Trump told Fox News on Tuesday: "I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," which is April 12
Donald Trump
Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

President Donald Trump made it clear this week that he has grown dissatisfied with the possibility of extended shutdowns across America as people have been advised — and in some states, ordered — to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While the federal government’s own health experts continue to urge “social distancing” as a key strategy to prevent infections, Trump, 73, told Fox News on Tuesday: “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” which is April 12.

In light of that, though, the administration’s health officials said there needs to be “flexibility” with that target date, because they’re not certain it’s safe for any part of America to return to business as usual.

“What we don’t have right now that we really do need is we need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters Tuesday.

“Is there something underneath the surface that says, ‘Wait a minute, you better be careful and really clamp down,’ or what looks there that you don’t really have to be as harsh as you are in other areas?” Fauci said.

In Trump’s appearance on both the network’s coronavirus virtual town hall and elsewhere this week, he openly waffled between what he felt was best for the economy — parts of which have ground to a halt, stranding more than a million workers and undercutting an argument Trump sees as key to his re-election — and what was best for the health of the nation.

Returning to an earlier talking point about the coronavirus, Trump said on Fox News that tens of thousands of people have already been killed by the most recent flu season and tens of thousands more die annually in car crashes.

But the country does not stop over those problems, he contended. However, experts say, the coronavirus could be much more dangerous than the flu if it infects as many people.

While he insisted to reporters on Tuesday that “every decision we make is grounded solely on the health, safety and wellbeing of our citizens,” the president also said “maybe we do sections of the country, we do large sections of the country.”

The new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, has not seemed to spread equally throughout the U.S.: California and Washington state were both early epicenters and, in recent days, New York has seen a surge of tens of thousands of cases. Oregon and Virginia, by contrast, had less than 300 confirmed cases each as of Wednesday. Kansas had less than 100.

The president’s shifting rhetoric seemed to reflect that reality, but the true picture of the virus’ spread is still not understood given the earlier lack of testing across the country.

As America’s testing capacity ramps up dramatically, other states may reveal virus hotspots. Places like Atlanta and Louisiana have already shown signs of struggle with infected patients, with Atlanta’s mayor saying Tuesday, “I suspect that at some point soon our hospitals may get near capacity.”

For weeks health officials have said the threat posed by the virus is essentially two-fold: Because it is new and highly contagious, it could infect millions of people who do not practice social distancing — and, as a result, even the fraction of those people who become severely ill could overwhelm hospitals, leading to unnecessary deaths before researchers can develop treatments or a vaccine. (People over 60 and with underlying conditions are most vulnerable, but anyone can be susceptible.)

Health experts say the proper level of preparedness, in this view, may end up looking deceptively like overreaction because many people would simply not get sick at all.

coronavirus test sample
Credit: Getty

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On Fox News Tuesday, the president bemoaned the psychological toll of continued economic disruption from the social distancing, with many businesses shuttered and employees laid off or furloughed while others are working from home, where schools have moved classes.

Unemployment claims have surged as Congress has raced to agree on trillions in aid, including direct payments to Americans.

“Look, you’re going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said on Fox News.

“You’re going to have suicides by the thousands,” he added. “You’re going to have all sorts of things happen. You’re going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s close up the United States of America.’ ”

The president’s authority over daily life around the country is limited, though he can shape the discussion around the official response to the virus.

On March 16, Trump announced a set of suggested social distancing guidelines encouraging people to stay at home when possible, avoid gatherings of 10 or more and follow basic hygiene tips.

But many states, counties and cities have imposed stricter stay-at-home orders for their citizens reflecting local problems with the virus. These orders are legally enforceable — by fines, for example. (The president has not taken the most dramatic steps available to him, such as shutting down domestic flights.)

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump told reporters at the White House he had decided on Easter as a goal date because of its symbolism.

“I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day. … I’d love to see it come even sooner. But I just think it would be a beautiful timeline,” he said.

Even then, he noted: “We have to see. We’re going to look at that curve [of infections]. We’re going to see when it starts coming down. And we’ll do the best job that can be done.”

Dr. Fauci stressed “flexibility” in the government response without committing to the April 12 date.

“You got to be very flexible. And on a literally day-by-day and week-by-week basis, you need to evaluate the feasibility of what you’re trying to do,” Fauci told reporters at the White House.

In an interview on Today last week, he said that “if you look at the trajectory of the curves of outbreaks and other areas, it’s at least going to be several weeks” that people should be staying home to slow the virus.

