BEIJING – The ranks of America's unemployed swelled toward Great Depression-era levels Thursday, and President Donald Trump reacted to the pressure on the economy by outlining a phased approach to reopening parts of the country where the coronavirus is being brought under control.
Trump told the nation's governors that restrictions could be eased to allow businesses to reopen over the next several weeks in places that have extensive testing and a marked decrease in COVID-19 cases.
“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time,” Trump said, adding that his new guidelines give governors the freedom to act as they see fit.
His comments marked an abrupt change after a week in which he clashed with governors over his claim that he had “total” authority over how and when the country reopens.
Both Democratic and Republican governors welcomed the moderate White House approach, which calls for a gradual, three-phase reopening of businesses and schools.
In phase one, for example, theaters, sporting venues and churches would open “under strict physical distancing protocols,” but bars would remain closed.
Trump said reopening could be imminent in some places, and he has remarked that data suggests coronavirus cases have peaked in the U.S. Scientists have said it’s not clear that is the case, and they warned states to proceed with caution to prevent the virus from storming back.
The president unveiled his reopening plan the same day the government reported 5.2 million more Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to 22 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job losses on record. The losses translate to about 1 in 7 American workers.
While many Americans have chafed at the damage to their livelihoods, business leaders and governors have warned that more testing and protective gear are needed before they can start lifting the lockdowns and other restrictions.
“My No. 1 focus is to keep my family safe, so I’m really not in a hurry to put an end to this,” said Denise Stockwell, who is about to lose her job in marketing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
But conservative economist Steven Moore, a Trump ally, said there will be 30 million people out of work in the country if the economy doesn’t open back up soon. “And that is a catastrophic outcome for our country. Period,” he said.
In China, official data released Friday showed GDP shrank 6.8% from a year ago in the quarter ending in March, its worst contraction since market-style economic reforms began in 1979. Consumer spending and manufacturing activity remain weak despite factories and offices reopening starting last month, suggesting recovery may be longer and harder than initially expected.
Some forecasters earlier said China might rebound as early as this month, but they have been cutting growth forecasts and pushing back recovery timelines as negative trade, retail sales and other data pile up.
Worldwide, the outbreak has infected more than 2.1 million people and killed more than 140,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be much higher. The death toll in the U.S. reached about 31,000, with around 650,000 confirmed infections.
The spread of the virus is declining in such places as Italy, Spain and France, but rising or continuing at a high level in Britain, Russia and Turkey, authorities said.
In other developments:
— Vladimir Putin postponed Russia's grand Victory Day parade May 9 in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II. Since Soviet times, Victory Day has been the nation’s most important holiday, reflecting wartime losses put at more than 27 million dead.
— New York, the most lethal hot spot in the U.S., reported more encouraging signs, with a drop in the daily number of deaths statewide and the overall count of people in the hospital. “We’ve controlled the beast,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. Still, Cuomo extended the state's lockdown through at least May 15, and New York City is lining up 11,000 empty hotel rooms to quarantine people living in crowded apartment buildings.
— Police acting on an anonymous tip found at least 18 bodies over two days at a nursing home in Andover Township, New Jersey, that were waiting to be picked up by a funeral home.
Under the Trump administration road map, places that are turning the corner on the virus would begin a three-phase gradual reopening of businesses and schools, with each phase lasting at least 14 days, to ensure that the outbreak doesn’t make a resurgence.
Many Americans, especially in rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major outbreaks, have urged governors to reopen their economies. More than 3,000 turned out this week to decry the Michigan governor’s restrictions, police broke up a demonstration in North Carolina, and protests also took place in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia.
“Those people that know they’re vulnerable, self-quarantine. And everybody else, let them go back to work," Aaron Carver, a laid-off construction worker, said at a protest in Richmond, Virginia.
The decision of whether to relax the restrictions rests not with the White House but with the state and local leaders who imposed them in the first place. Seven Midwestern governors announced Thursday that they will coordinate on reopening their economies, after similar pacts among states in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Trump ally, said capacity and contact tracing would need to be considerably ramped up before restrictions could be safely lifted.
“All would be forgotten very quickly if we moved into a stage quicker than we should, and then we got into a situation where we had people dying like flies,” Justice said.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the White House guidance makes clear “the best path to reopening is still a cautious one that proceeds carefully and incrementally.”
Two in three Americans expressed concerns that restrictions would be eased too quickly, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday.
Economists said unemployment could reach 20% in April, the highest since the Depression of the 1930s. Layoffs are spreading well beyond stores, restaurants and hotels to white-collar professionals such as software programmers and legal assistants.
Lifting of restrictions, when it happens, won't be like flipping a switch. Restaurants and other businesses may be reopened in phases, with perhaps a limited number of entrances or reduced seating areas, while supermarkets may stick with one-way aisles and protective shields at the cash registers, experts say.
“It might be ‘back to normal’ for everyone else, but people still don’t feel comfortable gathering at restaurants and bars,” said Jeremiah Juncker, manager of the Rappourt pub in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Many European countries, like the U.S., have seen heavy job losses, but places like Germany and France are using government subsidies to keep millions of people on payrolls.
Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region is pushing to restart manufacturing in early May, while Britain extended restrictions at least three more weeks. Switzerland announced staggered re-openings.
“The transition is beginning,” Swiss Home and Health Minister Alain Berset said. “We want to go as fast as possible, and as slow as necessary.”
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.
This story has been edited to correct that Aaron Carver is a laid-off construction worker, not housing contractor.