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Trump calls for reopening US. What's next?

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Washington (AFP)

President Donald Trump wants to get the hobbled US economy back on its feet, but guidelines he announced for reopening the country are notably cautious and unspecific. So what comes next?

- No big bang -

As recently as April 8, Trump was saying "it would be nice to open with a big bang." Instead, the world's biggest economy will put a tentative toe in the water.

The national lockdown is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by quashing the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

For Trump, though, the economic chaos that has ensued also poses a massive political risk with only 200 days until the November 3 presidential election. Some 22 million people have lost their jobs in just one month.

What's clear from the White House guidelines announced Thursday, however, is that reopening will be slow, cautious and very different across the huge country.

The guidelines suggest three vague phases for relaxing social distancing and opening up travel and public gatherings. No timelines are given.

"Light switch on and off is the exact opposite of what you see here," Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the top government medical advisors, said.

- Who pulls the trigger-

Trump this Monday claimed he had "total" authority to set the pace of where and when the coronavirus lockdown ends.

With Thursday's announcement, he gave up on that, saying the 50 governors will have full control.

Political analysts say Trump wanted the benefit of the big White House announcement but is happy to shield himself from fallout in the process unfolding through the last months before election day.

And the Republican faces pressure from two directions.

Medical advisors -- and polls show much of the public -- fear that a premature loosening of restrictions will allow a resurgence of the virus, leading to even greater economic damage.

However, a grassroots anti-lockdown movement has emerged, with strong links to Trump's rightwing base.

On Wednesday, a large protest erupted in the Michigan capital, Lansing. Demonstrators clogged streets with cars, while a group toting rifles and handguns paraded on the steps of the legislature.

With Trump standing back, this means the onus will rest with people like Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, Ron DeSantis in Florida, Gavin Newsom in California, and Greg Abbott in Texas.

Expect Trump to make political hay out of the resulting tensions in Democratic-led states. On Friday, he tweeted a call in all caps to "LIBERATE" Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia.

- Who's reopening first? -

Trump said "large sections of the country" can "think about opening," some of them "literally tomorrow."

He mentioned sparsely populated states with little of a coronavirus problem like Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

That won't be so easy in the economically more important states, however.

New York and New Jersey, which are at the heart of the northeast corridor, have been hardest hit by the virus. Cuomo on Thursday extended New York's lockdown for a month.

In Washington state, which was hit early but has since controlled the virus, aerospace giant Boeing is set to become the first large corporation to undo its lockdown.

Some 27,000 workers are due to resume work in the next few days, albeit with social distancing measures enforced.

Texas was due to announce plans later Friday. Florida allowed limited beach openings Friday and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer hopes she can allow "some relaxing" of one of the country's tightest lockdowns on May 1.

- Testing times -

With governors left to make up their own schedules, rather than operate under a nationally coordinated plan, big questions remain over how the reopening can avoid letting the virus bounce back.

One of the many issues lacking clarity is the reopening of domestic, let alone international travel. With some states largely virus-free, but others still in the grip of the pandemic, can people be encouraged to return to the nation's empty airports?

And how can states and businesses that have reopened be sure that they are not silently becoming new incubators for the disease?

On Thursday Fauci said the key was "early alerts and getting in there before they have a problem."

But experts say that kind of monitoring will take vastly increased testing capabilities.

"The more testing, the more open the economy, but there's not enough national capacity," Cuomo said this week. "We can’t do it yet. That is the unvarnished truth."

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