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Coronavirus Updates: The Economic Toll


Tonight President Trump announced new guidelines for a gradual step-by-step reopening of the country.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Based on the latest data, our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we're calling Opening Up America Again. And that's what we're doing. We're opening up our country.

CHANG: Now, social distancing won't go away immediately. The guidelines suggest states open up in phases and that they meet certain requirements before graduating to the next one. Meanwhile, the virus and the current lockdown to contain it have created an ever-growing economic black hole which has now swallowed up nearly all the new jobs created in the U.S. since the Great Recession. Today we learned that another 5 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, bringing the total jobless claims in this country to a staggering 22 million in just four weeks.

Joining us to talk about all this now are NPR business correspondent Jim Zarroli, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Hey to all three of you.




CHANG: All right. Ayesha, let's start with you. Can you just give us a little more detail on what these new guidelines say?

RASCOE: So the guidelines right now is that there will be three phases for states to reopen. In each phase, social distancing gets less strict. To move through these phases, a state or region would need to have 14 days where cases of the virus go down. They're leaving it up to states to decide, but they're recommending that states will need to have data, the ability to test people, the - and the ability to trace cases. The guidelines also call for employers to have a system for checking temperatures and doing contact tracing when people get sick at work.

CHANG: OK. So what would the three phases entail exactly?

RASCOE: Phase 1 is similar to what we have now. People most at risk should stay home, and everyone should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. Work from home where possible. Keep schools and bars closed. But sit-down restaurants, movie theaters and churches under these guidelines could reopen but with strict physical distancing protocols. Then, if there's no signs of the virus rebounding, you could go to phase 2 and expand gatherings to 50 people, reopen schools, which would obviously be a big deal. At phase 3, things could return to almost like normal or new normal, as people say...

CHANG: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...With vulnerable people going out in public and visits to hospitals allowed again.

CHANG: And do states have to follow these phases?

RASCOE: In a word, no. And that's the kind of - the key thing with this is that these are recommendations, and so...

CHANG: Got it.

RASCOE: It will be up to individual states to decide what they want to do next.

CHANG: OK. Well, Rob Stein, let's go to you. How does this plan that the Trump administration rolled out - how does it fit with what public health experts are saying?

STEIN: Well, you know, I'm hearing very mixed reactions from folks, public health experts. On the one hand, they say they're pleased with some of what they see here. They think a phased approach makes a lot of sense, and they are glad to see that communities would have to satisfy, you know, important criteria before they can consider reopening and moving from one phase to another - you know, like, those indications that the situation has been improving for an extended period of time - and that the guidelines emphasize, you know, several things that are really important, you know, like the ability of the health care system to handle things if outbreaks erupt in places that, you know, it hasn't been a problem. But, you know, because it's important remember that, you know, we've been basically hiding in our homes for weeks now - so there are a lot of...

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: ...Vulnerable people out there. So the virus could easily, you know, take off again very quickly if people start to reemerge from their hiding places. All that said, I'm hearing a lot of concerns about these guidelines.

CHANG: Oh, really? What kinds of concerns?

STEIN: Well, you know, like, for one, is that 14 days really enough? You know, there's often a lag in cases. So they could be going down for a couple of weeks, but then suddenly, it says, jump back up again. So, you know, can you really rely on that? And a big concern is something we've heard a lot about - you know, testing. The guidelines do talk about testing, but public health experts say any place considering reopening really needs to have fast, widespread testing available not just for health care workers but for anybody who's showing any symptoms. And the guidelines seem to be saying that places can instead rely on other things like, you know, the number of people who show up at their doctor's office with flu-like symptoms. You know, that's useful, but it's no substitute for, you know, quick, widespread testing, which is what we really...

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: ...Need to spot any new outbreaks quickly and stuff them out, you know? And, you know, so, you know, people are really worried that there could be - this could sort of send the message - wrong message. And places could be reopening before they're really ready to respond and keep the virus in check. The other thing is they're going to need an army of these contact tracers if there are any outbreaks to sort of stuff...

