WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s calls for Americans to go back to work and for life to return to normal amid the coronavirus crisis keep running into an inconvenient reality: Washington itself isn’t ready to move on.
Two administration aides tested positive for coronavirus last week, underscoring that even the White House isn’t immune to the disease. A valet to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, both tested positive for the virus, prompting White House officials to take extra precautions, including daily coronavirus testing for people who come into contact with the president.
At a Rose Garden news conference Monday, Trump downplayed the new cases, saying there are always “tremendous numbers of people” coming into the White House.
“I felt no vulnerability whatsoever,” he said. “I think we’re really doing a very good job in watching it, and I think it’s very well contained.”
At the Capitol, the House hasn’t been in regular session since March. The Senate is back to work, but it’s far from business as usual. A committee hearing on returning safely to work and school will be conducted via videoconference on Tuesday. The chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and three of the four witnesses are under self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone with the virus.
The District of Columbia, meanwhile, remains under a stay-at-home order and non-essential businesses remain closed through at least Friday as confirmed coronavirus cases in the nation’s capital continue to rise and aren’t expected to peak until the end of May.
“We continue to have a lot of work to do to stop the spread of the virus,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday. “We would be very, very concerned about turning on activity too fast.”
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Trump faces many of the same risks as he tries to project a sense of normalcy and urges states to reopen even as the coronavirus continues its stubborn intrusion into Americans’ daily lives, including those of his aides.
For Trump, who often uses his message of reopening the country as a cudgel against Democrats, the perils aren’t limited to public health and the economy. He also could pay a heavy political price at a time when he is asking voters to return him to office for another four years.
“Coronavirus politics is tough to navigate and fraught with risk,” said Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University. “Move too fast, more people get sick and the economy gets even worse. Move too slowly, the economy doesn’t improve before voters start making up their minds in October. Either mistake will probably get you beat.”
Trump won’t be able to hide behind the nation’s governors if the reopening campaign goes awry because most of them aren’t on the ballot this year, said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.
“The major political risk for Trump right now is that he has been pushing the reopening despite the warnings of health officials,” Wright said. “So if more deaths result from early re-openings, Americans will hold Trump accountable for this.”
While it’s important for Trump to lead by example, “it is even more important for him to give Americans clear guidance based on facts,” Wright said. “Even if he is not delivering good news, he can help diminish some of the uncertainty surrounding the virus by having a coherent plan for the next few months, which we have not yet seen.”
The White House’s coronavirus cases suggest that any workplace that reopens risks infections, said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.
“If it can happen in the White House, where they’re taking all of these extra precautions, it can certainly happen in any other American workplace,” Callaghan said.
The White House has put in place a number of safety protocols given the arrival of coronavirus exposure in the West Wing. Guests will be tested for the virus, work spaces will undergo regular deep cleaning, and staff will follow social distancing guidelines, undergo daily temperature checks and have their symptom histories reviewed.
On Monday, the White House also notified West Wing staff that they must wear a mask when they enter the complex and maintain a social distance from their colleagues when possible. Trump and Pence have been reluctant to wear masks at public events and each made headlines when they went mask-less while touring facilities where face coverings were required.
People pay attention to cues from their political leaders, so a lack of quarantining, mask wearing or social distancing by the president and vice president can affect how the public responds, Callaghan said. That’s particularly true for fellow Republicans, he said. But people are also noticing how their governors, local health officials and others behave.
“So it’s not the only source of information they’re going to get, but it is certainly a very visible one that’s going to be on the news every night.” he said. “And if your officials are following best practice versus (some who) aren’t, it could change the behavior of some of the public as well.”
There is some encouraging news for Trump as he pushes for states to reopen.
A new pollreleased Monday showed fewer Americans expressing concern about a family member getting sick from the coronavirus even though more report knowing someone who has contracted it compared with a month ago.
About 4 in 10 Americans surveyed by Monmouth University at the beginning of May were very concerned about someone in their family becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus. That’s a decline from the 50% who felt that level of concern last month and closer to the 38% who were very concerned as the outbreak started to spread in late March.
“Concern about COVID seems to have returned to where it was in the early days of the public response to the pandemic in this country,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Consumers are beginning to feel more comfortable about returning to public spaces, according to trend data from Morning Consult polling. The share of adults who’d feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant or café within the next month, for example, has increased by double digits from early April to early May. But it’s still only up to 22 percent.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday that widespread testing is the only way to reopening the economy.
“The administration is fully aware that this is the right path, too — after all, the president and his staff are now reportedly receiving daily tests. They knew exactly how to make the Oval Office safe and operational, and they put in the work to do it,” Biden wrote. “They just haven’t put in that same work for the rest of us.”
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