President Donald Trump announced federal guidelines to reopen the U.S. on Thursday that put the onus on governors of making decisions about their states' economies.
Trump called the recommendations "the next front in our war, which is called opening up America again."
He said that the strategy is based on "hard verifiable data" and that "benchmarks must be met at each phase."
"Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we are starting our life again. We are starting rejuvenation of our economy again, in a safe and structured and a very responsible fashion," Trump said. "We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time."
Under the first phase of the three-phase plan, restaurants, movie theaters and large sporting venues would be appropriate to reopen under certain conditions, while schools, day care centers and bars would not.
The plan, released Thursday afternoon, is designed to "mitigate the risk of resurgence" of the pandemic and to "protect the most vulnerable," according to the guidelines.
It is "implementable on a statewide or county-by-county basis" at the discretion of each state's governor — a stark contradiction from the president's earlier assertion that he had "total authority" to direct governors how and when to reopen.
The guidelines do not suggest any reopening dates, and Trump acknowledged that it would be "a gradual process."
To begin implementing the guidelines, states must first meet a "gating" criterion that includes a "downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period" or a "downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)," as well as hospital preparedness.
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If that criterion is met, states, could then enter Phase One, according to the guidelines.
Under Phase One protocols, large venues like restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship would be allowed to reopen if they "operate under strict physical distancing protocols," according to the guidelines.
Gyms would be also be permitted to reopen "if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols," the plan says. Bars, however, "should remain closed."
In addition, elective surgery would be allowed to resume "as clinically appropriate, on an outpatient basis," at certain facilities.
Schools and youth activities like day care and camp that are currently closed should remain closed, and visits to senior living facilities and hospitals should remain prohibited.
"Those who do interact with residents and patients must adhere to strict protocols regarding hygiene," the plan says.
Under Phase One, "all vulnerable individuals should continue to shelter in place" and members of households with vulnerable residents "should be aware that by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home."
It also calls for the employers to allow employees to telework.
The plan also emphasizes that all people should continue to practice social distancing when in public and that they should continue to minimize nonessential travel.
Phase Two, the guidelines state, applies to states and regions "with no evidence of a rebound" that "satisfy the gating criteria a second time."
Under this phase, schools and activities like day care centers and camps could reopen and nonessential travel could resume. Visits to senior care facilities and hospitals, however, would remain prohibited.
The large venues that were allowed to reopen in Phase One, like restaurants, movie theaters and sporting venues, could remain open and would be allowed to ease their physical distancing protocols to a "moderate" level.
Bars could begin operating with "diminished standing-room occupancy," while gyms could remain open with "strict" distancing sanitation protocols, according to the plan.
Phase Three would then kick in for states and regions with "no evidence of a rebound" that "satisfy the gating criteria a third time."
At that point, "vulnerable individuals" could resume public interactions but should practice social distancing, according to the guidelines. Low-risk populations should still "consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments."
Only in Phase Three could work sites resume normal staffing protocols without restrictions and visits to senior care facilities and hospitals could resume. People who interacted with residents and patients would still have to remain "diligent regarding hygiene." Under Phase Three guidelines, large venues could operate under "limited" social distancing protocols, gyms could remain open with "standard" sanitation protocols and bars could operate with "increased standing room occupancy."
The White House views Trump's announcement as guidance under which "governors will have to make decisions what's right for their individual states," a White House official told NBC News.
Some states may be able to move to the next phase before May 1, according to the official. In some states, governors would be able to open up some counties before others.
The guidelines, the official said, represent the "consensus of the medical professionals," including Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert; and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration.
Hours before the plan was released, Trump told governors that they would have the power to make their own decisions.
"You're going to call your own shots," Trump said during a videoconference with governors Thursday afternoon in the Situation Room, according to two people listening to the call. Earlier this week, he said "the president of the United States calls the shots" when it comes to reopening.
A coordinated pullback on the social distancing measures that have shuttered businesses across the country would, in effect, reopen parts of the economy.
As of Thursday, more than 32,000 people had died in the U.S. from the coronavirus. In addition, more than 22 million people have filed first-time claims for unemployment insurance over the last four weeks as the job market in every sector of the economy continues to be devastated.
"To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy. Over the long haul, you cannot do one without the other," Trump said.
NBC News reported earlier Thursday that the White House was circulating a draft plan to reopen the economy that would advise areas with low numbers of coronavirus infections to begin pulling back on social distancing measures after May 1, with harder-hit areas possibly having to wait another month or longer.
Regions that can be the first to renew economic activity should have "limited transmission, ample public health and health system capacity," and they should be prepared to monitor the situation closely for a resurgence of infections, according to the 10-page document, which was circulated to a new task force and shared with NBC News. The plan stopped short of specifying metrics for how communities would know whether or when they fall into that category.
Trump's announcement came as governors across the country have begun discussing plans to ease some of the restrictions that have been imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
States across the Northeast and along the Pacific Coast launched separate regional pacts Monday to coordinate plans around how to open up and get their economies going again, while seven Midwestern states announced a similar agreement Thursday.
However, governors and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as business leaders, have stressed the need for greater testing capacity to truly begin easing social distancing restrictions. NBC News reported Thursday that the White House is exploring ways to increase testing so localities could feasibly meet the president's May 1 timeline.
“Testing is the key to opening our country to resume our lives," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement on Thursday night. "The White House’s vague and inconsistent document does nothing to make up for the President’s failure to listen to the scientists and produce and distribute national rapid testing."
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, knocked Trump's guidelines, saying at a CNN town hall that he "wouldn't call it a plan. I think what he's done, he's kind of punted."