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Trump looks for places to relax coronavirus rules, but where and how?

A state worker and a National Guardsman check

A state worker and a National Guardsman check in people Wednesday for drive-thru coronavirus tests at Stony Brook University. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates

Safe to come out?

It's America first now, tragically. The U.S. leads the planet in confirmed coronavirus cases with more than 81,000, according to an authoritative count by Johns Hopkins University. 

The coronavirus is in all 50 states. However, the rate of known infection is far lower in some places than in others like New York. From that, President Donald Trump is seeking opportunities for "relaxing social distancing" sooner rather than later to start reviving the economy.

“Every day that we stay out it gets harder to bring it back very quickly," Trump said during the Thursday White House pandemic briefing.

Can that be done? Trump wrote the nation's governors that federal officials are developing guidelines to rate every U.S. county as "high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk" for virus spread. The daunting part is gauging that risk amid limited testing — and which includes virtually none of the COVID-19-infected people who show no symptoms, where seeds of future outbreaks have been planted.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, acknowledged concerns that people could simply move between areas with different risks and potentially different restrictions. "Part of this will be the need to have highly responsible behavior between counties," she said.

Health experts have warned that unless Americans continue to limit in-person interactions dramatically — working from home and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system. Would Trump's relaxed rules include reopening schools, restaurants and other places where people gather close together? Those are details still to come. 

Trump's letter to the governors said "expanded testing capabilities" were on the way, but it wasn't clear how much more testing will become widely available. Economists have warned that Trump's goal of Easter Sunday, April 12, for easing restrictions will do more harm than good to the economy if the coronavirus outbreak has not been contained, Axios reported.

Top coronavirus news

For a roundup of major pandemic developments, see the story from Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones.

For a complete list of Newsday stories, click here.

Recession at front door

Soon after 3.3 million new jobless claims were reported on Thursday — almost five times the previous record — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said "these numbers right now aren’t relevant, whether they’re bigger or shorter in the short term.”

On CNBC, Mnuchin said the $2 trillion rescue package headed for final congressional approval Friday will cushion the blow. “Now with this bill passed by Congress, there are protections, and, as I said, hopefully those workers will be rehired,” Mnuchin said.

Economists told Politico that the 3.3 million figure is likely an undercount because many workers haven't been able to file claims with overwhelmed state agencies.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said, “We may well be in a recession” and the pandemic must be contained before the economy can recover. But he also said on NBC's "Today" show that “there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy. People are being asked to step back from economic activity … so in principle, if we get the virus spread under control fairly quickly, then economic activity can resume.”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll found 92% of Americans expect a recession because of the outbreak.

One sign of recovery was seen on Wall Street, where the Dow soared 1,352 points, or 6.4%, to cap its second-best three-day run in history.

Janison: It's not all up to Trump

As virus infection numbers mount, and underequipped hospitals scramble to react, it matters less each day how quickly the U.S. imposed emergency travel restrictions or when the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to practically nothing, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

The markets will do what they do, and communities from one state or locality to the next will cope as best as they can. No matter how much Trump wants to start relaxing restrictions and guidelines, shut-down businesses won't reopen until local authorities deem it wise as a matter of public health.

Federal officials of course will have decisions to make in the weeks ahead. But all over the world, any chance of shutting out the pandemic and averting a recession has passed. Keeping federal agencies functioning, helping states with health care and executing details of relief legislation may be the main crisis tasks left — if the White House can manage those.

Uncounted dead?

The known U.S. death toll from coronavirus has passed 1,000, but collectors may have missed victims because of inconsistent reporting methods, according to The Washington Post.

State health departments — including, critically, New York’s — are short-staffed and so deluged by the pandemic that they have not been filling out the forms with the basic information the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires to perform COVID-19 analysis, CDC officials say.

More deaths are not being counted at all, such as those who were misdiagnosed with the flu or another illness and those who died but were never tested.

Another deficiency in the data made public is that state and local authorities have been issuing widely varying reports on those who died, citing medical privacy laws to shield even basic details about age, gender and underlying conditions.

States of feuds

Trump has feuded in past weeks with several Democratic governors who went public with complaints about the federal response to coronavirus outbreaks in their states. On Thursday, during a Trump conference with governors, it was the turn of Washington's Jay Inslee, who the president earlier this month called a "snake."

After Inslee pleaded with Trump to take more dramatic action to secure medical supplies for his state, Trump said his administration would be the “backup” for states in crisis.

Inslee shot back: "We don’t need a backup. We need a Tom Brady,” a reference to the star NFL quarterback who has been friendly with the president, according to The Washington Post.

Inslee later told reporters that states should not be competing against one another. Trump obliquely referred to the clash in the White House briefing, but downplayed it, saying: "Maybe one person was a little tiny bit of a raising of a voice, a little wise guy."

Governors dealing with Trump have to make constant calculations on whether to fight or flatter him. "It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall earlier this week.

Hold your breath

A Trump tweet on Sunday suggested there was a deal with automakers Ford, GM and Tesla to mass-produce ventilators to treat coronavirus patients who need help breathing. But The New York Times reports Trump jumped the gun.

An announcement Wednesday involving GM for as many as 80,000 ventilators was called off after FEMA said it needed more time to decide if the cost, more than $1 billion, was too high. GM would need a chunk of that upfront to retool a car parts plant.

The administration also hasn't decided how many ventilators it wants, the report said.

Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night he was dubious about New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s estimate of needed ventilators. "I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go to major hospitals, sometimes they have two ventilators," the president said. (Watch a clip here.)

What else is happening:

  • A Fox News poll finds that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top infectious diseases expert, wins approval from 77% of registered voters for his response to the coronavirus crisis, compared with 51% for Trump.
  • Joe Biden said Trump is to blame for the record job loss. "The harsh reality is that at least 3 million people now don’t have jobs because our president didn’t do his job when it mattered," the former vice president and likely Democratic presidential nominee said in a statement Thursday.
  • Canada has told the Trump administration that a proposal to put U.S. troops on the northern border amid the pandemic is unnecessary and would be bad for relations. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said very few people cross into the U.S. from Canada illegally, and Canada has universal health care and widespread testing for the virus.
  • Mexican protesters have shut a U.S. southern border crossing amid fears that untested American travelers will spread coronavirus. Residents of Sonora, Mexico, which borders Arizona, wore face masks and held signs telling Americans to "stay at home."
  • A Rochester, New York, shop is making doughnuts with a likeness of Fauci and reports selling hundreds of them. "People are buying them like crazy,” an owner said. "He is one of America’s heroes during this challenging time. Plus, he is a paisano!" said CEO and founder Salvatore Fantauzzo. "We wanted to honor a great Italian American who is on the front lines in fighting this pandemic.” 
  • A decision by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to keep many national park sites open and waive fees despite the virus outbreak has employees angry and scared, The Washington Post reports. A staffer at Grand Canyon National Park said one park ranger had 600 “close contacts” with visitors in a single day.

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