Republicans repeatedly urged states to lift their lockdown orders, arguing that a gradual return to normal was crucial to the long-term health and stability of the U.S. economy.
Now, coronavirus infections are surging nationwide, forcing some states to shutter all over again in hopes of containing the spread of a disease that has killed over 120,000 Americans and counting.
“I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 cases a day if this does not turn around, so I am very concerned,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned at a Senate hearing on the coronavirus on Tuesday.
Officials in Arizona, Texas, Florida, South Carolina and California are reporting record numbers of new cases each day, attributing the rise mostly to young people who are ignoring safety recommendations. The situation is particularly concerning in Arizona, where health officials are reporting a surge in hospitalizations due to the virus.
The dramatic rise in infections comes on the heels of many states ― with governors of both parties ― relaxing restrictions on public gatherings and businesses like bars, gyms and salons. Republicans in particular were vocal in calling on state officials to reopen the economy in order to help struggling businesses and to get people back to work.
“Will some people be affected? Yes,” Trump told reporters at an event in May. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
“Now that hopefully we’ve hit the peak ... we can think about in each of these circumstances, in each of these states, what the right set of protocols are to begin to open our economy and let people go back to work,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in April.
The Trump administration led the way in pushing the economy to reopen in April and May. The White House coronavirus task force, which initially held regular press briefings, ceased doing so. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, the leader of the task force, began venturing out of D.C. for public events to tout the nation’s response to the coronavirus. The White House stopped checking the temperature of visitors to its grounds. Trump even held a campaign rally with thousands of people in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
At the same time, White House officials dismissed the idea that there was an emerging second wave of cases in the U.S. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal just two weeks ago, Pence spun the data in a positive light, saying the nation was “far better off than the media report” and calling fears about a rise in cases “overblown.”
Pence has since struck a markedly different tone, making a push to visibly wear a face mask after months of publicly not doing so. The gesture is one Trump has not followed, nor has he echoed that message to the American public.
“I think the president would be wise to make it clear that he is fully supportive of wearing masks. That would be very helpful,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Tuesday.
Public health experts have consistently warned that lifting stay-at-home orders too soon and without adequate testing capacity, treatments or vaccines would risk extending the crisis. But Republicans maintain the U.S. shouldn’t impose broad restrictions once again despite the recent spike in coronavirus cases across the country.
“We cannot go back to April, and we must not go back to normal. We need new routines, new rhythms, and new strategies to build this new middle ground in between,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech on Monday, urging the public to wear masks when going outside.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) urged a similar approach. His state of Texas was one of the first to begin reopening, but now officials there are putting plans to lift restrictions on pause and even shutting down some businesses again.
“We need to continue to be guided by sound science and medical data. At the same time, we need to allow people to get back to work, to allow small businesses to reopen,” Cruz said, calling the relatively low death rate in Texas “encouraging.”
But health experts say deaths tend to lag considerably behind cases, suggesting there is likely to be a higher rate of hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.
In his testimony before the Senate health committee on Tuesday, Fauci singled out bars, in particular, as one type of establishment Americans should stop congregating in, calling such gatherings “bad news.”
But Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said members of the public should be free to make their own decisions regarding what establishments to visit, so long as people are aware of any potential health issues.
“We’ve got to open up the economy and stop mandating things. Let people make decisions. What the government ought to do is start giving people better information and let people make decisions,” Scott, who previously served as the governor of Florida, said Tuesday.
“If this bar has coronavirus, if you tell me, guess what, I’ll never go there. Stop dictating and give us better information,” Scott added.
The spread of the coronavirus around the globe has been aided in large part by asymptomatic carriers ― people who exhibit no symptoms even though they may have the disease. Packed bars are often the perfect environment for asymptomatic spread.
The number of coronavirus cases in Florida has increased fivefold in the past two weeks. In that time, the state has crushed records for new infections daily. Much of the increase appears to stem from the reopening of beaches, bars, restaurants and other social activities.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was even more skeptical about the advice of public health experts. Paul, who tested positive for the coronavirus in March, complained at Tuesday’s hearing with Fauci and other health officials about “people in Washington all telling us what to do and people blindly following like sheep.”
“We shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best for everyone,” Paul, who is an eye doctor, added, accusing the nation’s top infectious disease expert of creating “undue fear” with his public health recommendations.
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