By The Washington Post · Brady Dennis · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, WORLD, HEALTH
But even on a day that recorded more than 2,400 American deaths, the highest one-day total so far, leaders in Washington and around the country continued to grapple with how and when the country might begin to emerge from a lockdown that has crippled the economy and harmed millions of workers.
"The data suggests that nationwide, we have passed the peak on new cases," President Donald Trump said late Wednesday at the White House, making his latest pitch for why portions of the country should soon begin the trek toward normalcy.
Trump said he plans to have a conference call Thursday with the nation's governors, who he insisted are "champing at the bit" to reopen their economies. He again argued that some states with low numbers of covid-19 cases might be able to begin restarting some activities before the end of April.
Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, urged Americans to continue with social distancing and avoid gatherings in the days ahead. But she also said some states with smaller outbreaks might be able to open up more quickly.
Specifically, she said there are nine states that have fewer than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and fewer than 30 new cases per day. That's where local leaders might choose to move forward with cautiously easing restrictions, she said. The states with fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases as of Wednesday were Arkansas, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
"Each of these governors and each of these mayors will have to make decisions after generalized guidelines are put out, so that they can do what is best for their communities," Birx said. "They are at the front line."
Governors across the nation remained cautious about moving too quickly. And they spoke of a "new normal" for residents as they inch their way toward reopening their economies.
"We can't stay home forever," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said Wednesday. "And I know people are wondering, where do we go from here?"
Like other governors, Cooper said the ability to increase testing and isolate and track new cases would dictate how fast his state moves until a vaccine becomes available, probably more than a year from now.
"It's going to be a phased reopening," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who on Wednesday signed an executive order requiring people to wear masks in public places where they cannot maintain social distancing. "It's going to be a calibration of reopening based on public health, safety and that infection rate."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, became the latest in a growing number of state leaders to begin mapping out a cautious path forward. His conditions for lifting any stay-at-home orders include ramping up testing, increasing capacity at hospitals, and rapidly boosting the state's ability to track and trace coronavirus cases.
"We're not quite there yet, but we are seeing positive signs of cautious optimism," Hogan said.
But even while most Americans remained under orders to stay home and many governors remained resolute that they would only reopen their states when they are convinced that it is safe, pressure continued to grow from some corners Wednesday to begin restarting the economy.
In Michigan, which has the nation's third-highest virus death toll, a sea of drivers appeared in downtown Lansing on Wednesday, blaring their horns and revving their engines in defiance of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home policies.
The event, called Operation Gridlock, was organized by conservatives to voice frustration with the policies, which they argue have caused unnecessary economic pain and infringe on civil liberties.
Some protesters without masks roamed the area despite the group's message for protesters to stay in their cars. Others in camouflage gear posed in front of the Capitol holding rifles and signs supporting Trump.
"Live free or die," read one sign. "End the lockdown," read another.
The demonstration follows other events, such as in Ohio, where protesters without masks watched as Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, held a news conference, and in North Carolina, where protesters rallied against stay-at-home orders, leading to some arrests.
Trump has displayed an eagerness to reopen the country, despite warnings from public health officials that moving too quickly could lead to a resurgence in cases, initially saying he wanted the economy "raring to go" by Easter. This week, he suggested that some states might be ready to begin the return to normal before the end of the month, and he has promised to unveil plans for getting the country back on its feet.
"We are having very productive calls with the leaders of every sector of the economy who are all-in on getting America back to work, and soon," the president tweeted Wednesday. "More to come!"
One main obstacle to getting the United States back to work remains something that has plagued the nation's response all along: a lack of reliable testing.
The United States increased testing in mid-March, but progress has slowed. The number of tests performed daily still falls far short of what experts suggest is needed to allow Americans to start resuming normal activities.
Nearly every day for the past two weeks, 120,000 to 140,000 tests have been administered, according to a tracker assembled by volunteer journalists and scientists. Nearly 3 million Americans - less than 1 percent of the population - have been screened for the virus. That leaves the United States still behind South Korea, Germany, Canada and Italy on per capita testing.
The United States must perform approximately 1 million tests per day to reach levels similar to South Korea, a country that has become a global example of how to contain the virus' spread, according to Matthew Harrison, a biotech analyst for Morgan Stanley.
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said the United States should be testing 750,000 to 1 million people a day.
"We're not even close to that," Redlener said. "Without having a lot more capacity to do rapid testing, it's not easy to see how we're going to start going back to work."
Trump on Wednesday also faced criticism for his decision to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars from the World Health Organization, which he said "failed in its basic duty" to adequately warn the world of the rapidly spreading virus.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump's decision "illegal" and vowed that it would be "swiftly challenged."
"The President's halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless," Pelosi said in a statement. "This is another case, as I have said, of the President's ineffective response, that 'a weak person, a poor leader, takes no responsibility. A weak person blames others.' "
The American Medical Association called it "a dangerous step in the wrong direction," while the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention praised the WHO as "a great partner."
The head of the WHO said he is "reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding" and is working with partners to fill financial gaps.
"The United States has been a long-standing and generous friend to WHO, and we hope it will continue to be so," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.
Other countries also began taking tentative steps toward easing coronavirus lockdowns.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday laid out how her country might lift current restrictions, with some nonessential stores to open next week and schools scheduled to start again next month. Merkel said that Germany has achieved "fragile, intermediate success" in the fight against the virus but that maintaining it requires "extreme caution."
"Always at stake are humans," she said, following a teleconference call with premiers from Germany's 16 federal states.
Germany, which has experienced a lower death rate than many nations, has tested extensively and used contact tracing to contain infection chains. Merkel said that the country will invest further in research in an attempt to assess how many people have already been infected.
The country's social distancing measures, which were set to expire Sunday, will be extended to at least May 3. They stipulate that residents can meet with only one person who is not in their immediate household or family.
On May 4, schools will begin to open with reduced classes, Merkel said, conceding that it would be difficult for parents. "We have to understand that we have to live with the virus as long as there are no medicines and, in particular, no vaccine," she said.
Easing of restrictions also began this week in Austria, which is reopening some nonessential businesses. Denmark is expected to allow children to return to school this week. And Spain has allowed construction and factory workers to go back to their jobs, though a national lockdown otherwise remains in effect.
Their progress is likely to be carefully watched from across the Atlantic, where Trump spent the early part of the week frustrating some governors after saying he has "total" authority to oversee how and when to reopen the economy. At the same time, he said he would work alongside governors on what will be "a very beautiful process."
Around the world, the considerations on lifting restrictions have proven both slow and fraught, requiring an acceptance of an increased risk to public health in the absence of an effective vaccine. There are no established best practices for timing or sequencing. And policymakers have to be ready to adjust course if new outbreaks occur.
"We have to play it by ear," said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association, "because there is no gold standard on how to do it."