WASHINGTON — As President Trump pushes to reopen the economy, a battle has erupted between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the agency’s detailed guidelines to help schools, restaurants, churches, and other establishments safely reopen.
A copy of the CDC guidance obtained by The New York Times includes sections for child care programs, schools and day camps, churches and other “communities of faith,” employers with vulnerable workers, restaurants and bars, and mass transit administrators. The recommendations include using disposable dishes and utensils at restaurants, closing every other row of seats in buses and subways while restricting transit routes between areas experiencing different coronavirus infection levels, and separating children at school and camps into groups that should not mix throughout the day.
But White House and other administration officials rejected the recommendations over concerns that they were overly prescriptive, infringed on religious rights, and risked further damaging an economy that Trump was banking on to recover quickly.
A spokesman for the CDC said the guidance was still under discussion with the White House and a revised version could be published soon.
“Over the last week, CDC has been working on additional recommendations and guidance for reopening communities, returning to public events, and I expect, even today, that we’re going to receive a presentation on that,” Vice President Mike Pence told a radio show in Pittsburgh on Thursday. “And CDC will be doing, as they often do, is publishing health care guidance at CDC.gov in the very near future.”
The rejection of the guidelines is the latest confusing signal as the Trump administration struggles to balance Trump’s desire to reopen the country quickly and public health experts, who have counseled reopening methodically through a series of steps tied to reduced rates of infection and expanded efforts to control the spread of the virus.
This week, the White House signaled it would wind down its coronavirus task force only to reverse course amid an outcry. Pence refused to wear a surgical mask at the Mayo Clinic, then apologized.
On April 16, Trump’s coronavirus task force released broad guidance for states to reopen in three phases, based on case levels and hospital capacity. But the more detailed CDC guidance was seen by some members of the task force and other aides as a document that could slow down the reopening, according to several people with knowledge of the deliberations inside the West Wing.
To date, 24 states, mostly in the South, Great Plains, and interior West, have begun allowing certain businesses to reopen. Many more have businesses that are set to reopen or stay-at-home orders that could lift in the next week or two.
In a senior staff meeting at the White House last week, Mark Meadows, the chief of staff, expressed concern that the guidelines were too uniform and rigid for places with minimal numbers of cases, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Particularly contentious were the CDC’s recommendations for churches and other houses of worship. Roger Severino, the director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services and a social conservative who once headed the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, vocally opposed them. He said people should not be told how to practice their religion, according to a federal official who is supportive of the guidance.
The official supportive of the guidelines said that Deborah L Birx, an infectious diseases expert coordinating the White House’s coronavirus response, was in favor of publishing them, and that Joe Grogan, the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, even tried to broker a compromise — but that others in the White House pushed back, especially on the worship section.