By ZEKE MILLER and MATT SEDENSKY Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump urged supporters to "LIBERATE" three states led by Democratic governors Friday, apparently encouraging the growing protests against the stay-at-home restrictions aimed at stopping the coronavirus.
A day after laying out a roadmap to gradually reopen the crippled economy, Trump took to Twitter with the kind of rhetoric some of his supporters have used in demanding the lifting of the orders that have thrown millions of Americans out of work.
"LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" "LIBERATE VIRGINIA," he said in a tweet-storm in which he also lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for criticizing the federal response. Cuomo "should spend more time `doing' and less time `complaining,'" the president said.
Responding to pleas from governors for help from Washington in ramping up testing for the virus, Trump put the burden back on them: "The States have to step up their TESTING!"
Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to see businesses reopen quickly and claimed earlier this week that he possesses total authority over the matter, even though the lockdowns and other social-distancing measures have been imposed by state and local leaders, not Washington.
On Thursday, the president detailed a three-step set of guidelines for easing restrictions over a span of several weeks in places that have robust testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases, assuring the nation's governors: "You're going to call your own shots."
Governors of both parties Friday suggested they would be cautious in returning to normal, with some of them warning that they can't do it without help from Washington to expand testing.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has been critical of the government's response to the crisis, acknowledged that people are "very anxious" about their livelihoods and worried about paying the rent when they are out of work.
"But the last thing I want to do is to have a second wave here, so we've got to be really smart," she said.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican ally of Trump's, endorsed the White House plan but made clear that he will listen to medical experts in deciding how to move forward. He said more testing is needed before any restrictions can be rolled back.
"I am not going to do something that I feel in my heart is the wrong thing that's going to endanger our people," he said.
Other states did take some of the nation's first, small steps toward loosening restrictions.
In Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis gave the green light for municipalities to reopen beaches and parks if they can do so safely. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said stores can begin selling curbside, nonessential surgery can resume and state parks can reopen.
Cuomo, whose state is the most lethal hot spot in the nation and is still seeing over 600 deaths a day, accused the government of "passing the buck without passing the bucks."
"The federal government cannot wipe its hands of this and say, `Oh, the states are responsible for testing.' We cannot do it. We cannot do it without federal help," he said.
Even in largely rural states with small populations, like Wyoming, Maine and South Dakota, governors said they were not anxious to quickly resume business as usual.
"Until we've got the testing up to speed — which has got to be part of the federal government stepping in and helping — we're just not going to be there," said Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican.
Worldwide, the outbreak has infected nearly 2.2 million people and killed over 145,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally based on figures supplied by government health authorities around the globe, though it has becoming increasingly clear that the true numbers are much higher.
The official death toll in the U.S. neared 34,000, with more than 670,000 confirmed infections.
The shutdowns have inflicted heavy damage on economies around the world. In the U.S., the crisis has cost at least 22 millions Americans their jobs, pushing the unemployment rate toward levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Many Americans, especially in rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major outbreaks, have urged governors to reopen their economies. Protesters have taken to the streets in Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Michigan, where more than 3,000 turned out on Wednesday in what looked like one of the president's rallies, with MAGA hats and Trump flags.
Protests continued Friday, including one outside the home of Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota and another in Idaho, where the governor is a Republican.
Public health experts have warned that an easing of the shutdowns must be accompanied by wider testing and tracing of infected people to keep the virus from coming back with a vengeance.
The clash between Trump and Cuomo was personal, with the president complaining the governor hasn't said thanks for the help he has received from Washington. Cuomo countered by saying: "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, send a bouquet of flowers? `Thank you to the federal government for participating in a federal emergency.'"
Meanwhile, China, confirming long-held suspicions, acknowledged that the coronavirus death toll in the one-time epicenter city of Wuhan was nearly 50% higher than reported, amounting to more than 4,600.
In Italy, Spain, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, similar doubts emerged as governments revised their death tolls or openly questioned the accuracy of them.
Authorities said that almost everywhere, thousands have died with COVID-19 symptoms — many in nursing homes — without being tested for the virus, and have thus gone uncounted.
"We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Barcelona University epidemiologist Antoni Trilla, who heads the Spanish government's expert panel on the crisis.
In Italy, for example, where the official toll has climbed past 22,000, a government survey released Friday of about one-third of the country's nursing homes found more than 6,000 residents have died since Feb. 1. It was unclear how many were a result of COVID-19.
In Britain, with an official count of about 14,600 dead, the country's statistics agency said the actual number could be around 15% higher. Others think it will be far more.
The official death toll in New York City soared by more than half earlier this week when health authorities began including people who probably had COVID-19 but died without being tested. Nearly 3,800 deaths were added to the city's count.
"There is a general feeling that the epidemiologists don't have a clue of what's going on, that experts know even less and that governments are concealing information, but I don't think that's true," said Hermelinda Vanaclocha, an epidemiologist on Spain's top virus advisory panel. "It's simply not easy."
Such figures can have a huge influence on governments' actions, as medical staffs struggle to figure out how to cope with surges of sick people and officials make crucial decisions about where to devote resources and how to begin easing lockdowns to resuscitate their economies.