U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out at four Democratic governors on Friday for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as tensions heightened between the Republican leader and states over how and when to ease restrictions put in place to contain the outbreak.
In a Twitter post, Trump taunted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by tweeting “Liberate Michigan” — an apparent reference to sharp criticism that included street protests over her strict measures to tamp down the outbreak in her state.
Trump directed similar “Liberate” tweets at Minnesota and Virginia, where Democratic governors have been the targets of similar protests from those opposed to tough stay-home measures designed to contain the coronavirus.
Trump did not mention Ohio, whose Republican governor has set a similar target for economic reopening as those states.
At the same time, strains between Trump and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, of New York, erupted into quarreling and pointed sarcasm in an extraordinary real-time exchange between Trump on Twitter and Cuomo at a televised daily news briefing.
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Sweeping stay-at-home orders in 42 U.S. states to combat COVID-19 have shuttered businesses, disrupted lives and decimated the economy, and some protesters have begun taking to the streets to urge governors to rethink the restrictions.
On Thursday, Trump unveiled guidelines for a staggered, three-stage process by states to lift restrictions on business and social life to curb the pandemic.
Trump, who is seeking a second term in a Nov. 3 election against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, played down the threat posed by the coronavirus in the early stages and has sent contradictory messages about the responsibilities of states and the federal government in dealing with the crisis.
With the onus on governors, many Democrats believe Trump is trying to give himself political cover if anything fails.
Up to the states to test, Trump says
Cuomo said Friday that he needed federal help to ramp up testing for the coronavirus and to reopen his economy, and criticized the White House, accusing Trump of bailing on a comprehensive testing strategy because it was ‘too complicated.”
He said he needs federal funding to significantly ramp up testing capacity and to fill a $10 to $15 billion US budget shortfall that is hampering the state’s ability to fund such efforts on its own. He criticized the aid packages passed by Congress to date for a lack of funds to hard-hit states like New York.
“Is there any funding so I can do these things that you want us to do? No,” Cuomo told a daily briefing. “That is passing the buck without passing the bucks.”
Trump lashed out at Cuomo in a series of tweets.
“The States have to step up their TESTING!” he said.
Advised by reporters of the tweets, the governor responded: “If he’s sitting home watching TV, maybe he should get up and go to work.”
The United States has reported more coronavirus infections than any other country, with over 679,000 cases and at least 34,000 deaths. The infections and casualties are spread unevenly across the country, with more densely populated places such as New York and New Jersey suffering the most.
New York statewide reported 630 new deaths in the most recent 24-hour period, Cuomo said Friday. More than 40 per cent of all deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. have occurred in the state.
Tentative steps in some states
Trump’s plan is a set of recommendations for state governors, some of whom Trump has clashed with during the coronavirus crisis as several have described a fraught process of trying to obtain needed medical supplies from private suppliers without a command-and-control operation emanating from the federal government.
With more than 20 million Americans seeking unemployment benefits, states are under pressure to let non-essential businesses reopen despite a shortage of testing needed to prevent the outbreak from regaining traction.
The weeks of shutdown have affected about 97 per cent of the U.S. population. States meeting federal criteria can move into the first phase of re-opening on Friday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued three executive orders on Friday aimed at opening his state’s economy, the second-largest in the country. Abbott said the opening would be slow and gradual and that it would be reversed if any outbreaks occurred.
Michigan, a state that Trump narrowly won in 2016, has faced one of the fastest growing infection rates, but residents have pressed to reopen the state’s economy, some even taking to the streets in protest.
“I am hopeful that come May 1 we will make some steps forward, and as we proceed, if that goes well and we continue to see progress, that we then go into a second phase,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said on Friday, referring to continued decrease in hospitalizations from the virus.
As of Thursday, Michigan had more than 29,000 COVID-19 cases and almost 2,100 deaths, though Whitmer said the number of new cases was showing signs of levelling off.
‘Easing the brakes’
In Florida, one of the last of the major states to shut down, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis talked about reopening but did not give a timeline on lifting stay-home orders.
“You’re not going to have large gatherings out there. You’ve just got to do it in a way that is going to have low risk,” he said at a briefing.
DeSantis said that it was up to local officials to open parks and beaches. The city of Jacksonville, Fla., will allow beaches and parks to reopen with some restrictions, the city’s mayor said on Twitter.
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Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said he would extend by a week a stay-at-home order that was set to expire on Monday while easing some restrictions early next week.
Beaches and lakes can reopen on Monday for fishing and relaxing, while non-essential businesses can sell products for drive-thru pick-up or delivery, he said.
“We are easing the brakes on ‘non-essential’ businesses,” Reeves said. “I wanted to announce that we can all ease up and reopen today, but we can’t. We are still in the eye of the storm.”
Trump pointed to different rates of infection across the country at the White House on Thursday.
“You have very different states. If you look at Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, that’s a lot different than New York, a lot different than New Jersey,” he said.
Rural Montana has reported 415 cases and seven deaths, and Wyoming 296 cases and 2 deaths, while New York state has 14,776 casualties, nearly half the national total.
But health officials have warned that confirmed cases can be a misleading number depending on the availability of tests, while it is also a lagging indicator of actual transmission in a community.