President Trump on Sunday night said that the government would reassess the recommended period for keeping businesses shut and millions of workers at home after this week, amid millions of job losses caused by the efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Mr. Trump tweeted in all capital letters shortly before midnight. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Officials have said that the initial 15-day period for social distancing — limiting close contact between people by banning gatherings, closing schools and offices, encouraging remote work and urging people to maintain a six-foot distance from one another — is vital to slowing the spread of the virus, for which more than 30,000 people in the United States have tested positive. The 15-day period would end Monday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has said in interviews that he believed that it would take several more weeks until people can start going about their lives in a more normal fashion. Other infectious disease experts suggest even harsher measures than social distancing are required to truly beat back the outbreaks in the United States.
But at the White House, in recent days, there has been a growing sentiment that medical experts were allowed to set policy that has hurt the economy, and there has been a push to find ways to let people start returning to work. Some Republican lawmakers have also pleaded with the White House to find ways to restart the economy, as financial markets continue to slide and job losses for April could be in the millions.
Vice President Mike Pence indicated on Sunday at a White House briefing about the virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue new guidelines on Monday, allowing some people who have been exposed to the coronavirus to resume working outside their homes if they wear masks.
The move could set the stage for states with relatively low numbers of cases to begin to unfreeze their economies, while large states like California and New York — where there are more cases and where state officials have ordered nonessential businesses to close for the time being — could continue remaining in a holding pattern.
While some business owners are eager to end the more draconian measures that have been put in place, others would rather endure the pain at once rather than face repeated, disruptive orders to stop activities.
Mr. Trump’s tweet cast doubt on his confidence in the path to fighting the virus that he so reluctantly approved. For two months he largely dismissed the warnings that the virus would reach American shores, for fear of causing economic disruption, predicting that cases would go down from a handful to “zero” in a few days.
Only when the disruption came anyway, in the form of a historic stock market sell-off, was he convinced to act.
But there could be consequences to ending the measures too quickly. The recent rise of cases in Hong Kong, after there had been an easing of the spread of the virus, is something of an object lesson about how ending strict measures too soon can have dangerous consequences.
In a tweet on Monday morning, Thomas Bossert, the former homeland security adviser who for weeks has been vocal about the need for the U.S. government to take stricter measures, said, “Sadly, the numbers now suggest the U.S. is poised to take the lead in #coronavirus cases. It’s reasonable to plan for the US to top the list of countries with the most cases in approximately 1 week. This does NOT make social intervention futile. It makes it imperative!”
Whatever the president chooses to do, there will be businesses still fearful to reopen — and employees fearful of going to work — as new cases of people infected with the virus are still being diagnosed by the thousands each day.
And the president is facing potential pushback from the public health experts in his administration.
After being slow to publicly react to the spread of the virus, the Trump administration swung in the other direction at the end of February, entrusting the health experts whose counsel had not been heeded in the preceding weeks and letting them help set the policies that hundreds of millions of people would be urged to follow.
But Mr. Trump has become frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s blunt approach at the briefing lectern, which often contradicts things the president has just said, according to two people familiar with the dynamic.
Mr. Trump knows that Dr. Fauci is seen as credible with a large swath of the public and with journalists, and so he has given him more leeway to contradict him than he has other officials. But the president has also resisted portraying the virus as an existential threat in a way that the public health experts have.
In an interview with Science Magazine that was posted online on Sunday evening, Dr. Fauci responded to a question about how he had managed not to get fired by saying that, to Mr. Trump’s “credit, even though we disagree on some things, he listens.”
“He goes his own way,” Dr. Fauci continued. “He has his own style. But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say.”
But he also said there was a limit to what he could do when Mr. Trump said things that were not true during those briefings.
“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” Mr. Fauci said of Mr. Trump’s erroneous statements. “OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.”
In an interview with Fox Business Network, the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, stressed that the U.S. economy was still functioning.
“I’ve seen a bunch of fake news over the last couple of days about a complete shut down of the economy,” he said. “The president has not made that decision.”
But the president’s interest in potentially easing some of the social behavior guidelines met with pushback from one of his close allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
“President Trump’s best decision was stopping travel from China early on,” Mr. Graham tweeted on Monday. “I hope we will not undercut that decision by suggesting we back off aggressive containment policies within the United States.”
David McIntosh, the president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, suggested Friday that the damage to the economy was severe.
“We need to act to contain the virus, but at the same time more people would be hurt and have terrible health and life consequences if they don’t reopen the economy,” Mr. McIntosh said. “They have to put an end to the social distancing some time in the near future to restore economic activity.”
Carl Hulse contributed reporting.