Three weeks later, the answer is clear: the latter. Since releasing the guidelines, Trump has barely mentioned them again. Instead he has praised leaders like Texas Governor Greg Abbott for easing restrictions despite their states not meeting the White House criteria. Rather than declining over 14 days, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas have been on the rise.
The same is true across the country, including in states that have begun re-opening. According to Johns Hopkins University, 19 US states have seen an upward trend in new confirmed coronavirus cases over the past fortnight. Meanwhile, new cases have declined in 13 states, and 18 states remain at the same level.
The US has successfully “flattened the curve” in the sense that it has avoided overwhelming its hospital system. But deaths remain stubbornly high: an average of 1780 people have died in the US from COVID-19 each day over the past week. That’s down only slightly from the weekly average of 2154 when Trump released his re-opening guidelines.
In this regard, the US stands out from other hard-hit countries such as Italy and Spain which have relaxed their restrictions only after recording a significant reduction in cases and deaths over consecutive weeks.
The key factors driving the increased number were the lifting of stay-at-home orders in several states and signs that Americans were already growing lax about physical distancing.
The following day, Trump flew to Arizona for his first trip outside the US capital region since the pandemic began. Undeterred by the dramatic increase in projected deaths, the President’s message to the American public was clear: it was time to get people back to work, even if that means more people will die from the virus.
“Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open,” Trump said. “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years.”
He also confirmed reports that he was preparing to disband the White House coronavirus task force, a group that includes respected doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Facing a torrent of criticism, he backed down the next day and announced the task force would continue indefinitely.
“I thought we could wind it down sooner, but I had no idea how popular the task force is,” Trump said.
While Trump toured the mask factory in Phoenix, a song was playing loudly in the background: Live and Let Die performed by Guns N’ Roses.
To many observers, the song embodied the Trump administration’s increasingly explicit decision to prioritise the economy over reducing the nation’s number of coronavirus deaths.
Having oscillated throughout the crisis between defeating the virus and protecting the economy, Trump appears to have settled on his decision. It was revealed on Thursday (Friday AEST) that the White House blocked the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention from releasing detailed guidelines to help schools, restaurants and churches safely re-open because it feared they were too prescriptive and would slow the economic recovery.
“This is getting awfully close to genocide by default,” Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves said on Twitter. “What else do you call mass death by public policy?”
Testifying before Congress this week, Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers said she was alarmed that the US seemed prepared to tolerate a far higher death toll than most other countries.
“We risk complacency in accepting the preventable deaths of 2000 Americans each day,” she said.
“We risk complacency in accepting that our healthcare workers do not have what they need to do their jobs safely. And we risk complacency in recognising that without continued vigilance in slowing transmission, we will again create the conditions that led to us being the worst-affected country in the world.”
‘Call me a grandma killer’
There is no doubt the imperative to get people back to work is intense. Over 33 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since the pandemic began, but the increased welfare payments passed by Congress are not enough to keep many families afloat. Pawn shops across the country are booming as laid-off workers queue to sell bicycles, laptops, wedding rings and even gold teeth.
But opinion polling suggests Trump is ahead of the American public in his eagerness to get back to normal. A Washington Post poll this week found that Americans widely oppose the re-opening of most businesses. When it comes to the curve of the virus, only 31 per cent of respondents said they believed the worst was behind them. Another 30 percent said the worst was happening now, while 38 percent said they believed the worst is yet to come.
Republicans, however, were far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats. In his push to re-start the economy Trump is also backed by many business leaders and conservative media figures.
“Now that we are learning more, herd immunity is our friend,” Fox News presenter Pete Hegseth said this week. “Healthy people getting out there are going to have to have some courage.”
Conservative writer Bethany Mandel drew much attention with a series of tweets expressing her exasperation at government stay-at-home orders.
“You can call me a Grandma killer,” she wrote. “I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not.”
In case anyone needed reminding that virus was still circulating in the US, it came on Thursday (Friday AEST) with the revelation that one of Trump’s valets had tested positive for COVID-19.
Nevertheless the President, whose own test came back negative, remained focussed on his ultimate objective.
“Our economy: it’s going to come back very, very strong” Trump said in a video message from the White House. “We’re going to have an incredible next year and I look forward to it.”
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Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.