White House releases its plan to ‘open up’ the country from coronavirus restrictions

President Donald Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx unveiling the White House’s plan to ease social-distancing restrictions necessitated by the novel coronavirus. AP Photo/Alex Brandon
  • The White House on Thursday released a road map for easing social-distancing restrictions in the US.
  • The guidelines rely heavily on the assumption that testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic people and contact tracing for the novel coronavirus will increase. At the moment, the US has yet to sufficiently scale up these methods.
  • The nonbinding guidelines would be implemented at the discretion of state governors.
  • The guidelines lay out a three-phase plan, with each phase gradually lifting restrictions for people, employers, and venues like theatres and houses of worship.
  • Vulnerable Americans, however, would still need to shelter-in-place until the final phase of the plan, meaning millions of people would most likely need to live in lockdown for months to come.
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The White House has released new guidelines for relaxing the coronavirus-related restrictions across the US, and they include lengthy limitations for vulnerable Americans, a population that could number in the millions.

President Donald Trump formally announced the guidelines at a coronavirus task force briefing Thursday evening.

“My administration is issuing new federal guidelines that will allow governors to take a phased and deliberate approach to reopening their individual states,” Trump said, adding that “some states will be able to open up sooner than others.”

The nonbinding guidelines, which are to be followed at the discretion of state governors, include a three-phase plan for relaxing stay-at-home orders and business closings, with recommended ways for employers and people to try to operate safely in the new COVID-19 reality. But before the three phases can even kick in, the plan relies heavily on an increase in testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic people as well as mass contact tracing, which the US has not managed to robustly ramp up yet.

To be sure, testing has ramped up in the US over the past few weeks. Since Sunday, the US has conducted an average of about 147,000 tests a day, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

But testing will need to increase drastically, according to varying estimates. Depending on the analysis, Vox reported, the US could need to issue anywhere from 750,0000 tests a week to 30 million tests a day.

At the moment, because of still-limited capacity, testing is primarily reserved for patients who are severely ill or who have enough coronavirus symptoms to qualify, and there’s a massive backlog to process these tests. Some medical experts are also worried about tests returning false negatives, with new tests being developed at such a rapid pace.

On Thursday, Trump repeatedly assured there would be enough testing.

The plan is broken into three phases, through which restrictions would gradually relax on a state-by-state basis. Throughout all three phases, people would still largely be discouraged from gathering in large groups and urged to take precautions in public.

The plan has some parallels with a separate road map proposed in early April by a team at the American Enterprise Institute that includes Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration chief, Scott Gottlieb.

Gottlieb tweeted that the White House plan was a “sensible set of broad guidelines on gradually restarting social activities, work in stages; with new protections at workplace, eye toward measuring impact to adjust if cases spike.” He added it was “broadly consistent with state plans.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, cautioned that each state would most likely go through the process on a different time frame and that some states could backtrack.

“Even if you are in phase one, two, three, it’s not, OK, game over – it’s going to be a way that we protect ourselves,” Fauci said, adding that the virus could have a resurgence in the fall.

Specifically, the White House set out three “gating criteria” it said should be met before states should even begin implementing the three phases.

  • Symptoms of COVID-19 as well as symptoms of influenza-like illnesses must decline for 14 days.
  • A downward trajectory of cases within a 14-day period, or a decrease in the percentage of positive tests within that time frame.
  • Hospitals must be treating all patients without crisis care and have a “robust” testing process available for vulnerable workers.

Once those criteria are met, the guidelines say, states can move on to the three phases. Everyone would still be asked to maintain hygiene, including washing hands for at least 20 seconds, wearing masks in public, and avoiding touching their faces.

Before moving onto additional phases, states would need to again meet the gating criteria for cases, testing, and hospital capacity, Fauci said.

“There are multiple checkpoints of safety there,” Fauci said.

In all but the final phase, vulnerable populations are asked to continue to shelter in place. An analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation found that about four in 10 US adults, or 92 million people, were especially vulnerable to contracting a serious case of COVID-19 because of their age or a health condition. That suggests that even with a perfect rollout of the White House’s plan, life would still remain on lockdown for a significant portion of America’s population.

The guidelines leave implementation up to the governors to decide on a statewide or countywide basis.

  • In Phase 1, people are still encouraged to avoid groups of more than 10 people, minimise travel if possible, and adhere to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention isolation guidelines if they do need to travel. Employers should encourage telework, close common areas, and minimise travel, though attempt to return to work in phases. Some public venues may open up with “strict social distancing” guidelines, but day care and camp would remain closed and visits to senior living facilities would be forbidden. Sit-down restaurants, but not bars, would be permitted to ease into opening.
  • In Phase 2, people should avoid groups of more than 50 people and continue social-distancing techniques. Nonessential travel can resume. Companies should continue to encourage telework and keep public spaces closed, but nonessential business travel can resume. Some cornerstones of everyday American life, including bars, gyms, and schools, can reopen with physical-distancing protocols. But visits to senior living facilities is still prohibited.
  • In Phase 3, vulnerable people can ease back into public life, while taking precautions. People could go back to work, and visit their loved ones in senior living facilities and hospitals. Large venues such as houses of worship and theatres could resume operations, with physical distancing protocols. And more people will be allowed into bars.