US President Donald Trump has unveiled a three-phase plan to reopen the world's largest economy, jolted by the COVID-19 pandemic, that allows governors to gradually ease the crippling lockdown in their states.
His announcement came on a day when the labour department said another 5.2 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week. The job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic was 22 million in March, easily the worst stretch of US job losses on record.
The International Monetary Fund this week projected that the American economy will shrink this year by 5.9 per cent amidst the pandemic that has wrecked havoc in the country.
"America wants to be open and Americans want to be open," he said. "A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution," Trump told reporters at his daily White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak.
Asserting that a prolonged lockdown, combined with a forced economic depression, would inflict an immense and wide-ranging toll on public health, Trump told reporters on Thursday that his administration is issuing new federal guidelines that will allow governors to take a phased approach to reopening their individual states.
Trump said healthy Americans will now be able to return to work if conditions on the ground allow.
"Instead of a blanket shutdown, we will pursue a focus on sheltering the highest risk individuals," he said, adding that his administration is establishing clear scientific metric and benchmarks on testing new case growth and hospital capacity that must be met before advancing to each phase.
"If the virus returns in the fall, as some scientists think it may, possibly, these guidelines will ensure that our country is up and running so that we can likewise put it out quickly," he said.
Currently more than 95 per cent of America's 330 million population are under a stay-at-home order. More than 670,000 Americans have contracted the coronavirus, and over 33,000 have lost their lives, according to latest Johns Hopkins University figures.
A record 4,591 Americans died in the last 24 hours alone due to the novel coronavirus in the US, which has the highest number of COVID-19 casualties in the world.
The 18-page guidelines were developed by top medical experts from across the government and are based on verifiable metrics regarding the situation on the ground. The guidelines empower governors to tailor the phased reopening to address the situation in their states.
The guidelines criteria set clear benchmarks on new cases, testing, and hospital resources for states to meet before proceeding toward a phased reopening.
For the first phase, the guidelines recommends that states see a downward trajectory for 14 days in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases as well as flu-like symptoms before they move to lift stay-at-home orders and other restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus.
The second phase include asking for all vulnerable individuals to shelter in place, encourage telework, and the common areas should remain closed or be physically distant.
All nonessential travel for employees can resume, and then again special accommodations for vulnerable.
"Large venues can operate but solely under moderate physical distancing, and elective surgeries can resume on an outpatient and inpatient basis," said Dr Deborah Brix, a member of the White House Task Force on Coronavirus.
The third phase is essentially returning to the new normal with continuing the good hygiene practices, continuing the respect for spaces between individuals because there are still issues with asymptomatic spread, she said.
The criteria also include hospitals having the resources to treat all patients without crisis care and a robust testing program for healthcare workers.
The president has argued with governors in recent days about the timing of easing restrictions and reopening businesses - but he has now conceded that his powers are limited to issuing guidelines.
During Thursday's call, Trump told the governors: "You're going to call your own shots." "You're going to be running it, we're going to be helping you," he was quoted as saying.
At the press conference, Trump expressed confidence in reviving the US economy.
"We took the greatest economy in the history of the world, and we closed it in order to win this war, and we are in the process of winning it now. Our approach outlines three phases in restoring our economic life," he said.
"We are not opening all at once but one careful step at a time, and some states will be able to open up sooner than others. Some states are not in the kind of trouble that others are in," he said.
Now that the country has passed the peak on new cases, people are starting their life again. "We are starting rejuvenation of our economy again in a safe and structured and very responsible fashion," he said.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the White House taskforce against COVID-19, said that the new guidelines for opening up America again are a product of the best science and the best common sense that the president has marshalled on his team and from a broad range of advisors from all across the nation.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, cautioned against packed sports arena even in the phase three.