State governors eager to rescue their economies and feeling heat from US President Donald Trump are moving to ease restrictions meant to control the spread of coronavirus, even as new hot spots emerge and experts warn that moving too fast could prove disastrous.
Adding to the pressure are protests against stay-at-home orders organised by small groups and Trump supporters. They staged demonstrations on Saturday in several cities after the president urged them to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors.
Protests took place in Republican-led states too, including at the Texas Capitol and in front of the home of Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, who has signed an agreement with six other Midwestern states to co-ordinate reopening and has extended his stay-at-home order until May 1.
Texas governor Greg Abbott has said restrictions will begin easing next week, with shops being allowed to sell merchandise from the kerbside and hospitals resuming non-essential surgeries.
For the first time in weeks, people were able to visit some Florida beaches this weekend, but they were still subject to restrictions on hours and activities.
But with protesters clamouring for more, infections continue to surge in the north-east of the country.
Rhode Island, between the hot spots of Massachusetts and New York, has seen a steady daily increase in infections and deaths, with nursing home residents accounting for more than 90 of the state’s 118 fatalities.
The state’s death rate of around 10 people per 100,000 is among the nation’s highest per capita, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project.
Massachusetts had its highest number of deaths in a single day on Friday, with 159. Republican governor Charlie Baker, citing health experts’ advice, said states should wait until infection rates and hospital admissions decline for about two weeks before acting on reopening.
But Mr Trump, whose administration waited months to bolster stockpiles of key medical supplies and equipment, appears to be on the side of the protesters.
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” he said in a tweet-storm in which he also lashed out at New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for criticising the federal response.
During his Saturday briefing at the White House, Mr Trump said Montana will begin lifting restrictions on Friday, with Ohio, North Dakota and Idaho advising non-essential businesses to prepare for reopening from May 1.
At his own Saturday briefing, Mr Cuomo cited more progress as the state’s daily increase in deaths fell below 550 for the first time in more than two weeks as hospital admissions continued to decline.
But the crisis is far from over: Hospitals are still reporting nearly 2,000 new Covid-19 patients per day, and nursing homes remain a “feeding frenzy for this virus”, he said.
“We are not at a point when we are going to be reopening anything immediately,” Mr Cuomo insisted.
In Texas, several hundred people rallied in the capital chanting “Let us work”. Many demanded an immediate lifting of restrictions in a state where more than one million have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.
In Indianapolis, more than 200 people stood close together outside the governor’s mansion, carrying American flags and signs demanding that Mr Holcomb lifts restrictions.
But Indiana’s state health department reported 529 new cases between April 7 and midday on Friday, raising the total to more than 10,600. The number of deaths rose by 26, to 545.
Elsewhere, a few hundred demonstrators waved signs outside the Statehouse in New Hampshire, which has had nearly 1,300 cases of the virus and more than three dozen deaths.
One of the protesters, talkshow host Ian Freeman, said: “Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person.”
Mr Trump is pushing to relax the US lockdown by May 1, a plan that hinges partly on more testing.
Public health officials said the ability to test enough people and trace contacts of the infected is crucial before easing restrictions, and that infections could surge again unless people continue to take precautions.