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Coronavirus Updates: Trump Administration Evaluates Lifting Restrictions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In New York City today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sat before a wall of masks and protective eyewear. He was in the sprawling convention center that could soon serve as a hospital for critically ill coronavirus patients. Cuomo laid out the magnitude of the growing public health crisis in New York.

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ANDREW CUOMO: The rate of infection is going up. It is spiking. The apex is higher than we thought, and the apex is sooner than we thought. That is a bad combination of facts.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Less than an hour before Governor Cuomo's briefing, President Trump tweeted a sentiment that he's been sharing repeatedly in the last couple days - quote, "Our people want to return to work," going on to say later that, quote, "the cure cannot be worse than the problem." He continued that message throughout the day, including during tonight's coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm also hopeful to have Americans working again by that Easter - that beautiful Easter day.

CHANG: The New York governor repeatedly pushed back on that idea.

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CUOMO: Don't make us choose between a smart health strategy and a smart economic strategy. We can do both, and we must do both.

CHANG: All right. We're going to spend the next several minutes talking through that issue and some of the other developments of the day with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman and NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Hey to all three of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: All right. Nurith and Scott, I want to start with the two of you. Let's talk about these conflicting perspectives we're hearing so much about. Scott, when the president says the cure should not be worse than the disease, what is he talking about there?

HORSLEY: He just means the cost of the public health measures we're taking to confront the pandemic should not outweigh the cost of the pandemic itself, which is not really controversial. You don't amputate someone's arm to cure a hangnail.

CHANG: Right.

HORSLEY: But the challenge in doing that cost-benefit analysis right now is at this moment, the cost of the aggressive public health measures we've adopted is very clear. Millions of people are stuck in their homes. Millions more are at risk of losing their jobs. You've got lots of businesses in jeopardy.

But we're just beginning to get a glimpse of the cost of the pandemic if it were allowed to grow unchecked. If you're outside New York or Washington state, you have to use your imagination to imagine what those costs would be. And in a couple weeks, we might have a much different idea of what that balancing act should look like.

CHANG: And when you're talking to economists, do they agree with the White House that the cure is approaching a size that's disproportionate to the disease?

HORSLEY: You know, economists are used to doing cost-benefit analyses, but I don't hear many of them who agree with the president's framing of this that it's an either/or choice between helping the economy or getting control of the virus. They say getting control of the virus will help the economy, whatever the short-run costs are.

Now, there's lots of different viewpoints on how you might mitigate the short-term pain, how you can use the resources of the economy to fight the coronavirus. But the idea that we could just reopen the economy in 2 1/2 weeks and take our chances with the pandemic is not one that I'm hearing a lot of economists embrace.

CHANG: Nurith, you've been talking to a number of public health experts about that. What are you hearing from them? I mean, do they think that we could ease up on restrictions by Easter, by mid-April, just as Trump said he has some hope of doing?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. The widely held view is that these stay-at-home-style restrictions would not need to be in place for months upon months. But Easter - that's less than three weeks away. And right now, cases in the U.S. are still on the rise. In fact, a lot of health specialists say this is the moment to be putting those stay-at-home-type measures in place nationwide. Otherwise, soon, more places across the country will look like New York, with cases ballooning. I'm hearing particular concern about potential next hot spots brewing in Florida, Arizona, Texas. And sure, we don't have enough testing yet to tell us exactly where the next hot spots will be. But one of the researchers, Ashish Jha of Harvard, says the cost of possibly overreacting is outweighed by the risk of not taking action. Let's take a listen.

ASHISH JHA: The cost of underreacting means not only will you have really large economic cost 'cause you'll probably have to go on pause much longer, but of course, you're going to have lost lives of a lot of people in your communities. And that's something you can't recover from.

AIZENMAN: You know, he's saying either you pay the economic price of a pause now or later.

CHANG: Right. So he's saying there is an urgent call here for immediate action. But let me ask you - once you lift these restrictions, I mean, wouldn't cases rise up all over again? How can you relax restrictions but still keep the number of cases down?

AIZENMAN: On that point, I'm hearing differences of opinion. There are some health experts who say, yeah, once you lift the stay-at-home rules, cases will spiral back up. So you know, you want to use this freeze on movement to prepare hospitals, soften the blow. Other health researchers are optimistic that the U.S. could largely pivot to a strategy where you do massive testing of people with even mild symptoms - you know, quickly identify and isolate their contacts. And South Korea has already shown some success with that.

CHANG: Yeah. Franco, let's bring you in here. In addition to the White House briefing today, the president and vice president participated in a town hall with Fox News. Tell us what the two of them said there.

ORDOÑEZ: It was interesting. The president talked about what it was like to make the decision to implement the 15-day guidelines. He said at the time, he was very reluctant, even asking his advisers if they were serious. And he was concerned about the economic damage. During the town hall, he said he was still concerned about the economic damage and felt that it could be worse than anything the virus could inflict.

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TRUMP: You're going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you're going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression. You're going to lose people. You're going to have suicides by the thousands. You're going to have all sorts of things happen.

ORDOÑEZ: By the afternoon, though, at the briefing, there was a definite shift in the tone of the president. While he still said he saw kind of a light at the end of the tunnel, he also emphasized that any decision to lift the guidelines would be made with the input of public health officials and that it would be grounded in the best science and best modeling.

CHANG: Do you have a sense about what impact the president's public health team may have had on that shift in tone that you sensed?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I can't, you know, get inside the president's head, but certainly appears that their concerns had an impact on the president. Dr. Deborah Birx, who is on the task force, said earlier that the decision would be made based on data. Dr. Fauci was asked at the White House briefing how realistic it would be to reopen the government by Easter. He called the situation flexible.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: When you look at the country, I mean, obviously, no one is going to want to tone down things when you see what's going on in a place like New York City. I mean, that's just, you know, good public health practice and common sense.

ORDOÑEZ: So much different. But he said, you know, they still needed to collect more data on areas that were not as hard-hit. And maybe later, if - you know, looking at the contact tracing, they could possibly loosen some guidelines in those areas.

CHANG: OK. Scott, you know, as the president is pushing to relax some restrictions, Congress is still working on an aid package. Can you just tell us, how did the stock mart (ph) react to the fact that Congress still hasn't finished working on this aid package?

HORSLEY: The stock market was way up today, apparently optimistic that lawmakers are going to get - make some progress on this package, which is now being billed as a multitrillion-dollar relief bill. The Dow gained more than 2,100 points, or more than 11%, and the S&P was up more than 9%.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Scott Horsley, Franco Ordoñez and Nurith Aizenman.

Thanks to all three of you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.