DENVER — Governors across the country forged ahead Monday with plans to reopen their economies, even as the nation hit a grim milestone of 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus and public health experts warned against lifting stay-at-home orders too quickly.
Numerous states, including some of the largest, began the process of lifting shelter orders in what could be a pivotal stage in the U.S. response to the pandemic.
Texas, with its population of nearly 30 million, made one of the most expansive moves toward reopening when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls would be allowed to reopen with limited capacity on Friday. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine unveiled a more incremental reopening plan that would allow manufacturing work to resume and offices to reopen next week. And in Colorado, businesses tried to navigate new rules allowing some of them to open their doors on Monday.
The moves came as President Trump promised to help the states ramp up testing and called on them to consider reconvening schools before the end of the academic year rather than waiting until the fall, as many districts have decided or are expected to do.
In a conference call with the governors devoted mainly to ventilators and testing, Mr. Trump raised the idea of bringing students back to classrooms in the next few weeks. “Some of you might start to think about school openings,” he said, according to an audio recording. Addressing Vice President Mike Pence, who was also on the call, he added, “I think it’s something, Mike, they can seriously consider and maybe get going on it.”
A White House document makes clear that the states are still primarily responsible for testing and that Washington is only the “supplier of last resort.” Administration officials told reporters that the testing plan commits the federal government to help each of the 50 states test at least 2 percent of their populations every month. But that figure was not in the document, and the president did not mention it at Monday’s briefing.
Rather than the more comprehensive surveillance testing sought by many public health experts, the administration is focused on “sentinel” testing of targeted sites that are particularly vulnerable, like nursing homes and inner-city health centers.
“We want to get our country open,” Mr. Trump said at the briefing, which included a group of business executives who promised to help with testing.
New coronavirus infections and deaths appear to be plateauing on a national level, but they are still surging in some of the states and counties reopening this week.
As the known death toll from the virus crossed the bleak threshold of 50,000 people, according to a New York Times tally, the total number of confirmed cases in the country topped 983,000. Health experts worry that reopening prematurely without sufficient testing, protective equipment and other safeguards could fuel another spike in cases that may not be detected in official numbers for two weeks.
“There’s a belief that we’ve brought our numbers down, we’re out of the woods. That is completely not the case,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “They’ve seen a decline in the sickest patients, but there’s a lot of infection that can spread silently, and suddenly you’re back where you started.”
The efforts to reopen across the country were creating a patchwork of contradictory rules that could undermine weeks of messages urging Americans to stay home and could endanger the entire nation’s ability to beat back the pandemic.
In states that were hardest hit, leaders have been more tentative. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday said that what he called low-risk businesses upstate could begin reopening by mid-May, but he cautioned that shutdown orders were likely to be extended for many parts of the state.
Although the states around Louisiana have started easing restrictions, Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Monday that he was extending his state’s stay-at-home order into next month. “The fact is,” Mr. Edwards said at a briefing, “we just don’t meet the criteria.”
Even as the states take different approaches, Attorney General William P. Barr signaled that he had reservations about the way some officials were reopening their economies. He asked federal prosecutors around the country on Monday to look out for emergency state or local orders issued to contain the coronavirus pandemic that could also violate “constitutional rights and civil liberties” and to fight them in court if needed.
Several of the states that are reopening still do not have widespread testing or systems in place to track infections.
In the seven weeks since Mr. Trump promised that anyone who needed a test could get one, the United States has conducted about 5.2 million tests, far more than any other country but the equivalent of about 1.6 percent of the total population. That is a small fraction of what public health experts say is necessary to ensure a safe and gradual reopening of schools, businesses and other public venues.
A group of experts convened by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics has called for 5 million tests a day by early June, ramping up to 20 million per day by late July.
Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from New York University, has called for 25 million tests per day, with the capacity to test twice that many in “surge” situations.
Mr. Romer said testing 2 percent of the population was “not enough to test everyone in health care even once; let alone to keep retesting them every day, which is what it would take to keep those who do get infected from going on shift and infecting their colleagues.”
While most governors took similar steps to shut down public life last month as coronavirus cases soared, they are now trying to calibrate how to revive their economies amid clashing pressures to protect people’s health while also helping millions of unemployed Americans get back to work.
Governors who were the first to allow businesses to open have been criticized by mayors, public health experts and even Mr. Trump — who has urged states to reopen — for acting too hastily.
Mr. Abbott had previously lifted some restrictions, including on retail shopping and state parks. But his announcement on Monday brought his state to the brink of a complete reopening.
The governor said that Texas was not as hard-hit as other states, and that it had expanded testing, stocked up on protective equipment and witnessed the third-most coronavirus recoveries in the country. Mr. Abbott said that as a result, he was letting the stay-at-home mandate end, a move that gave Texas one of the shortest such orders in the country.
Mr. Abbott had issued the order far later than the governors in California, New York and other large states. The Texas mandate will have been in effect for 28 days when it expires on Thursday.
“That executive order has done its job to slow the growth of Covid-19,” Mr. Abbott told reporters at the Texas Capitol on Monday.
On Monday, states that were beginning to reopen faced an uneasy balance as lunch patrons at Tennessee diners and shaggy-haired barbershop customers in Colorado greeted the resumption of normal life with a mix of relief and wariness.
