President Trump’s reopening guidelines for states are more cautious than you might expect from someone who consistently calls for a rapid return to economic activity.

The “gating” metrics that states are supposed to meet before reopening are fairly robust: They should see a two-week downward trajectory of flu and COVID-like symptoms, and a two-week downward trajectory of documented cases or positives as a percent of total tests. And they should be well enough equipped to treat all patients without crisis care and to broadly test health workers. If states were to strictly follow these guidelines, many would keep residents at home for several weeks before beginning the first of three gradual phases of an economic restart. The plan advises hitting these metrics again before moving on to subsequent, more open stages.

The recommendations come with loopholes, however. And unfortunately the president has made it clear, with his talk of opening before the end of the month, that he’d like to see them used.

The White House plan says “states and officials may need to tailor these criteria to local circumstances,” including in rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have been minimal. It also gives states the option of taking a county-by-county approach.

If social distancing is loosened piecemeal in this way, however, people will be attracted to more open areas nearby, and may travel there, possibly bringing the virus and renewed outbreaks along with them. Trump’s plan adds to this risk by including sporting venues and places of worship in the first suggested phase of opening, if such places carry out distancing measures. And while the plan acknowledges that it might be good for neighboring states to cooperate with one another in reopening, it offers little in the way of detail or encouragement to do so. If neighbors of already-forming state coalitions open fast, and in a fragmented fashion, they may undermine the best-laid plans of the cooperating states.

“They will be able to go literally tomorrow because they’ve met all of the guidelines,” Trump said in announcing the plan Thursday. “We have large sections of the country right now that can start thinking about opening.”

It’s also possible that the states Trump sees opening soonest only look relatively safe from COVID-19 because of limited testing. Just a few weeks ago, South Dakota would have been in this category; now it’s a hot spot.

The reality is, data-based decision-making relies on accurate information and cautious interpretation. The distressingly vague phrase “downward trajectory,” which is incorporated into several of the plan’s gating criteria, gives states a lot of leeway to open too early based on unreliable data, and the president doesn’t seem inclined to complain if they do.

Without more testing, states won’t have an accurate picture of how far the virus is spreading. Existing flu-tracking infrastructure can help, but it can’t replace widespread COVID-19 screening.

The Trump administration has largely left testing efforts to states, and yet its reopening plan mandates frequent on-demand coronavirus tests – including for front-line workers. States are also supposed to conduct routine “sentinel” testing of vulnerable populations to catch early outbreaks, as well as widespread case intervention and contact tracing. These are excellent requirements. But governors with varying ability and limited information are left to their own devices to work out most of the details and implementation.

Finally, Trump’s plan calls on states to monitor what happens after they loosen social-distancing measures, and quickly return to them if the disease spreads again. This is a crucial fail-safe, and one that’s likely to see too much use.


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