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: ...Them out quickly. And this talks about that but doesn't, like, lay out a plan for how to make that happen.

CHANG: And what else are you hearing from these experts that you've been talking to?

STEIN: Well, you know, I've heard things like, you know, that this might sort of suggest that you can kind of move too quickly from one phase to another, you know, by, like, allowing large gatherings to happen too quickly or, you know, that it could allow nonessential travel to sort of start up too soon. And there's also concern that the criteria for when to move from one phase to another might be too vague, and the fear is that could lead to, you know, communities anxious to get things going from opening up too quickly before they're really ready. And really, if I had a chance to see whether, you know - has things really settled down? Do we have enough time that's passed to make sure there's not going to be another outbreak?

You know, and it's also - it does things that seem to, like, lump things together that don't necessarily make sense. You know, it doesn't make clear. Can baseball stadiums, you know, reopen, you know, just allowing people to stand six feet apart? That kind of sends shivers down the spines of some public health experts...

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: ...I've been in touch with.

CHANG: OK. I want to turn back to the economy. You know, another 5.2 million people filed for unemployment last week, as we mentioned. Jim Zarroli, can you just help us put these numbers in perspective?

ZARROLI: Well, yeah. I mean, 5.2 million jobs in one week - that's a lot of jobs. I mean, these are the kind of numbers we haven't seen before this year. We have now had 22 million people file for unemployment in just four weeks. You know, we are coming off the best job market in 50 years. Well, now in just four weeks, we have lost as many jobs as we had gained in the entire past decade.

CHANG: That's incredible.

ZARROLI: One in 7 workers in all of the United States has lost a job. You can see why the president's so anxious to reopen the economy. I mean, the strong job market was one of his best arguments for reelection, and this - reports like this today just show how much the job market's been damaged.

CHANG: Yeah. Is there any sense of what kinds of workers are being hurt the most right now?

ZARROLI: Every kind of work, every part of the economy is being affected. You know, in the beginning of the lockdowns, the job losses tended to be concentrated in, you know, travel and restaurants. Now there's this second wave, and it includes a lot of white-collar workers - you know, lawyers, architects, business consultants. I talked yesterday to Tracy Delphia. She's a research analyst in Washington state. She's been placed on furlough, which means she expects to be called back at some point when conditions improve. But a lot of the other people that she works with weren't so lucky.

TRACY DELPHIA: Pretty unsettling. My furlough is for about 60 days, but it's a little open-ended. At the same time, there are employees that have been laid off, so it's a very uneasy feeling.

ZARROLI: She's on unemployment, so she has money coming in, but she is really worried about paying her mortgage. She can't get straight answers from the bank about, you know, whether she can put off paying it and for how long.

CHANG: That sounds so frustrating. I mean, Congress has provided much larger unemployment benefits than workers have gotten in the past, and I'm curious. Is that making a substantive difference, Jim?

ZARROLI: Oh, yeah. You know, from what we've heard anecdotally, I think it is making a difference. The benefits will give people, you know, at a very uncertain time maybe more breathing room. One of the problems is that people aren't getting all the money they're eligible for. The states have processed about 70% of the claims they got as of April 4, but the extra money from the federal government is taking longer to get through. And then, you know, there is just an enormous need for these programs, and they're running out of money right now. The Small Business Administration said today that its $349 billion loan program has basically been tapped out.

CHANG: Well, Ayesha, let's turn to you. The White House has been pushing Congress to add more money to that program, and there were a series of calls today with lawmakers. What happened?

RASCOE: Trump talked to about 97 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. The focus was on this reopening of the economy, but they also did talk about this program for small businesses. Trump has been blaming Democrats for holding up $250 billion in new funding for the programs. Democrats agree with adding that money in, but they also want money for states and hospitals - more money for states and hospitals and more food aid.

Right now the two sides just can't seem to get in agreement on this. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today that they didn't make any progress on securing a deal, but Democrats are still talking with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about it. And so this is all a part of President Trump trying to get this economy back going.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, health correspondent Rob Stein and business correspondent Jim Zarroli.

Thanks to all three of you.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.