls for vulnerable individuals to “continue to shelter in place,” while people with loved ones in that category should take careful precautions. All individuals should continue social distancing and limiting gatherings to 50 people or fewer, but people may resume nonessential travel. Significantly, schools and organized youth activities can reopen or resume. More venues can reopen with less restrictive protocols for distancing.

Phase Three is, obviously, where most freedom of business and movement returns. Even vulnerable individuals “can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing.” Employers can resume full operations, and larger venues can begin easing distancing protocols for patrons. More than previous phases, that should mean rehiring some (hopefully most or even all) of the 22 million Americans now out of work.

Contrary to the deserved dust-up over Trump’s comments about his “ultimate authority” earlier this week, the plan his administration actually released keeps governors in charge. Constitutionally, they have been all along.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told governors earlier Thursday. “We’ll be standing right alongside of you and we’re going to get our country open.”

“I heard from a number of governors that said they’re in very good shape,” Trump added later. “They will be able to go literally tomorrow, yes. Because they’ve met all of the guidelines.”

That doesn’t mean all the governors will aim for the May 1 target. New York Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended his state’s lockdown through at least May 15. Cuomo is part of a coalition of northeastern governors who are working together on their own timeline, and all of them followed Cuomo’s lead on the May 15 date. Wisconsin Democrat Gov. Tony Evers extended his order until May 26, and Michigan Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is obtusely warning protesters that their actions make it “more likely we’re going to have to spread this posture.” Translation: She’s going to clamp down harder and longer.

What the Trump administration has provided, as it has previously, is a series of guidelines. Actually resuming “normal” life, whatever that looks like in the days, months, and years ahead, will remain the responsibility of individuals, businesses, and states. It may be a long road — especially in some states — and it may happen in fits and starts. But Trump is exactly right: “America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open.”

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