By MICHELLE R. SMITH, NICKY FORSTER and CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
Many governors across the U.S. are disregarding or creatively interpreting White House guidelines in easing their states’ lockdowns and letting businesses reopen, an Associated Press analysis found.
The AP found that 17 states do not appear to meet one of the key benchmarks set by the White House for loosening up — a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or infection rates. And yet many of those states have begun to reopen or are about to do so, including Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
Because of the broad way in which the nonbinding guidelines are written, other states, including Georgia, have technically managed to meet the criteria and reopen despite fresh outbreaks and alarming death tolls.
The push to reopen across the country comes amid pressure from businesses that are collapsing by the day and workers who have been thrown out of a job. Over 33 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits over the past seven weeks, and a highly anticipated report on Friday is expected to show U.S. unemployment as high as 16%, a level not seen since the Depression.
Public health experts have warned that reopening too soon, without widespread testing and tracing, could enable the virus to come surging back with tragic consequences.
The U.S. has recorded over 74,000 deaths and 1.2 million confirmed infections. But this week, University of Washington researchers nearly doubled their projection of deaths in the U.S. to about 134,000 through early August, largely to reflect the loosening of the state stay-at-home restrictions.
When President Donald Trump announced the guidelines April 16, he declared a “new front in our war” and said he was “establishing clear scientific metrics and benchmarks on testing, new case growth and hospital capacity that must be met before advancing each phase.”
Since then, many states have reopened while daily cases and infection rates have either plateaued or continued to climb, the AP analysis found. Some states are going it alone, using their own criteria, not the White House’s.
The White House has not been specific about how states should calculate the 14-day downward trajectory. Depending on how you calculate it, a state might pass or fail. The AP analyzed counts of tests and confirmed cases compiled by Johns Hopkins University and looked at the numbers using a rolling seven-day average to account for day-to-day variability in test reporting.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has eased some rules to allow salons, tattoo parlors and restaurants to reopen with restrictions in most counties. Churches were allowed to resume in-person services, weddings and funerals on Monday, with some restrictions.
But both new cases and the rate of positive test results have increased in Nebraska in recent weeks. Ricketts said Wednesday that the number of new cases is a poor indicator because it is naturally going to increase as the state ramps up testing.
He suggested that the lockdown restrictions are too drastic. “We could ban just about all deaths on the interstate by reducing the speed to 5 mph, but we don’t do that,” he said.
Georgia has embarked on the most aggressive reopening schedule in the country. It has met one of the White House criteria by recording a decrease in the rate of positive test results, but it has seen nearly 600 more deaths and a hotspot in a poultry-processing area since Gov. Brian Kemp loosened business restrictions.
The head of Utah’s response, Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton, has implemented a color-coded reopening system that was in the works before the White House issued its guidelines.
“We had that plan long before there was a federal plan,” Burton said. “It’s a solid plan that lays out the road to recovery.”
Among other things the White House guidelines say that before reopening, states should have a downward trend in flu and COVID-19-like illnesses for 14 days; hospitals should be able to treat all patients without crisis care; and robust testing should be in place for at-risk health workers.
But there are few specifics, and the plan says local officials “may need to tailor the application of these criteria to local circumstances.”
Many governors are focusing on the criteria that call for a reduction in the percentage of positive tests for COVID-19. Up to now, many states have been doing limited testing, typically on their sickest residents. The percentage of people testing positive has dropped as testing expanded to the broader population in recent weeks.
Public health experts say the guidance from the top has been anything but clear. The Trump administration has tried to push responsibility for expanding testing capacity onto the states and has buried a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document giving step-by-step advice to local authorities on reopening public places.
“We’re a federalist society, so some of the blame goes to the governors and some of the blame goes to the president. But the responsibility for coordinating and enforcing and implementing a national plan comes from the White House,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University.
He likened it to “an orchestra without a conductor.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 3.8 million people and killed over a quarter-million, by Johns Hopkins’ count, which experts agree understates the dimensions of the pandemic because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.