Dine-in restaurant service resumed across much of Tennessee even as the state reported 250 new cases on Monday, a day after its largest one-day spike in infections.
Under a plan laid out by Gov. Bill Lee, restaurants outside of Tennessee’s largest cities are now allowed to serve dine-in customers with half of their usual capacity and with no more than six people per table. Employees and customers should also be screened for signs of sickness, according to the plan. Bars are not allowed to reopen; live music performances are also forbidden.
Andy Marshall opened four of his nine restaurants on Monday, drawing a modest but steady crowd for lunch at his Puckett’s Grocery locations, where they serve Southern staples.
“I figure things are going to be slow for a while,” he said, “and we’re going to have to get patient.”
But health experts warned that the virus does not care about state and city borders, and they worried that people in places with tighter rules would simply wander out to eat or shop in less-regulated places and return home, potentially spreading the virus.
“If you want a hamburger on a Friday night and your favorite restaurant is closed in Nashville or Memphis, you’re probably going to drive 20 minutes down the road,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pulmonary specialist in Franklin, Tenn., who led efforts to convince the governor to issue a stay-at-home order.
In Colorado, real estate showings were allowed to restart on Monday as the governor’s stay-at-home order expired, and pet owners were able to take their dogs and cats to the vet for nonemergency operations. At the same time, Denver and many surrounding suburbs decided to extend their closure orders through the first week of May, leaving most businesses closed.
Many business owners said they were uncertain about the new rules, and were trying to make sense of a cacophony of messages from President Trump, governors, county commissioners and mayors.
“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so confused,” Jose Oregel, who owns a barbershop in Greeley, Colo., said on Monday morning, an hour before he was expecting some of his first customers, who will now get haircuts from barbers in face masks and gloves.
Local health leaders in Mr. Oregel’s corner of Northern Colorado, a conservative hub of ranching and oil drilling, had urged county leaders not to reopen amid a surge of coronavirus cases tied to a meatpacking plant and other hot spots. But county leaders said businesses had a right to open, and Mr. Oregel, who has bills to pay, decided it was worth the risk.
“It’s hard,” said Bob Smith, 60, who opened Continuum Coffee on Monday for takeout only. He said he did not anticipate that tables of lingering latte drinkers would be back anytime soon. “You hear one government office saying, ‘You’re good,’ and another saying, ‘No you’re not.’ I don’t know.”
Florida and Arizona have stay-at-home orders due to expire on Thursday, but the governors of both states have been vague about their plans. Gov. Ron DeSantis said that while he had discussed how to reopen with other Southern states, Florida was so big and diverse that it required its own rules.
“I have five states in one, pretty much, here already,” Mr. DeSantis said on Monday at a news conference. “This is a bottom-up deal” beginning with cities and counties.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has signaled that he will follow reopening guidelines provided to governors from the White House. Mr. Ducey has faced intense pressure to reopen parts of Arizona’s economy as conservative protesters, many holding military-style rifles, have swarmed the State Capitol to demand an easing of distancing measures.
While public health experts warn that many states still have vulnerable health systems and are not doing enough testing, some governors have said they can reopen because of new temporary hospital beds, fewer hospitalized patients and a slowly growing testing capacity.
In Ohio, Governor DeWine said that the state should be able to triple the amount of testing by the end of May, to 22,000 tests per day from 7,200, and that volunteers were being trained to trace contacts for coronavirus cases.
Mr. DeWine was the first governor to shut down schools statewide and has taken among the most aggressive approaches, but he said there was a growing risk to the economy if Ohio did not start reopening.
“I think we found the spot that is most likely to cause less damage, more likely to cause good,” Mr. DeWine said. “But it is a risk, and I fully understand the risk.”
With states not bound by any unified national plan, the different timelines for reopening have created a gulf between those hustling to reopen restaurants, movie theaters and tattoo parlors, and New York and California, which are moving more slowly and cautiously toward reopening. Governors in Hawaii, New Mexico and Louisiana have all extended their states’ stay-at-home-orders. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned on Monday that the timetable for opening up could be jeopardized by people ignoring social distancing rules after images recently circulated of packed beaches in Southern California and new data showed an increase in movement across the state.
California is part of a regional pact of Western states vowing to coordinate their reopening plans. On Monday, Colorado and Nevada joined the coalition. In the Northeast, New York and six other states are acting together as well.
Workers say they are living in limbo as they watch other states reopen and worry about the risks of going back to work versus the bills piling up.
In Nevada, where the stay-at-home order expires on Thursday, Deidra Young feels torn. Ms. Young was laid off from her job as a bartender at an Irish pub on the Vegas strip on St. Patrick’s Day. She wants to go back to work, but wondered whether it was worth the risk to stand in a half-empty bar and barely make the hourly $8.25 minimum wage.
“If my work does call me, I honestly want to say no,” Ms. Young said. “But will I not get unemployment if I refuse?”
It was an agonizing calculation, she said: “We all want to go back to work, but we don’t want to get sick.”
Jack Healy reported from Denver, Manny Fernandez from Houston and Peter Baker from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Richard Fausset and Rick Rojas from Atlanta; Sarah Mervosh from Canton, Ohio; Sabrina Tavernise, Jonathan Martin, Jim Tankersley and Katie Benner from Washington; Patricia Mazzei from Miami; and Simon Romero from Albuquerque.