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Coronavirus Updates: Mixed Messages From The President


Last night, as President Trump announced new federal guidelines on reopening the country, he said it's governors who will lead the way.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Governors will be empowered to tailor an approach that meets the diverse circumstances of their own states. Every state is very different. They're all beautiful. We love them all, but they're very, very different. If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that.

KELLY: And yet this morning the president threw that into question, tweeting in all caps, liberate Minnesota; liberate Michigan; liberate Virginia - all states where Democratic governors have instituted stay-at-home orders.


Meanwhile, for any state to lift stay-at-home orders, they will need widespread, reliable testing. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this morning that states will need help to get there.


ANDREW CUOMO: The federal government cannot wipe their hands of this and say, oh, the states are responsible for testing. We cannot do it.

CHANG: After, in successive tweets, the president said, Gov. Cuomo should spend more time doing and less time complaining. And then Trump said the states have to step up their testing. Well, Gov. Cuomo struck back.


CUOMO: That's what he's saying. I'm done. I don't want to help on testing. Testing is too hard. And then the only thing he's doing - let's be honest. Well, it's up to the states to do reopen. By the way, it was always up to the states. What - are you going to grant me what the Constitution gave me before you were born? It's called the 10th Amendment. I didn't need the president of the United States to tell me that I'm governor.

CHANG: All this as governors around the country are weighing their own decisions on how soon to reopen. All right, here to bring us up to speed on all of this are NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, Miami correspondent Greg Allen and political correspondent Scott Detrow. Hey to all three of you.



DETROW: Good afternoon.

CHANG: All right, Scott.


CHANG: Hi. Let's start with Scott Detrow. Scott, not that you are a psychic or anything, but just politically speaking, what's going on there with the president in those tweets about liberating states?

DETROW: Some days it does seem to be part of the job. You know, this week was an extreme example of the mixed messaging we have been hearing from President Trump since the beginning of this crisis. Let's just walk through the week. Earlier in the week he said he had ultimate authority to decide when states reopen. Then he conceded, no, it's up to governors. It's their call. The White House does have no comment on what specifically the president meant with these tweets today, but it is clear from the coverage of these organized rallies springing up at State Houses that there is a lot of overlap between the people protesting and the president's core base of supporters. He is very aware of that. Here's what he said last night.


JON KARL: ...Those protesters to listen to local authorities?

TRUMP: I think they're listening. I think they listen to me. They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion, and my opinion is the same as just about all of the governors. They all want to open. Nobody wants to stay shut, but they want to open safely. So do I.

DETROW: But he is saying different things at different times here. At that briefing, it was a message of caution and letting data drive the decision, and that is certainly not what he sounded like online today. This is definitely going to be something reporters will be asking about in the briefing that starts later this hour.

CHANG: Right. And this came up on a call that Senate Democrats, I understand, had today with Vice President Pence. What concerns did they express?

DETROW: According to a couple of Senate aides familiar with the call, it got confrontational at times. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked about those tweets. Vice President Pence responded by saying, the administration is working respectfully with governors. And Kaine said the messages from the president today were not respectful. There were a lot of other questions from Democrats about testing, and they felt like they weren't satisfied with Pence's answers there. The vice president's office, I should say, has not responded to our questions about how they characterize the call. But several administration advisers have conceded repeatedly and publicly that this White House plan for reopening the country is based on testing levels that just are not a reality at this exact moment.

CHANG: Well, Rob, let's go to you for the science, as we've been doing all week. I mean, there is some new research out today about when states might be able to reopen. Can you just tell us a little more about that?

STEIN: Yeah. This research comes from a team at the University of Washington, and they've been doing this mathematical modeling of the epidemic that's gotten so much attention, including from the White House. And they say that the number of daily COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. may have peaked two days ago at 2,481 deaths in a single day and that some states could try to start to reopen as early as May 4. Those include Vermont, West Virginia, Montana and Hawaii. But other states would have to wait at least until late June or early July, like Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas and Oklahoma. But I should mention that not everyone agrees with this group's projections. You have to take them with a grain of salt.

CHANG: Right because, Greg Allen, some states like where you are in Florida - some states are already starting to reopen, right? Tell us what you're seeing around the country.

ALLEN: Well, right. Many states have task force already working on developing benchmarks for this staged relaxing of restrictions that even the president has been talking about. The questions are, when do you lift the stay-at-home orders? When do you allow people go out to parks and beaches? When do you allow non-essential businesses to reopen for the first time? And then also, one that's be coming up is, when do you allow elective medical procedures to resume to help the hospitals out?

Here in Florida, the first beaches have reopened in the Jacksonville area. Beaches are also reopening in Mississippi. You see states like Minnesota and Wisconsin allowing golfing and other outdoor activities to resume. We have a number of states also that are allowing businesses to begin reopening, like Mississippi, Idaho and Vermont. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went further than anyone today when he said that parks reopen Monday. Also, by next Friday, nonessential retail businesses like clothing stores and boutiques can reopen. And he said that some elective medical procedures would resume on Monday.

CHANG: But, Rob, going back to you, Texas was not on that list of four states the University of Washington said might consider opening up in early May. They're saying it could be more like the last week of May. Are public health experts concerned that some states may be jumping the gun here?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. There are big worries about this. You know, many public health experts say they just don't buy that places are ready to relax or may even be ready anytime soon, including, you know, the ones listed by the University of Washington. And one big reason is, you know, testing.

We're still only doing a fraction of the testing needed, and without enough testing, there's no way to, No. 1, really know how many cases any place really has, to know if it's really safe to try to relax and, you know, also, you know, when it might be safe to move from one phase to another. And No. 2, you need testing to spot new outbreaks quickly that could occur after you start to relax things. And for that, they also need an army of so-called contact tracers - you know, these folks who would swoop in and track down anyone who might have been exposed to...

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: ...Try to stamp out any new outbreaks. Very few places have that. And, of course, another big question is, are hospitals ready? You know, if things go bad, there's going to be a lot of sick people really quickly, and we're going to be able to need to take care of them and save them. We don't know if we're ready to do that, either.

CHANG: And, Greg, what is your sense of how seriously governors are weighing health concerns versus other desires like just getting their economies going again?

ALLEN: Well, they certainly all do talk about the economic toll that's being taken by everything being shut down. But every governor I've heard speak on this issue is talking about health and says that is the No. 1 priority. In Texas, for instance, the strike force that they announced today has four top health officials, including three respected doctors from the University of Texas and other top institutions there on the committee to decide what's going to happen here.

Governors say that they're starting to consider these steps as hospitals are seeing excess capacity and feel that they've seen the peak of the patients they're going to need. So - but a key part of all this is this issue about testing and whether there's enough testing available so they can do this contact tracing. They think that it will be soon.

CHANG: All right. Well, that was Miami correspondent Greg Allen. We also heard from NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and political correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you to all three of you.

STEIN: Sure thing.

DETROW: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.