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Coronavirus

US restaurants and gyms to reopen first in 3-phase plan

Trump unveils guidelines, saying governors 'call the shots'

President Donald Trump listens during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on April 16.   © AP

NEW YORK -- U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday unveiled federal guidelines for restarting the economy in three phases, allowing some states to begin reopening as early as later this month.

In phase one, such large venues as sit-down restaurants, gyms and movie theaters can operate again with strict social distancing protocols, according to the "Opening Up America Again" document.

The second phase allows nonessential travel to resume, reopens schools, and lets bars operate with diminished capacity, but still encourages telecommuting. The final phase sees groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 resume public interactions, with such precautions as social distancing.

Criteria for moving on to the first and other phases include 14-day downward trajectories of positive tests and flu-like illnesses.

"Some states will be able to open up sooner than others," Trump said in his daily coronavirus briefing at the White House after a meeting with U.S. governors that afternoon, where he was quoted as telling them to "call your own shots."

States in "great shape" and already meeting the guidelines "will be able to go literally tomorrow," Trump said when prompted by a reporter.

When and how to end the lockdowns -- a step Trump called "the biggest decision of my life" last week -- will ultimately be up to governors, who diverge vastly on the costs and benefits of keeping state economies in deep freeze.

People wear protective masks out of concern for the coronavirus while standing in line outside a pop-up food pantry in Chelsea, Massachusetts.   © AP

The U.S. has now confirmed more than 650,000 cases of COVID-19. More than half are concentrated in four northeastern states, including New York, which on Thursday extended its stay-at-home order to May 15.

The White House's outline of an exit strategy comes at a moment of tremendous strain for the U.S. economy, which the International Monetary Fund forecast to contract 5.9% in its latest World Economic Outlook this week.

More than 22 million U.S. workers have filed unemployment insurance claims over the last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meantime, the White House has already exhausted the $350 billion allocated to its small-business relief program, announced as part of a $2 trillion stimulus package.

The Small Business Administration "is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding," the agency's website says.

Most of the layoffs appear temporary, and there has been no significant uptick in bankruptcies at this stage, Goldman Sachs economists said in a research note Wednesday.

But a prolonged lockdown would put businesses and workers under further stress. In the same note, titled "Reopening the Economy," Goldman economists said that a key to successfully reviving economic activities is public perception of coronavirus risks.

Consumer services will take longer to recover than such sectors as manufacturing and construction, they predicted.

"Because of the risk of renewed virus spread, the public will have to be persuaded that any plan for partial reopening is safe," they wrote. "After all, as we recently showed, most of the increase in social distancing in the U.S. has been a voluntary reaction to virus fears, not a response to government lockdown orders."

So further declines in new infections, more-than-sufficient hospital and testing capacity, and the ability to trace and quarantine those who might be infected will be needed, the Goldman economists argued.

A number of countries hit hard by the coronavirus have tentatively eased lockdown measures this month or outlined reopening efforts.

Some workers in Spain have begun returning to factories and construction sites, while some shops in Italy have received permission to reopen. The two countries have had more than 40,000 deaths combined.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled outlines Wednesday for reopening parts of the economy, starting next week.

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