A California congressman warns against Trump’s rush to end social distancing
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InterviewThe US is 'never going to go back to where it was before'

A California congressman warns against Trump’s rush to end social distancing

The Golden State has begun to flatten the curve, but a hasty return to normal could reverse that progress, argues Alan Lowenthal

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, Democrat of California, speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, December 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, Democrat of California, speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, December 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump wants to restart the American economy by May 1, but a California congressman insists that data from his state shows why social distancing can’t come to an end at an artificial deadline.

On March 19, California was the first state in the nation to issue a stay-at-home order. Three weeks later, it has begun to slow the spread of the virus. As of this writing, the Golden State has reported nearly 31,000 total cases, and almost 1,200 coronavirus-related deaths, but it’s no longer seeing an increase in its daily new case load — meaning that, each day, the number of new cases is progressively dropping.

“We seem to be leveling off,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal. “But that’s only because of what our governor did to lock down this state and reduce the number of cases.”

“Two weeks ago, people thought California was going to be the next New York,” he said, referring to the current US outbreak epicenter. “We are not the next New York. We have brought it down.”

If Californians were to stop self-isolating too soon, however, that progress would be reversed, said Lowenthall, who represents the state’s 47th district, which includes parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“The president wants to push us to do things and to get the economy up and running again,” Lowenthal told The Times of Israel. “That’s all well and good, and California will try to respond to that, but only by doing it in a scientifically sound way. In California, we are letting the data dictate our actions and how we open up. I think that’s the rational way to do it.”

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Last week, Trump unveiled a plan to get Americans back to work, but acknowledged that each state’s governor had the discretion to move on their own timetable.

Then, this weekend, he openly encouraged right-wing protests nationwide against governors who have implemented social distancing measures.

In a series of all-caps tweets, the president wrote, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” — two states whose Democratic governors have imposed strict restrictions. He also tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” — whose Democratic governor and state legislature have pushed in recent months for stronger gun safety laws.

Lowenthal, a Democrat, maintained that there should only be a return to a semblance of normal life when the nation has widespread access to testing materials, such as swabs and reagents.

“We can only open up if we have massive testing,” Lowenthal said. “For people who are essential workers, we need more protective equipment. And we need massive amounts of testing, especially when we begin to deal with the question of opening up. We need to know where that virus is and who has it. We need to have antibody testing and we need to be testing for the virus itself and doing community assessments.”

In the meantime, he said, the president should focus on ramping up the production of not only testing supplies, but protective gear and other medical equipment.

“The amount of personal protective equipment we have is not sufficient to meet our needs,” said Lowenthal.

The Jewish Democratic lawmaker also emphasized that California had received little help from the Strategic National Stockpile, a collection of federally controlled, secret warehouses filled with critical medical supplies to ensure America was prepared for a potential bioweapon attack or pandemic.

Workers carry boxes at Oklahoma’s Strategic National Stockpile warehouse in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“We have received about a million masks from the stockpile,” he said. “It’s not enough. So through a consortium of public and private interests in the state, coordinated by the governor, we will be purchasing and producing 200 million masks a month. But we are not relying on the stockpile.”

Speaking on the phone from his California home, Lowenthal said that negotiations between the White House and Congress for the next aid package to keep the economy afloat were at a standstill.

More than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus outbreak. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Republicans are trying to pass an emergency relief bill to direct $250 billion to small businesses.

Democrats, however, have sought to impose conditions on the aid. “While we see this as vitally important, we also need to get more emergency funding now for testing and for hospitals,” Lowenthal said.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are in even more of a rush to clinch a deal now, as last week the small-business loan program ran out of money.

“We want to make sure that that there’s a significant amount of money that goes to banks that represent minority communities,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re getting their fair share. But that’s being negotiated.”

Still, Lowenthall stressed that these were short-term solutions to an urgent crisis. Pretty soon, he added, Congress will have to pass longer-term reforms to address larger systemic issues that the pandemic has exacerbated.

For instance, he noted, coronavirus infection rates are three times higher in majority-black counties than majority-white counties — and African Americans are dying from the disease at six times the rate of their white counterparts. That is largely because of broader inequities that have long existed in America’s healthcare system, Lowenthal said.

The country will need to alleviate those disparities while implementing better safeguards to confront the threat of emerging infectious diseases, he maintained.

“The country is never going to go back to where it was before,” Lowenthal said. “This is going to have a tremendous impact on the way we behave as a nation going forward.”

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