WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday declared that the White House coronavirus task force would "continue on indefinitely," reversing his suggestion not 24 hours earlier that it might soon be disbanded and reflecting an administration increasingly torn between a drive for normalcy and pressure to show caution.
In morning tweets, Trump praised the task force, which was convened to manage the U.S. response to the global pandemic, and said it would "continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN."
A day earlier, Trump had said the administration would probably "have a different group" convened for that purpose, and Vice President Mike Pence confirmed a report that officials were discussing winding down the task force's work within a month.
The evolving messages reflect a persistent tension within the administration - and the country - over when it will be safe to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror and end the government-imposed restrictions that have slowed the virus's spread but crippled the nation's economy.
Privately and publicly, Trump has pushed to reopen the country, though the decision to do so lies more with the governors who have ordered businesses closed in their states. But each time the president or state leaders take a step toward reopening, they are confronted with the reality that the pandemic is far from over and expert warnings that resuming regular activity too soon would exacerbate the destruction unleashed by the coronavirus. Some of the moves by governors also run contrary to White House guidelines for when to begin reopening.
Polling shows most Americans, too, are wary of returning to normal.
"I thought we could wind it down sooner, but I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down," Trump said Wednesday, after signing a proclamation in the Oval Office honoring nurses. "It is appreciated by the public."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later said the task force had "gotten our country through this," and Trump had decided it was "here to stay."
The group, which includes medical experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, rose to prominence in part because Trump touted its work at daily press briefings. Polling shows Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
The task force has met less frequently in recent days, and the press briefings have stopped. Trump has said he expects those will resume, albeit less frequently. On Twitter, he said the task force would now be "very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics."
Despite signs of progress, the country remains very much in the throes of the crisis. The United States reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases and more than 1,800 new deaths Wednesday. The total killed in the United States now stands at more than 73,000 and the total infected at more than 1.2 million.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, whose state has been the hardest hit but has apparently slowed the virus's spread, said Wednesday he was confounded to still be seeing hundreds of new infections each day, even as New York residents have been ordered to stay home except for essential trips. He said he recently asked hospitals what sort of people were now falling ill and was told the majority were older than 51 and had been at home.
"Where are those new cases still coming from?" Cuomo asked. "Because we've done everything we can to close down."
Cuomo is not alone in struggling to get a handle on the scope and spread of covid-19, the disease the virus causes. Medical experts as well as political leaders have been buffeted by dramatically shifting estimates of its impact.
In late February, Trump predicted the number of coronavirus cases "within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero." Earlier this week, he said as many as 100,000 could die of the disease. One government model the White House relies on was recently adjusted to project a total even higher - 134,000 - after predicting 60,000 deaths last month.
The grim new projections, though, have not dampened the administration's optimism for a quick bounce-back.
In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Pence talked about the importance of "being able to enjoy the outdoors in the sunlight" and expressed hope that "we could be in a very different place by shortly after Memorial Day or early June."
He also revealed that White House officials had asked college athletic representatives to consider curtailing the attendance of elderly alumni at sporting events as a strategy to reduce the spread of the coronavirus among that higher-risk group.
On Friday, Pence is planning to visit Iowa to discuss reopening religious services and maintaining the nation's food supply. On Tuesday, Trump visited a face mask manufacturing facility in Arizona, a trip he used to tout his desire to see an easing of the stay-at-home restrictions that have throttled the economy.
According to his office, Pence is scheduled to meet with faith leaders in Des Moines, Iowa, to discuss safely lifting restrictions on services at houses of worship. He also plans to visit the headquarters of Hy-Vee, the grocery chain that announced this week it would impose limits on meat sales due to worker shortages at meatpacking plants.
Last week, Trump signed an executive order compelling meat processors to remain open to address anticipated shortages in the nation's food supply chain, despite mounting reports of plant worker deaths due to covid-19.
Several governors this week took steps to end restrictions on their residents, even as public health experts warn that doing so prematurely could be dangerous. But life has hardly returned to normal in those places, in part because Americans are anxious about a return to normalcy and because businesses are often operating under new rules.
In Arkansas, for example, where gyms opened this week, those working out were made to wear face coverings and stand 12 feet apart, creating scenes, captured by an Arkansas Times photographer, that were far from usual. In Colorado, salons have reopened but with a fraction of their normal customers, according to Denver's 9News.
Georgia has permitted malls to open, but not all stores have done so and the crowds at some were thin, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More people seem to be packing parks on account of the warm weather, Atlanta's WSB-TV reported.
The nation's tentative reopening is being driven by a halting dance between government, consumers and businesses, all taking partial steps and fumbling for a balance between activity and safety.
The clothing retailer Gap, for example, said it would resume operations this month at up to 800 of its stores - which include Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta - but those outlets will look and feel different to accommodate social distancing. Bathrooms and fitting rooms will be closed, and returned items will be quarantined for 24 hours before they are placed back on shelves.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows that most Americans remain uneasy about eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy. But protesters in several states, cheered on by Trump, have taken aim at restrictions they view as unconstitutional.
Increasingly, courts are being asked to settle such disputes. On Wednesday, Republicans in Michigan's legislature sued Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her decision extending the state of emergency there without their approval. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request Wednesday to lift the Pennsylvania governor's shutdown order.
Many state leaders and public health officials have sought to stress this week that restoring the economy will cost lives. But Trump and those in favor of ending the shutdowns counter that the restrictions' effects are also pernicious.
In some places, more people are dying at home, possibly because they are skipping needed medical care out of fear of the coronavirus. Mental health and substance abuse issues are on the rise.
The economic damage, too, is hard to overstate. According to data released Wednesday by ADP Research Institute, U.S. companies shed 20.2 million jobs from their payrolls in April. That is the worst number in the report's history and double the last record set in February 2009, during the Great Recession, Ahu Yildirmaz, co-head of the institute, said in a news release.
Uber said Wednesday it will lay off 3,700 employees, or about 14 percent of its workforce, as the company faces an uncertain future in the face of the pandemic. Its announcement follows similar cuts by tech companies Lyft and Airbnb, fellows in the on-demand economy that has taken a particular plunge as people stay home and avoid contact with others.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have already approved a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package and are expected to consider more legislation in the coming weeks. A Senate committee is scheduled to hear testimony next week from Fauci, while a House subcommittee hears from Rick Bright, a former top vaccine official removed from his post last month.
Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, alleged in a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday that he was reassigned to a less prestigious role because he tried to "prioritize science and safety over political expediency" and raised health concerns over a drug repeatedly pushed by Trump as a possible coronavirus cure.
Debra Katz, an attorney for Bright, confirmed Wednesday that Bright will appear on Capitol Hill next Thursday at the invitation of Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who chairs the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The pandemic's economic destruction is hardly limited to the United States. The European Union has warned of a massive hit to the continent's economy from coronavirus lockdowns, saying the contraction this year could be the worst in its post-World War II history.
EU policymakers predicted that even if the reopening process goes relatively smoothly, the bloc’s economy will shrink by 7.4 percent in 2020. In 2009, the worst year of the global financial crisis, Europe’s economy declined by 4.4 percent.