Mayors in US Sunbelt push back against Trump’s virus optimism
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Mayors in US Sunbelt push back against Trump’s virus optimism

As American president tries to minimize severity of pandemic, local leaders warn hospitals could be overwhelmed by surge in patients

US President Donald Trump speaks during a Students for Trump event at the Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, June 23, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a Students for Trump event at the Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, June 23, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Sunbelt mayors warned Sunday that their cities are at risk of being overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus cases as they pushed back against US President Donald Trump’s attempt to minimize the gravity of the spreading virus.

COVID-19 has been raging for weeks across southern and western states. Florida has registered 10,000 new cases on some days. Arizona has seen record hospitalizations. And intensive care units in Houston, Texas are operating near maximum capacity.

With Trump continuing to play down the disease — eschewing a mask, continuing to address large gatherings, saying a vaccine is only months away and asserting that “99 percent” of cases are not serious — the exasperation of local officials has begun to boil over, with some floating the idea of new stay-at-home orders.

“Mixed messages” from US leaders have been a problem, Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, Arizona told ABC’s “This Week.”

Crowds and free champagne

“President Trump was in my community, chose not to wear a mask, and he’s having large events while I’m trying to push people” to stay home and avoid crowds, said Gallego, who is a Democrat.

Once Arizona began reopening its economy, she said, “We had crowded nightclubs handing out free Champagne, no masks.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, right, addresses a crowd at an event christening the new South Mountain Freeway Wednesday, December 18, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Insufficient testing capacity has left some people — including some feeling symptoms — waiting up to eight hours in their cars to be tested, Gallego said.

Yet when she asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for testing help, “We were told they’re moving away from that — which feels like they’re declaring victory while we’re in crisis mode.”

The state has now passed the 1,800-death mark — more than six times the toll in all of South Korea.

Caution on vaccine

An administration official, Dr. Stephen Hahn, who heads the Food and Drug Administration, carefully avoided criticizing the president when asked about Trump’s recent optimistic assertions.

Regarding the president’s prediction that a vaccine would be available “long before the end of the year,” Hahn said, “I can’t predict when a vaccine will be available.”

As to Trump’s assertion that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless,” Hahn told ABC that “any case, any death is tragic.”

Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, Texas, later said that such cautious language made him “angry.”

“It is dangerous not to be sending a clear message to Americans,” he told CNN. “We’re on a trajectory right now we could be inundating our intensive care units here within the next week to 10 days.”

A sign on the door of the West Alabama Icehouse reads “Closed by the Governor”, June 29, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott had prohibited restrictions — such as mask-wearing requirements — sought by some local governments. But with the virus dramatically surging, the Republican governor on Thursday reversed himself, ordering mask-wearing in most counties.

“What we’re seeing,” Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county executive for the area including Houston, told ABC, “is that wishful thinking is neither good economic policy nor good public health policy.

“What we need right now is to do what works, a stay-at-home order,” said Hidalgo, who is a Democrat.

Exceeding surge capacities

She said hospitals in Houston and other Texas cities are “crossing their surge capacities.”

The hardest-hit Sunbelt states were among the first to reopen their economies — strongly encouraged to do so by Trump.

Some mayors resisted the reopening.

“The city of Miami was the last city in the entire state of Florida to open,” Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, told ABC.

“I was criticized for waiting so long. When we reopened, people started socializing like the virus didn’t exist.”

A healthcare worker prepares to take a swab to test at a drive-through coronavirus testing site, Sunday, July 5, 2020, outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Tom Bossert, former homeland security advisor to Trump, warned that matters could get worse.

“There’s a solid reason to believe there are 500,000 people in Florida right now, today, infectious,” he said.

“Masks alone won’t cut it.”

Yet, the lure of beach time proved too much to resist for some Americans on this July 4 holiday weekend.

In New York, 37-year-old Mark Ruiz brought his wife and two children to the Coney Island beach, where few masks were in view. He said he was “definitely worried” about the virus, but he had a mask and was social distancing.

“We can’t be in a bubble all summer,” he said.

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