As Californians awoke Monday morning to a cascade of new state and local restrictions on public gatherings, and to very bad news from Wall Street, President Trump lamely tweeted “God Bless the USA!” Just two days earlier, he had similarly declared a “National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Prayers and blessings are all well and good, but much more than that is obviously necessary. Now, after weeks of dithering, the president finally seems to have gotten the message that Americans are desperate for more than empty assurances that everyone will be fine and that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.
On Monday afternoon Trump’s coronavirus task force seemed to wake from its lethargy, releasing a set of guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 infections. They recommended the temporary closing of businesses and social distancing in areas with documented community transmission; all other Americans were urged to avoid eating out, traveling and congregating in groups of more than 10 people.
Trump’s recommendations bore a strong resemblance in many ways to those announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom the day before. On Sunday afternoon, Newsom called on bars and nightclubs to close immediately and asked restaurants to exercise “extreme social distancing.” He also said that the state’s 5.3 million people 65 years and older or with chronic conditions should remain in “home isolation” for the immediate future.
We’re grateful to Newsom and state governors in Illinois, Ohio and New York who stepped into the leadership vacuum when it was necessary, and we’re grateful that they appear to have pulled the federal government along behind them. Cases in California and nationwide are surging. On Monday alone, Los Angeles County saw its confirmed cases jump from 69 to 94.
Epidemiological modeling predicts that the U.S. is on a course to reach the level of COVID-19 infections currently seen in Italy soon unless we undertake rapid and robust interventions. There’s a real risk that more people will need treatment than our healthcare system can handle, raising the likely death toll.
Neither Newsom nor Trump has mandated closures or ordered people to stay at home; they’ve stuck to recommendations thus far. We’re not saying this is a bad strategy to start out with. But it may not do the trick. It’s not reassuring that the White House is focusing just on places with documented COVID-19 cases. The scary truth is that just because there aren’t any confirmed cases in some places doesn’t mean that the infection isn’t already spreading. The incubation period for COVID-19 can be as long as two weeks. Meanwhile, a series of missteps and missed opportunities has left the nation woefully behind in testing for infection and tracking contacts, which has almost certainly allowed the virus to spread undetected. So far, fewer than 28,000 people in the U.S. have been tested for the coronavirus.
Even now, several weeks into this crisis, too many people seem blithely unconcerned about the danger posed by a virus that has killed thousands of people globally and is still spreading at a frightening pace. This is in part due to the mixed messages that have come from the president and his allies in recent weeks. California Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) told viewers on Fox News on Sunday that it was a “great time to go out” and that they should “go to your local pub.” That’s shockingly irresponsible advice.
To their credit, other local government leaders have shown appropriate concern. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Sunday night ordered bars and nightclubs, gyms, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues to temporarily shut down and restaurants to limit service to takeout, delivery and drive-through patrons. On Monday Los Angeles County announced similar actions for the other 87 cities in the county. Meanwhile, authorities in six counties in the Bay Area have gone even farther, ordering their collective 6.7 million residents to stay at home until April 7, except to get groceries, supplies or medical treatment. This is an extreme measure, to be sure, but that region has logged the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the state. On Monday afternoon, Newsom called on the state Legislature to allocate as much as $1 billion to fight coronavirus.
Will stronger measures become necessary in the hours and days to come? Will some things that are currently being recommended soon be mandated? We suspect they will, but we don’t know. Either way, it seems obvious that transparency and honesty from government officials about the facts and criteria on which they are basing their decisions will make it easier for people to understand the situation and accept the enormous changes in behavior that are expected of them.
There are hard times ahead for Americans. Many stores and schools are already closed; jobs are threatened. Around the world, borders are closing, flights are being canceled, deaths are mounting. On Monday, the stock market plunged again, down 30% from its peak last month.
We hope the steps taken this week will protect against complete shutdowns later. But whatever comes, the president needs to have the courage and foresight to respond with more than just a hope and a prayer.