As cases of coronavirus rise, President Donald Trump said that he wants to reopen the country for business in weeks, not months, and claimed, without evidence, that continued closures could result in more deaths than the pandemic itself.
"We can't have the cure be worse than the problem," Trump told reporters at a briefing Monday, echoing a midnight Sunday tweet. "We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems."
Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction — staying home from work and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths. While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts warn that the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.
But with the economic impact now snapping into focus and millions of people out of work, businesses shuttered and the markets in free fall — all undermining Trump's reelection message — the chorus of backlash is growing louder, with Trump appearing to side with them.
"Life is fragile, and economies are fragile," Trump said, insisting he could protect both.
While he acknowledged there were trade-offs — "there's no question about that" — he claimed that, if closures stretch on for months, there would be "probably more death from that than anything that we're talking about with respect to the virus."
The comments were further evidence that Trump has grown impatient with the pandemic, even before it has reached its expected peak. In recent days, tensions have been rising between those who argue the country needs to get back up and running to prevent a deep economic depression and medical experts who warn that, unless more extreme action is taken, the human cost will be catastrophic.
"We can't shut in the economy. The economic cost to individuals is just too great," Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, said in an interview Monday on Fox News Channel. "The president is right. The cure can't be worse than the disease, and we're going to have to make some difficult trade-offs."
It's an opinion that has been echoed by others in the White House, some Republicans in Congress and on Fox, where host Steve Hilton delivered a monologue Sunday night that appeared to have, at least partially, inspired Trump's tweet.
"You think it's just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people," he said, pointing to growing poverty and despair.
Trump, who for the last two weeks has largely allowed doctors to lead the administration's response, already seemed to be shifting in that direction.
"I'm not looking at months, I can tell you right now," Trump said Monday, when asked about easing federal recommendations urging Americans to limit social contact and stay home. He said states with large case loads could continue to enforce stricter measures, while other parts of the country return to work.
It's a change in tone that is drawing criticism from public health experts, who suggested Trump risks making a dangerous mistake if he sets up a conflict between public health and the nation's economic well-being, given how unlikely it is that the threat posed by the virus will subside in another week.
If the U.S. stops social distancing too soon, "you will have more deaths and more dives in the stock market," warned Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University, a lawyer with extensive public health expertise.