By Stephanie Armour and Jon Hilsenrath 

Government officials and business leaders are turning their attention to a looming challenge in the fight against the new coronavirus pandemic: Reopening a $22 trillion U.S. economy that has been shut down like never before.

With some preliminary signs that infections from the virus are slowing, the whole nation is hopeful to get back to business as soon as possible. But a host of questions arise: Under what conditions should people be allowed back to work and stay-at-home orders be lifted? How will people at work be monitored for reinfection or antibodies to prevent a resurgence of the deadly virus? Does it all happen at once or is it staggered? Who is in charge of the effort?

A sharp reduction in new infections is a critical first step, but health experts say other steps will be needed to prevent another devastating outbreak that shuts the economy down all over again. That includes building testing and surveillance systems -- and a readiness to reintroduce some social distancing and other mitigations on smaller scale if necessary -- to give businesses and individuals confidence that they can return to work without risking infection.

"It isn't like a light switch on and off," said Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump's task force on the pandemic, in an interview with "The Journal," a Wall Street Journal podcast. "It's a gradual pulling back on certain of the restrictions to try and get society a bit back to normal."

Dr. Fauci said a first condition is a steep drop in the number of cases. "You've got to make sure you are absolutely going in the right direction." Then, he said, "you gradually come back. You don't jump into it with both feet."

The federal government has yet to put in place the kind of nationwide testing, tracing and surveillance system that public health experts say is needed to prevent another surge in coronavirus cases when social distancing eases. That includes identifying people who are asymptomatic and can also spread the coronavirus, health experts said.

Mr. Trump said Saturday that he is considering a second coronavirus task force focused on reopening the country. The administration's current social distancing guidelines run through April.

"It's the health people that are going to drive the medical-related decisions," National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said in an interview with Politico webcast on Tuesday. "But I still believe, hopefully and maybe prayerfully, that in the next four to eight weeks we will be able to reopen the economy, and that the power of the virus will be substantially reduced and we will be able to flatten the curve."

The federal government has yet to release a detailed recovery strategy, so state and local leaders are scrambling to create their own approaches. As a result, the recovery process could unfold in the same patchwork fashion as the shutdown.

New York, the state hit hardest by the pandemic, is looking to join with New Jersey and Connecticut on a unified reopening approach. "We cannot restart life as we knew it without testing," Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted Tuesday.

San Miguel County in Colorado, using a test from United Biomedical, has plans to check all its residents for immunity. Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker last week announced a coronavirus tracking initiative that will involve 1,000 people working at a virtual call center to trace people exposed or infected with the virus.

GOP Texas Lieut. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Tuesday he is forming a task force on how to reopen the economy, and GOP Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has created a response team to discuss measures that must be in place for opening the state back up.

Some governors talked Tuesday with Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, about ways to work together or launch their own surveillance plans that would trace the disease should it resurface and spread. One idea is to galvanize congressional lawmakers to pass legislation setting a U.S. surveillance system for coronavirus in place.

Dr. Gottlieb, who ran the FDA from 2017 to 2019, released a report on the "roadmap to reopening" Tuesday with Mark McClellan, a physician and economist who ran the FDA under President George W. Bush.

"I'm worried we don't have the systems in place to carefully reopen the economy," Dr. Gottieb said in an interview. "You need to be able to identify people who are sick and have the tools to enforce their isolation and [tracing of people they contact]. You have to have it at a scale we've never done before. We need leadership."

Tensions are simmering, in some states, about how and when to reopen. Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have proposed legislation to scale back Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's business closure order from mid-March and create a Covid-19 emergency plan to allow businesses to reopen.

"Our governor is being overly aggressive on this, I feel," said Matt Stuckey, president of Stuckey Automotive, which owns three dealerships in Altoona, Pa.

Democrats say the Republican proposal in the state would threaten public health and risk increasing the spread of the virus.

Many states and counties lack resources to set up their own systems for identifying infected residents and people who may have been exposed, a necessary step to contain the virus once social distancing rules have been eased.

It is unknown what role the federal government will take in running or coordinating a monitoring system once the worst effects of the crisis have eased. It is only now starting to grapple with some of these issues.

The administration, which was slow to respond to the early stages of the pandemic, began collecting key testing and epidemiological data from hospitals in late March. In the coming weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to deploy tests known as serology tests to find people who have immunity to the disease, including among those who didn't have symptoms, to better assess its presence in the population.

Dr. Fauci suggested the federal government itself won't take the lead on testing. "It isn't up to the task force or necessarily the federal government to flood the country with testing," Dr. Fauci said. "It's in the hands of the private sector."

About 60% of Americans say the federal government should be primarily responsible for the coronavirus response, almost double the 32% who say the states should be responsible, according to a March poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Roughly one out of every 300 people in the country is now being tested, based on federal data, compared to about one out of every 100 people in Germany.

Testing is hampered by delays and shortages that limit who can get tested. It is unlikely that the problems will be resolved by the end of April, according to one person familiar with the planning.

Some health experts said any reopening scenario is likely to work like an accordion: Any easing on social distance protocols would be followed by a tightening in areas where the virus resurfaces. A vaccine is still at least 12 to 18 months away, and even that timetable is considered optimistic.

Federal Reserve officials have cautioned that state and local efforts to lift restrictions could be ineffective for the economy if they haven't been paired with muscular measures to beef up testing for infections and to provide treatments for those infected.

Most of the hardest-hit sectors -- restaurants, hospitality, travel -- require workers and customers "not feel like they're taking their health at risk," said Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren in an interview last week. "How effective are we at getting people tested so that you feel comfortable holding the subway pole?"

Economic outcomes "are very, very dependent on the public-health outcomes," he added.

Some business executives are starting to look beyond the crisis to reopening. Movie-theater executives are talking to officials at the CDC about when they might reopen auditoriums, said John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners. As of this week, the theater chains hope to open around Memorial Day and use the month of June to re-acclimate moviegoers to the habit of sitting in a room with dozens of strangers.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, plans regional meetings with governments this month to standardize health screening at airports.

Tractor Supply, a Nashville, Tenn.-based retailer with 1,800 stores that sell animal feed and farm supplies to mostly rural customers, plans to split corporate employees into groups to reduce crowding when corporate offices reopen, said CEO Hal Lawton. The groups would be in the office on alternating days "to work in more of a social distancing kind of way, " said Mr. Lawton.

It's not top of mind yet. "We certainly think this continues on at least until mid-May, if not end of May, end of June, before we are starting to do anything close to relaxing our existing policies," he said.

--Kris Maher, Sarah Nassauer, Doug Cameron, Betsy McKay, Nick Timiraos, Erich Schwartzel and Kate Linebaugh contributed to this article.

Write to Stephanie Armour at and Jon Hilsenrath at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 07, 2020 19:35 ET (23:35 GMT)

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