The U.S. debate over when to lift restrictions to control the coronavirus outbreak intensified on Monday, with protesters gathering in state capitals to demand an end to lockdowns and officials urging caution until more testing becomes available.
Stay-at-home measures, which experts say are essential to slow the spread of the virus, have ground the economy to a virtual standstill and forced more than 22 million people to apply for unemployment benefits in the past month.
In Pennsylvania — where Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto a Republican-backed bill that would force him to reopen some businesses — a few hundred protesters, most of them in cars, held a demonstration in Harrisburg, the capital.
Many of the protesters expressed cynicism toward health experts and skepticism about the actual scale of the pandemic in the country, accusing officials of overreaching and taking actions that had caused more harm than the virus itself.
“All the projections were wrong, but we are still telling people to stay home and businesses to close. This is not quarantine, this is tyranny,” said Mark Cooper, a 61-year-old retired truck driver.
U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican seeking re-election in November, has said state governors should have the final say but has favoured an early end to the lockdowns, and many protesters in the past week have sported pro-Trump signs and campaign gear.
Republican lawmakers in several states have also backed the protesters, some of whom have failed to wear face masks or practise the social distancing that health officials say are key to getting the virus under control.
“The Democratic governors are just trying to kill the economy to hurt Trump,” said Joe Buchert, a 48-year old retired police officer who was wearing a red Trump 2020 hat.
Meanwhile in Washington, lawmakers were squabbling over a possible $450 billion US-plus deal to provide more aid to small businesses and hospitals hurt by the crisis. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said a vote could take place on Tuesday.
Congress last month passed a $2.3 trillion aid package that included a small-business loan program. The Trump administration wants to add $250 billion to that now-depleted program, while Democrats have pushed for including funding for state and municipal governments and food aid for the poor.
Fears of resurgence
Health experts and lawmakers on the front lines of the battle to curb the pandemic have warned that the country could face a second and even deadlier wave of infections if the lockdowns end prematurely.
The United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 776,000 infections and over 41,000 deaths as of 4:30 p.m. ET. Nearly half of them are in the state of New York, according to a Johns Hopkins tally.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said testing capacity had to be ramped up and that reopening the economy in New York and other parts of the country would need to be calibrated carefully to prevent another surge in cases.
“You don’t need protests to convince anyone in this country that we have to get back to work and we have to get the economy going and we have to get out of our homes. Nobody,” Cuomo told a briefing. “The question is going to become: how, when, how fast and what do we mean in terms of reopening.”
Earlier, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said it could take weeks if not months before the country’s most populous city reopens due to a lack of widespread testing, even as officials elsewhere began rolling back restrictions on daily life.
“The federal government is not stepping up,” de Blasio told a news conference. He said the city needed to be conducting hundreds of thousands of tests a day and to see hospitalizations decline further before the economy reopens.
‘Dangerous political game’
Trump, who has sparred with a number of Democratic governors critical of his response to the health crisis, has said there were enough tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
In a series of tweets on Monday, Trump said governors had shifted from complaining about a scarcity of ventilators to griping about not having what they needed to ramp up testing capacity, while he accused them of “playing a very dangerous political game.”
“Now they scream ‘Testing, Testing, Testing,’ again playing a very dangerous political game. States, not the Federal Government, should be doing the Testing – But we will work with the Governors and get it done,” he said in a tweet.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said ramping up testing was the top item on the administration’s agenda.
Trump’s guidelines to reopen the economy recommend a state record 14 days of declining case numbers before gradually lifting restrictions.
Residents in Florida were allowed to return to some beaches after Gov. Ron DeSantis said some restrictions could be relaxed.
Charlie Latham, mayor of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., said the beach there was reopened with limited hours, and it went well with no arrests for people violating social distancing rules which barred chairs and blankets.
“We thought that the public was ready to maintain the social distancing standards and to exercise good judgment. And it’s paid off, it’s paid off really well,” Latham told Fox News.