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The first local emails and social media messages arrived my way this week echoing President Donald Trump’s push for a quick end to the national shutdown put in place to contain the worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Local voices are parroting cable news personalities who, in turn, have a direct line to the White House. The messaging was reinforced by Trump during his Wednesday evening White House press conference.
It’s a push driven by politics, not science or data. It’s also dangerous, setting the stage for a premature relaxation of the nation’s effort to contain the virus that could lead to renewed outbreak and economic fallout.
The president said Wednesday he wants an easing of restrictions and “people back to work” by Easter Sunday, which is April 12.
“I’d like to get our country back,” Trump said. “The longer we stay out, the harder it is.”
Yet there is no evidence that the spread of the virus will be blunted by then. Most public health officials, school leaders, and others view that date as unrealistic. The spread of the coronavirus in the United States and in Europe continues to accelerate.
Wednesday, in fact, was the deadliest day in the U.S. as the total death count climbed to 900. Three people have died in San Antonio, where 84 people have tested positive, even as testing remains limited.
“Our effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and to treat those who have and will be infected by this disease, takes aggressive and collective action,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Wednesday. “Medical data and our health authorities will continue to guide our actions, as they have done from the onset. As mayor, I will not allow ill-advised political considerations to influence what we do to stem this serious global pandemic in San Antonio.”
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Nirenberg said he would begin holding daily news briefings starting Thursday as the number of people testing positive in San Antonio continues to slowly increase.
In Washington, Trump said at his press conference that some members of the national media want to see the national shutdown continue in order to hurt his reelection chances, a claim he also made on Twitter.
Yet public health officials, including those working with the Trump administration, are not buying it. They believe any premature easing would lead to further spread of the virus and overwhelm U.S. hospitals and public health workers.
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“When it comes to public health: science, science, science,” said U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after Trump’s evening press conference. “Our economy will come back when our people are well.”
Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff say they will be able to keep restrictive policies in place even if the Trump administration urges a return to normal business activities. Whether individuals will obey local authorities who have limited enforcement mechanisms in place is uncertain.
“Now is not the time to loosen up, and we certainly do not know what will happen by April 12,” Wolff said in a Wednesday interview. “Even the schools are staying closed past that date. It’s too soon. These calls to bring the shutdown to an end are confusing the public. People are sending me emails and going on Twitter to push us to open back up. It’s exasperating.”
The economic disruption is not driven by local government, Wolff said.
“Disruption started even before we put limits in place,” Wolff said. “Conventions and other meetings were canceled. People were not traveling, were not coming to our hotels. Tourism stopped. It occurred naturally and sensibly as the coronavirus spread.”
Generally speaking, state governors have great authority to impose emergency restrictions, but in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has declined to enact restrictions in place in California, New York, Ohio, and other big states.
“The governor has made it clear it is up to local leaders to take action,” Wolff said. “We will.”
The selfless social compact of “one for all, and all for one” is being tested as the president suggests a deadline for ending the national shutdown. People are repeating his assertion that unless we return to business as usual soon, the economic damage will be greater than harm wrought by he virus.
“We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” Trump said this week.
Understanding the scale of “the problem” is key to addressing it effectively. A premature call sounding the “all clear” will surely result in a resurgence in coronavirus contagion. By then it will be too late to counter the impact of such a fatal mistake.