Health officials and elected leaders began to talk publicly on Sunday about offering people what is simultaneously their dear desire and dark doubt — a slow, sequenced restart of a sick, shaken, and suddenly jobless America.
Nothing is imminent. The coronavirus continues to kill in alarming numbers, and people are ill in every state.
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But New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he and other officials met over the weekend to begin “wargaming” what a reopening would look like.
The approach must be regional, undertaken in broad harmony with neighboring states like Pennsylvania, said Murphy, who warned that reopening the state economy too soon could be “pouring gasoline on the fire” of the pandemic. The virus killed another 167 people in New Jersey from Saturday to Sunday, raising the state death toll to 2,350.
More than 7,600 people are hospitalized in New Jersey, nearly 1,100 of them in critical care.
America remained locked in a strange, uneven dynamic that’s left many families grieving and adrift after the sudden deaths of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, while others go on largely untouched, free to worry about grocery deliveries and to wonder when the baseball season eventually might start.
Across the Philadelphia region on Sunday, a quiet Easter came and went. After considerable publicity Rev. Herb Lusk changed his mind about holding in-person services at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. Thousands prayed via livestreams. And eggs weren’t the only things rolling in Margate, where whipping winds took off the furry headpiece of a costumed firefighter-turned-Easter-Bunny.
In a world where grocery shopping has become threatening, and some workers have died, Acme and Aldi prepared to join other markets in limiting the number of customers allowed inside their stores at once.
Acme, headquartered in Malvern, said stores would stick to a maximum 20% of capacity. Aldi, the Germany-based discount grocer that recently expanded its Philadelphia-area footprint, will permit only five customers per 1,000 square feet. Modest-size stores have about 10,000 square feet of shopping space, which would let 50 customers inside at once.
As the idea of reopening moved to center stage on Sunday, people wondered if they and their families would be safe in a newly active America.
Health officials in Pennsylvania have been cautiously encouraged by an infection curve that is bending if not flattening. Still, the numbers shock: Improvement in Pennsylvania meant that cases were doubling every three to four days, instead of every two to three days.
Another 1,178 Pennsylvanians tested positive and 13 more died, officials said Sunday, raising state fatalities to 507. Health Secretary Rachel Levine said residents must continue to stay home to help slow the spread of the virus, which has infected nearly 23,000.
All of Pennsylvania remains under a stay-at-home order as health officials brace for a surge, possibly in the coming days.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said the era of social distancing and other preventative measures will need to go on “at least probably through the summer. … We need to continue to modify our behavior and what we’re used to doing in order for this not to come back.”
Another 80 people in Camden County tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total to 1,255, officials said. So far 29 people have died.
“I am cautiously optimistic that our numbers are starting to level off a bit,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “Federal officials have begun to signal that the next week will be critical in our fight to slow the spread, but it will also be one of the most difficult periods we experience.”
The nation’s top infectious disease expert said the economy in parts of the country could have a “rolling reentry” as early as May, provided health authorities can quickly identify and isolate the people who will inevitably be infected.
Dr. Anthony Fauci also said he “can’t guarantee" it will be safe for Americans to vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Rather than flipping a switch to reopen the entire country, Fauci said, a gradual process will be required, based on the status of the pandemic in different areas. A key will be the availability of rapid, widespread testing. Once the number of people who are seriously ill sharply declines, officials can begin to “think about a gradual reentry of some sort of normality, some rolling reentry," Fauci said.
“We are hoping that, at the end of the month, we could look around and say, OK, is there any element here that we can safely and cautiously start pulling back on? If so, do it. If not, then just continue to hunker down.”
In interviews with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, and on CBS’s Face the Nation, Gov. Murphy said discussions between officials in Pennsylvania and other states have been intense, focusing on “testing, contact tracing, what are the rules of the road going to be for things like bars and restaurants.”
“I do know this,” Murphy told Tapper. “There’s a sequence we need to abide by. We need a health recovery first and then the economic recovery. I fear if we open up too early, and we have not sufficiently made that recovery, we could be pouring gasoline on the fire.”