President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases introduce federal guidelines on reopening the U.S. economy at a media briefing Thursday. (Getty Images)

Phased reentry will allow bigger crowds as states meet benchmarks

President Donald Trump on April 16 announced a plan to reopen the U.S. economy, including guidelines for public assembly facilities, after weeks of closures aimed at stemming the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal guidelines are nonbinding and put decision-making in the hands of states and their governors.

The Trump administration’s “Opening Up America Again” plan calls for a phased reopening of businesses based on benchmarks, dubbed gating criteria, that must first be met.

“In terms of sports, they’ll probably start off — as you know I spoke to the commissioners yesterday of almost, I guess of every sport — and many of them are going to be starting without the fans. So it will be made for television. The good old days. Made for television and it’ll go that way and then fans will start coming in,” Trump said. “Maybe they’ll be separated by two seats. And then, ultimately, we want to have packed arenas. When the virus is gone we’re going to have packed arenas and we are going to be back to enjoying sports the way they are supposed to be.”

The benchmarks require a series of downward trajectories, reported within 14-day periods, of influenza- and COVID-like illnesses as well as documented COVID-19 cases and positive tests as a percentage of total tests administered.

The phases set out guidelines to be implemented by states and allow places such as movie theaters and sports venues “to operate under strict physical distancing protocols,” including 6 feet of separation. Phase one calls for gatherings of no more than 10 people when such distancing is not possible.

Phase two calls for employers in states and regions with no evidence of a rebound in infection rates to continue operating with strict distancing measures but with expanded gatherings allowed.

“Social settings of more than 50 people, where appropriate distancing may not be practical, should be avoided unless precautionary measures are observed,” the guidelines say.

Phase one calls for employers to minimize nonessential travel, while phase two calls for its resumption.

Phase three calls for “limited physical distancing protocols” at large venues.

Phase one and two call for vulnerable individuals — defined as the elderly or those have “serious underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma and those whose immune system is compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer and other conditions requiring such therapy” — to continue to shelter in place.

“Members of households with vulnerable residents should be aware that by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home,” the plan says. “Precautions should be taken to isolate from vulnerable residents.”

Phase three allows for vulnerable individuals to resume public interactions, but with “physical distancing, minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed.”

Phase three calls for low-risk individuals to “consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.” The third phase also calls for a resumption of unrestricted staffing on worksites.

All phases of the guidelines call for employers to develop plans for social distancing; use of protective equipment; administration of body temperature checks; testing, isolating and contact tracing; and sanitation and disinfection of high-traffic workplace areas.

“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time, and some states will be able to open up sooner than others,” Trump said.

States will be allowed to remain closed if they deem it necessary, he said. “Governors will be empowered to tailor an approach that meets the diverse circumstances of their own states,” Trump said. “Every state is different.” 

A few states began to allow some businesses to open as early as April 24, without waiting for the 14-day period of declining numbers that the guidelines call for.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed that the health and safety of the American public was the No. 1 consideration in formulating the guidelines.

“A light switch on and off is the exact opposite of what you see here, which is a gradual gradation,” he said.

The gating criteria must be satisfied, with no rebound of outbreak. before phase one can begin and again before moving into each subsequent phase, making for “multiple checkpoints of safety, ” Fauci said.

“We are a very large country and we have different dynamics in the country,” he said. “We have areas of the country that have gone through a terrible ordeal and others that fortunately have … gotten through this rather lightly.”

When asked by a reporter whether the third phase would see the return of packed arenas for sporting events, large crowds and concerts, Fauci said, “The answer is, it is conceivable that we will be able to do that.”

Any rebound in infections would likely require a reimposition of mitigation efforts, Fauci said.

“There may be some setbacks,” he said. “Let’s face it. This is uncharted water.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.