The White House coronavirus task force will deliver recommendations to President Trump during the weekend on how best to begin lifting restrictions county by county and reopening the economy.
Vice President Mike Pence made the announcement during a Thursday press briefing as Trump said he expected the public to practice social distancing even as the most draconian curbs were lifted.
On Monday, the White House is due to announce its plans for what follows its “15 days to slow the spread” strategy, which urged America to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, halt unnecessary travel, and to wash hands regularly.
“I want those guidelines to go even when we are open and fully operational,” said Trump. “Much of the guidelines, like shaking hands … maybe people aren’t going to be shaking hands anymore.”
Trump has made clear his impatience with emergency measures that saw a record leap in unemployment and risk plunging the country into a recession. Officials have been scrambling this week to make his plan workable.
The White House is drawing up a plan that would see restrictions remain on daily life in hot spot counties, along with intense testing and contact tracing. Counties with fewer cases would see fewer restrictions.
Pence said it would be an evidence-driven approach.
“We’ll be presenting to the president this weekend a range of recommendations and additional guidance for going forward,” he said.
Response coordinator Deborah Birx said: “These are early days, but what we are trying to do is to utilize a laser-focused approach rather than a generic horizontal approach.”
But, she said, the experience of tackling HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa showed that it was possible to pinpoint high-risk and low-risk areas down to the GPS coordinates of individual clinics. Tracking the coronavirus, she said, could piggyback on existing systems for monitoring flu-like symptoms.
“The president has made clear that, in his words, he wants to open the country up,” Pence said. “But we’re going to do that responsibly and, as the president told the governors today, we’ll do that based on the data.”
The stakes could not be higher as the United States on Thursday overtook China as the nation with the highest number of reported coronavirus cases.
It would still be up to the public to play its part in understanding the risks and avoid transporting the virus from a hot spot to a new area.
“Part of this will be to have highly responsible behavior between counties,” he said. “And I think the American people can understand that and will understand where the virus is because we will have the testing data and where it isn’t and ensure they are taking appropriate precautions.”
The ultimate responsibility lies with states, and the plan for a new, targeted phase was outlined in a letter sent to governors.
“This will incorporate robust surveillance testing, which allows us to monitor the spread of the virus throughout the country,” wrote Trump. “Under these data-driven criteria, we will suggest guidelines categorizing counties as high-risk, medium-risk, or low-risk.”
It came as the U.S. death toll reached more than 1,170, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is monitoring cases around the world.
About half the country has been under stay-at-home orders as governors and city officials try to stem the spread of the virus.
The enormity of the economic impact became clear in new jobless numbers. The number filing unemployment claims surged to 3.28 million, according to the Labor Department, up from 282,000 a week earlier and before the worst of the crisis hit.
Even so, markets rose again as a $2 trillion emergency relief bill moved closer to being signed into law. The S&P 500 rose 6.2%, bringing its three-day rally to 17.6%.