President Donald Trump wants the US economy back up and running by Easter, even as the coronavirus spreads rapidly and hospitals brace for a wave of virus-related deaths.
“We have to put the country to work,” he said on Fox News on Tuesday (local time), warning that if the economy suffered, there would be “suicides by the thousands” in the US.
Mr Trump told Fox he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter”. Easter Sunday is April 12.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full,” Mr Trump said later.
“You’ll have packed churches all over our country.”
The US is about halfway through the president’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” coronavirus plan, under which millions of Americans were urged to stay at home and curb unnecessary travel.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation warned the US had the potential to become the global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, citing a “very large acceleration” in infections. The virus has already infected more than 50,000 people in the US and killed at least 660.
Mr Trump, who had hoped to build his campaign for the November 3 election on a booming US economy, is now looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths from COVID-19. Economic activity has also ground to a halt in some US states.
Late on Sunday, he tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” adding that at the end of the 15-day shutdown period, “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”
One of his senior economic advisers, Larry Kudlow, signalled a possible policy change in an earlier interview with Fox News on Monday: “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease. We’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”
The White House would look at “a number of things”, he said.
But New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has warned that being too hasty to ease limits on travel, socialising and work would cost lives.
“If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest,” he said on Tuesday.
“No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life,” he said at a convention centre in Manhattan that is being converted into a 1000-bed temporary hospital.
New York has been worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak – its COVID-19 death toll is already 157.
The expected need for hospital beds in New York at the peak of the outbreak has jumped to 140,000, Mr Cuomo said. Only 53,000 beds are now available.
The worst of the outbreak, known as the apex, could arrive in 14 to 21 days and would put huge pressure on health services, he said.
“We’re not slowing it, and it is accelerating on its own,” he said, adding the number of cases was doubling every three days.
He predicted similar situations were likely in California, Washington, and Illinois.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed Mr Trump’s idea and fluctuating response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well co-ordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” she said.
“Thank god for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank god for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant, cautioned against prematurely lifting containment rules because of concerns about the economy.
“My advice would be to follow medical advice to contain the virus,” he said.
“If we can take some pressure off the economy, fine but my primary focus is to make sure the virus is contained and defeated. And we’re just going to have to suffer through the economic consequences.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday the lockdown affecting large segments of the American public was likely to last 10 to 12 weeks, or until early June.