“I cannot see that all of a sudden, next week or two weeks from now it’s going to be over. I don’t think there’s a chance of that,” Fauci said then. “I think it’s going to be several weeks.”

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaking on March 13

At Tuesday’s White House briefing, though, President Trump suggested he felt the days of distancing may be drawing to a close.

“Ultimately, the goal is to ease the guidelines and open things up to very large sections of our country as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy,” he said. “Been going for a while, but we’ll win. We’ll win.”

“I said earlier today that I hope we can do this by Easter. I think that would be a great thing for our country, and we’re all working very hard to make that a reality,” Trump said. “We’ll be meeting with a lot of people to see if it can be done.”

Later in the briefing he pointed to a state like Texas as a possible exception to ongoing distancing, where the guidelines may need to be relaxed in the coming weeks if the number of coronavirus cases there does not create a problem.

“If we want to do it that way, we can have large sections of the country open,” Trump said. “But I think it’s very important that we start moving on that and start thinking about it, because our country wants to be open.”

An approach that varied by state, if matched with rigorous testing and tracing of coronavirus infections, was not impossible, Dr. Fauci told reporters.

“The areas of the country that are not hotspots, that are not going through the terrible ordeal that New York and California and Washington State are going through, they still have a window of significant degree of being able to contain,” he said. “In other words, when you test, you find somebody, you isolate them, you get them out of circulation and you do the contact tracing.”

“The country is a big country and there are areas of the country … that we really need to know more about what the penetrance is there,” he said. So if we do the kind of testing that we’re doing — and testing will always be associated by identification, isolation and contact tracing. And you find, after a period of time, that there are areas that are very different from other areas of the country, you may not want to essentially treat it as it — [not] just one force for the entire country, but look at flexibility in different areas.”

Still, Fauci cautioned:

“What we don’t have right now that we really do need is we need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak. Is there something underneath the surface that says, ‘Wait a minute, you better be careful and really clamp down,’ or what looks there that you don’t really have to be as harsh as you are in other areas?”

The White House coronavirus task force, with Vice President Mike Pence (center) and President Donald Trump (right), on March 15
| Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump seemed to envision a kind of modified approach to social distancing in which employees could return to work but maintain a physical distance from one another and wash their hands regularly. (The coronavirus is spread by respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing and can be picked up either from person-to-person contact or someone touching a surface after an infected person has.)

But Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells PEOPLE that it’s “impossible” to maintain social distancing efforts while continuing to go about daily life as usual, like Trump has imagined.

“It’s a short-term decision that has long-term consequences,” Hotez says. “I’m arguing we’re not in a position to make that decision by April 12 yet, because we don’t know the full extent of this epidemic. But we’ll know a lot more in a month than we will now.”

The Washington Post reports that that conservative economists Steven Moore and Art Laffer have been pushing the White House for more than a week about supporting the reopening of local businesses and other public gatherings, calling on the Trump administration to curb their social distancing guidelines.

There had been about 54,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States as of Wednesday morning, according to a New York Times tracker, while 728 people have died.

Worldwide, approximately 19,600 people have died out of around 439,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

In Italy, which only now is showing signs that its strict social distancing has slowed the infection rate, hundreds have died by the day as hospitals there said they were overwhelmed by the thousands of daily cases.

The country’s death toll is more than 6,800 — the highest in the world — according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Dr. Fauci told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday that isolation efforts in America will “go a long way to preventing us from becoming an Italy.”

Hotez, who calls Fauci a mentor, tells PEOPLE now: “I’ve never really known Tony to be wrong.”

President Trump is not alone in itching for a return to normalcy.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested in an interview with Fox News on Monday night that he, as a grandparent, was willing to risk contracting the virus — and even dying — in order to keep the economy operating without disruption.

Trump said on Fox News that many people agreed with him. But he has faced Republican backlash, too.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who typically sides with Trump, tweeted Monday that “there is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney, a representative in Wyoming, tweeted similarly.

“There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” she wrote on Monday.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee whom Trump beat in the 2016 election, sharply disagreed with Trump.

“It’s incredible that this has to be said: Letting thousands of people needlessly suffer and die is wrong,” she tweeted on Tuesday. “It’s also not a recipe for rescuing the economy.”

In another tweet, she wrote, “Please do not take medical advice from a man who looked directly at a solar eclipse.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.