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Trump comes to Pennsylvania and urges the state to reopen faster

Trump used a trip to Pennsylvania to renew his push for the state begin lifting restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as new data showed more than a quarter of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment benefits.

President Donald Trump during a visit to the Owens & Minor medical equipment distribution center just outside Allentown, Pa., on May 14, 2020.
President Donald Trump during a visit to the Owens & Minor medical equipment distribution center just outside Allentown, Pa., on May 14, 2020.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

ALLENTOWN — Visiting a state vital to his reelection chances, President Donald Trump renewed his push Thursday for Pennsylvania to more quickly lift restrictions meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus, saying it’s time to “start opening up” as new data showed more than a quarter of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment benefits.

“We have to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit," Trump said of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in remarks that followed a more combative Twitter blast Monday. "You have areas of Pennsylvania that are barely affected and they want to keep them closed, you can’t do that.”

Trump weighed in on the controversy roiling the state and sharply dividing many Pennsylvanians during a stop in suburban Upper Macungie Township, where he promoted new steps his administration was taking to replenish the national stockpile of emergency equipment, such as masks and surgical gowns.

He spoke in a vast Owens & Minor Inc. warehouse, standing before roughly 100 workers at a facility that has helped make and distribute protective medical equipment as part of a controversial administration initiative called Project Airbridge. Almost everyone wore face masks except Trump.

Trump also touted his administration’s work to ramp up testing for the virus, while at the same time questioning the value of testing.

“Could be that testing is, frankly, overrated, maybe it is overrated,” he said.

Hundreds of Trump supporters lined the route from a nearby airport to the warehouse. “PA BORN FREE, SHUT DOWN BY DICTATOR WOLF,” one sign read. Wolf has begun easing stay-at-home orders in areas of the state that have seen the threat diminish. As of Friday, 37 of the state’s 67 counties will be in the “yellow phase” of his reopening plan, allowing many retail business to reopen and for gatherings of up to 25 people.

Trump’s visit to a competitive region of a presidential battleground state was only his second official trip since the pandemic locked down travel and put a stop to his campaign rallies. It came days after he fanned the flames of a raging debate over how quickly Pennsylvania should reopen its economy.

As Trump hitches his reelection chances to an economic recovery, the fight has wrapped searing national politics onto the already fraught debate over when it’s safe to restart the economy, and how to weigh severe health risks against the devastating personal impacts of people losing their jobs, their paychecks, and their businesses.

Trump has faced intense criticism over his administration’s response to the pandemic, as testing has lagged expert recommendations and states were left to fend largely for themselves in the early months of the crisis, competing with one another for hard-to-find gear. Trump spoke Thursday for roughly 30 minutes, blending his supply chain comments with attacks on his presumptive Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, and the media, as well as boasts about how strong the economy was before the crisis.

Pennsylvania has seen more than 58,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 4,000 deaths. More than 1.4 million people have been infected in the U.S., and more than 85,000 have died.

“Donald Trump’s visit was nothing more than a photo op to distract from the fact that his administration doesn’t have this virus under control," Pennsylvania Democratic Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills said in a statement. "The number of infections is still growing, and he still hasn’t provided us the tests and [protective equipment] we need. Pennsylvanians deserve a president who puts their health and safety ahead of politics.”

After Trump tweeted Monday that “the great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now," and charged that Democrats were moving slowly “for political purposes,” Biden accused Trump of stoking divisions.

The federal government should be guided by science and experts to “help us reopen the economy safely and as quickly as possible,” Biden said during an online round table with the governors of New Jersey, Michigan, and Connecticut. “It’s a false choice to say we either deal with employment or we deal with the virus. We can’t separate them.”

Wolf called for unity.

“This is really a fight that we’re all in together against a common enemy, the virus," he said. “And it’s not each other. The intramural squabbling is not going to get us to a safe place.”

Owens & Minor, a Virginia-based company, manufactures surgical gowns and other protective gear, making it one of the few bulk suppliers that still does so in the United States. Speaking before the president’s arrival, Trump administration officials emphasized the importance of rebuilding the supply chain for emergency equipment within the U.S. after hospitals and states had to scramble to get masks, ventilators, and other key materials to fight the pandemic.

“My goal is to produce everything America needs for ourselves, and then export to the world,” Trump said.

The company was one of several that participated in the administration’s Project Airbridge, guided by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. With the country facing a shortage of protective medical equipment, the program spent more than $90 million to fly gear from overseas so that private companies in the U.S. could sell it, with half pledged to coronavirus hot spots.

Trump has touted it as a major victory that sped up the arrival of much-needed equipment, while Democrats have raised questions about what was delivered, who got it, and how much companies profited while receiving taxpayer-funded shipping.

To prevent future shortfalls, administration officials said Trump would boost the national stockpile of emergency gear to ensure a 90-day supply of key equipment, and to expand the depth and breadth of those supplies for future emergencies. They also plan to work with American manufacturers to ensure that critical products like N95 masks can be obtained from American companies. After starting the pandemic with 13 million N95 respirator masks, for example, an administration official said, they aim to have 300 million stocked by the fall.

When it comes to Pennsylvania’s economy, Republicans — and a number of vocal protesters — argue that the state has moved past the worst of the crisis, that hospitals have the capacity to handle new patients, and that it’s time to ease the economic pain that has left almost 1.8 million people in the state unemployed and pushed many businesses to the brink.

“Some of those businesses will fail and they’ll never be able to come back, and those are livelihoods that are going to be really badly set back for who knows how long," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said in an online round table he hosted Thursday morning.

Yet some of the Trump administration’s key medical officials have warned that reopening too quickly could lead to a resurgence of the virus, increased death, and another economic shutdown.

And hours before Trump arrived in Pennsylvania, immunologist Rich Bright told lawmakers in Washington that the country faces the “darkest winter in modern history” unless it takes more coordinated action to contain the virus.

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright said. “If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.”