The White House encouraged people to go to picnics, beaches, and churches over Memorial Day Weekend, hoping to accelerate the resumption of normal life amid the pandemic.
President Trump announced Friday that he would deem houses of worship as “essential” and said governors must reopen them this weekend.
Meanwhile, coronavirus task force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said that it’s safe for people to go outside and enjoy the weekend, as long as they practice social distancing.
“Understand you can go out, you can be outside … you can go to the beaches if you stay 6 feet apart, but remember that that is your space, and that’s a space that you need to protect and ensure that you’re social distancing for others,” Birx said.
She also encouraged people to wear masks when out and about, as the risk of catching the virus from a person without symptoms remains.
“You can all make your decisions about going outside and social distancing, potentially playing golf if you’re very careful and don’t touch the flags and all of those issues,” Birx said. “We’ve found people who enjoy sports have been able to really adjust to social distancing.”
Still, people living in Virginia, Maryland, and the district are most at risk of getting sick, she said. The district is showing the highest rates of positive tests, and social distancing is especially crucial.
“When I say [they have] a high number of test positives, they’re all under 20%. If I had shown you this slide four weeks ago, half of the country would have been over 20%,” she said.
The United States has about 1.6 million cases and nearly 96,000 deaths.
Birx also said that faith leaders should coordinate with local health departments on reopening safely after Trump urged governors to modify social distancing protocols to reopen houses of worship. He said that if states refuse, he will “override” governors.
“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of worship to open right now,” Trump said in remarks to the press at the White House. “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany walked back Trump’s comments, saying that he will “strongly encourage” governors to comply.
States are in various phases of reopening. While some businesses and restaurants are permitted to open, governors have chosen to keep houses of worship closed, on the basis that it would be difficult to follow social distancing protocols and could spur a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.
After Trump made his announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines for churches to reopen safely. The CDC is urging congregants to wear cloth face coverings and ensure that they, the clergy, the choir, and other staff maintain social distancing. Some of the CDC’s suggestions include holding services outside and limiting the size of gatherings.
Birx said Friday that it is possible to follow social distancing protocol in churches, adding that some people with underlying health conditions and comorbidities should consider staying home.
Still, churches can easily become viral hot spots. The initial coronavirus outbreak in South Korea was fueled in part by congregants of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, who accounted for over 5,000 of the country’s cases in a little over a month. Similarly, a person in Northern California who attended church services on Mother’s Day, at a church that reopened in defiance of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders, later tested positive for the virus and exposed about 180 other people.
States and businesses may be reopening, but that doesn’t mean people will show up.
Even as businesses and restaurants reopen in states that have seen a stabilization of new cases, people may still maintain caution and choose not to go out and spend money. Tomas Philipson, a White House economic adviser, told the Washington Examiner that voluntary caution, not state lockdowns, caused the economic shutdown and that it will require public confidence that the virus is under control to spur economic activity.
In fact, Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research firm, found that consumer spending in Georgia, which went on statewide lockdown April 2, had already begun falling precipitously in mid-March. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp started easing restrictions nearly a month ago, but weekly applications for unemployment benefits remain high.
Vice President Mike Pence had a rosier picture of Georgia’s path to recovery when he appeared with Kemp at lunch Friday. His presence was a signal to the country that the coast is clear and that people should feel safe leaving home and going to restaurants and stores.
“In a very real sense, I think history will record that Georgia helped lead the way back to a prosperous American economy,” Pence said after lunch.
The World Health Organization warned Friday that at least 80 million children are at risk as the coronavirus pandemic hampers vaccination efforts. Many health workers who administer childhood vaccinations have been unable to do so because of travel restrictions or redeployment to combat the coronavirus. Additionally, some parents are not getting their children vaccinated due to stay-at-home orders or fear of contracting the virus.