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Politics & Government

At White House Briefings, Public Health Concerns Battle Desire To Reopen Economy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When will things get back to normal? It's the question on the minds of every American, including those working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The date May 1 looms large. That is when the current social distancing guidelines are set to expire. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Fox News this morning said that would be too soon.

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JEROME ADAMS: Some places will be able to think about opening on May 1. Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will. And we'll - that's how we'll reopen the country, place by place, bit by bit, based on the data.

KELLY: For his part, President Trump has mostly stopped naming specific dates after his earlier goal of packing churches on Easter Sunday proved unrealistic. He has not been shy though about saying it's a priority to get the economy going again.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This country was meant to be open and vibrant and great, not where people are, you know, staying and...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you determined to do May 1 (ph)?

TRUMP: No, I'm not - I would love to open it. I'm not determined anything. The facts are going to determine what I do.

KELLY: All right. So to talk more about this tension between stopping the virus and getting the country back to work, I am joined by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Walk us through where the president has been on this question of how and when to reopen the country.

KEITH: You know, less than a week ago, he was repeating his line that you can't let the cure be worse than the disease, saying that you can't - you just can't have this shutdown continue. But then he has shifted again. You know, he has been saying that it will be back to normal sooner than you might expect. He's been cheering the models that say that the death toll may be closer to 60,000 than 100,000. Members of his administration like the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, in a cable hit said a May 1 opening would happen. But then today, President Trump was asked if on May 1 health advisers tell him that it's too soon whether he would listen to them, and he said, yes, he always does.

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TRUMP: We're going to go back to work, and we're going to stay healthy. And staying healthy is also a proportion. If you look at what we're doing, we're looking at a date. We hope we're going to be able to fulfill a certain date. But we're not doing anything until we know that this country is going to be healthy.

KEITH: And that's the thing about President Trump in terms of these big decisions, like the social distancing guidelines or telling the public to wear masks when they go out, he makes a lot of noise. He complains about the downsides. He says he won't personally wear a mask. He says the social distancing is killing the economy, and he doesn't like it. And then he listens to the health advisers and goes with the guidelines.

KELLY: Well - so what are his health advisers saying at the moment?

KEITH: Well, they are seeing positive signs, signs that the social distancing is working, but they also say that that doesn't mean that it should stop. Dr. Anthony Fauci at today's White House briefing made that clear.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: This is not the time to feel that since we have made such important advance in the sense of success of the mitigation that we need to be pulling back at all.

KEITH: And it's really important to note that, one, there are 20 days left in this 30 days to slow the spread, but also when it gets to the point that the health advisers believe that it is safe to start having people return, it's not like it's going to be flipping a switch. It's not like President Trump is one day going to say, OK, go, return to normal and everyone will just walk out of their houses and start hugging people.

KELLY: Yeah.

KEITH: From a public health perspective, this is likely to be quite gradual. As the surgeon general said, not all places all at once. Until there's a vaccine, there will be a new normal and it won't look like what it did before we all locked ourselves in our homes a month ago.

KELLY: Yeah. And let's just focus on this tension - or is there a tension between opening the economy and keeping Americans healthy?

KEITH: You know, there is certainly a rhetorical tension, and there's even a tension in sort of the way President Trump talks about it. But it's not clear that there truly is one in terms of how it will turn out. President Trump, you know, has his Coronavirus Task Force. Today, he said soon he will be announcing another task force.

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TRUMP: This is really - I call it the opening our country task force or opening our country council, so we don't get it confused with Mike's task force, which has done so great. And we're going to have the great business leaders, great doctors. We're going to have a great group of people.

KEITH: Yeah, and that group of people will also, he says, include governors and scientists. And the governors and the scientists may have a lot more say in how this all turns out and when various cities and states reopen than anything President Trump says.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.