No one said those exact words, but the message was quite clear.
Asked about reports that the White House was planning to wind down its coronavirus task force by sometime around Memorial Day, Vice President Mike Pence said this: “We’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level.”
Then later Tuesday, in Arizona, President Donald Trump was asked about the planned shuttering of the task force. “I think we’re looking at phase two and we’re looking at other phases,” he responded. “The country is starting to open up, the task force has done a phenomenal job.”
(On Wednesday morning, Trump attempted to put a bit of a different spin on the whole thing. “The White House CoronaVirus Task Force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, has done a fantastic job of bringing together vast highly complex resources that have set a high standard for others to follow in the future,” he tweeted. “Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics. Thank you!”)
What Trump and Pence are doing is bowing to a very hard reality: Coronavirus has not been defeated by approximately seven weeks of staying at home and social distancing. Its impact has been lessened, yes, but the country is still averaging 30,000 (ish) cases a day and in a number of states their daily caseload is increasing, not decreasing. The influential IMHE model at the University of Washington has nearly doubled its expected mortality rate from the coronavirus to more than 134,000 by early August.
Set against the ongoing public health crisis is an economic crisis. The unemployment rate for the month of April, which will be announced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday morning, is expected to be between 15%-20%. Already more than 22 million people have filed unemployment claims.
“The jobs numbers are very, very chilling and I think that it’s very important to let people understand in a very somber way that this is the biggest shock that our economy has ever seen,” said White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett during an appearance on Fox News Wednesday morning. “But it’s something that we’ve done to get ahead of the curve of the disease, so it’s something that we can reverse, hopefully, relatively quickly.”
The calculation being made here by the White House is simple. They saw themselves as having two options:
1) Keep the country closed unless and until an effective treatment for coronavirus emerges or a vaccine can be mass produced — a likely lengthy wait that could send the economy into recession or even depression.
2) Reopen the country, knowing that doing so will lead to considerably more deaths from coronavirus but also will likely revive the stalled economy.
They chose option two. Which isn’t all that surprising given that Trump has been hinting at just such a move for quite a while now.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted way back on March 23. In the six weeks since, he’s repeated that mantra over and over again — suggesting that the time was almost here when things needed to start to get back to normal, no matter what the daily numbers on coronavirus looked like.
And Trump’s push for states to reopen — despite the vast majority not meeting the federal criteria for doing do — was reflective of where this was all headed. “Many States moving to SAFELY & QUICKLY reopen!,” he tweeted on April 28.
Then, on Tuesday in Arizona, Trump said this: “We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years. You can say there might be a recurrence and there might be, and most doctors, or some doctors, say that it will happen and it’ll be a flame and we’re going to put the flame out.”
And that is, well, that.
What Trump is hoping is that the current plateau in terms of overall cases either holds or begins to drop as states continue to reopen and the economy sparks back to life. Or that an effective treatment emerges. Or that the hotter weather lessens the spread. Or something.
“Maybe it’s going to be a vaccine, or maybe it’s going to be that this virus will pass, it will go,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall Sunday night. “Will it come back? It might. It could. Some people say yes. But it will pass.”
And if that doesn’t happen? If the reopening of states which have not met the federal criteria — including 14 straight days of drops in the number of cases — causes a second boom of the virus?
Then Trump and his White House will lay the blame at the feet of governors and local officials. We gave you the testing capacity you needed! We have you the personal protective equipment you needed! What more can we do?
“I just want to say we have done an incredible job on testing,” Trump said Tuesday in Arizona. Earlier in the day, he tweeted this:
“For the constant criticism from the Do Nothing Democrats and their Fake News partners, here is the newest chart on our great testing ‘miracle’ compared to other countries. Dems and LameStream Media should be proud of the USA, instead of always ripping us down!”
So when you hear Trump and Pence talk about how the coronavirus fight is “transitioning” or moving to a new “phase,” what you need to understand is this: They are done with attempts of mitigating the virus via quarantining and other extreme stay-at-home measures. They have decided that enough time has been spent on the public health crisis and now is the time to focus on the economic crisis. And they are, quite candidly, hoping and praying that what they’ve already done to combat the virus is enough if and when it comes raging back.
That’s the simple reality we now face — whether you like it or not.