ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As of today, more than 72,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19, and more than 1.2 million Americans have been infected with the virus. Sunday night, President Trump said the death toll will be higher than originally predicted.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to lose anywhere from 75-, 80- to a hundred thousand - that's a horrible thing. We shouldn't lose one person over this.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
At the same time, the president emphasized the need to get back to work to restore the U.S. economy. In Arizona yesterday, he visited a plant making masks and didn't wear one himself.
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TRUMP: I'm not saying anything is perfect. And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.
SHAPIRO: The federal government has now let national social distancing measures expire, even as the CDC says the U.S. is still in the acceleration phase of this pandemic. To talk about how the U.S. balances health and economic concerns, we are joined by Betsey Stevenson, an economist who served on President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, and Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Good to have you both here.
ERIC TONER: Thank you.
BETSEY STEVENSON: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Betsey Stevenson, let me begin by asking you to respond to that piece of tape from President Trump. We have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon, he says. I mean, clearly, he is concerned about millions of Americans being out of work, the economy contracting. How urgent is it to reopen the economy regardless of the health impacts?
STEVENSON: Well, I think that what's urgent is solving the health problem. If we reopen the economy too soon, you're going to have a lot of people who are fearful of going out and participating in the economy because they'll be fearful for their own health. And we'll also have outbreaks - outbreaks that become hard to contain and require secondary shutdowns. So I think it's really - managing the health situation is also the way to manage the economic situation.
SHAPIRO: You know, last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the virus will determine when the U.S. can safely reopen. Dr. Toner, if we look strictly at where the virus is today, what is it telling us about the safety of reopening?
TONER: Well, we've achieved our first goal of flattening the curve. But part of flattening the curve is also broadening the curve, and that's what we see now. We've brought the peak down to a - you know, a certain level, but we're going to stay at this plateau for the foreseeable future. And so it's too early to roll back all of the social distancing measures that have been so effective in protecting our health care system so far.
SHAPIRO: Well, you say it's too early to do that, and yet it's happening. And so if the economy does reopen and it is premature, what does that mean in a month or six months just from an epidemiological perspective?
TONER: Well, again, it's - in some places, it - so some places are reopening, but not really. They're opening some things, but not everything. In other places, they are opening up an awful lot. Places that are opening up prematurely will - can expect to see a surge in new cases. And it'll probably take a month or two months before that's visible, but it's almost certainly going to happen. It takes time for people to manifest the illness, and it takes time for these local epidemics to grow. So we may not know until the fall that we made poor choices in the summer.
SHAPIRO: Professor Stevenson, so many people are describing this as a tug of war between the economic cost and the health cost. Is there a different way to think about this, something that's not an either/or scenario?
STEVENSON: You know, normally, the reason we look at economics and look at GDP is because the indication of our well-being and how well-off we are. So we are the economy. There's not a trade-off between our economic selves and ourselves. But I think that what we want to think about is making an investment today that will pay off in the long run.
So we just heard that what's most likely to happen if we're opening too early is outbreaks that are really bad in September. What that's going to mean is September, often a time that's very busy - people getting back to work from summer vacation, students going back to school - we're going to have to shut down the economy again. It'd be far better to just bear with shutdowns a little bit longer, get things under control today and not have a second wave of shutdowns that, you know, means September, October is a time period of inactivity.
SHAPIRO: Do you both worry that this debate is being politicized? I mean, yesterday in Arizona, we saw Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats yelling at journalists wearing masks. What happens if this becomes a divide over red states trying to reopen and blue states wanting to stay in lockdown? Dr. Toner, go ahead.
TONER: Yeah, I think it's a terrible situation to have this be politicized. We all need to work together. It's in everybody's enlightened self-interest to do the right thing. We have to open the economy, but we have to do it smartly. And what happens in - you know, in the Southwest can affect what's happening in the Northeast. People travel, and the virus travels with them.
SHAPIRO: Professor Stevenson, you want to weigh in?
STEVENSON: The virus doesn't discriminate based on your political views. This isn't a partisan issue, and it shouldn't be a partisan issue. We should be working together to figure out what are the kinds of safety protocols that will allow us to open up as much as possible as soon as possible. There's a lot of work to be done. And if we're fighting with each other over whether any work should be done, then we're not going to get the things done that we need to do in order to be able to open more up. So cooperation will lead to a stronger economy, rather than division.
SHAPIRO: You're both describing what needs to happen, which bears not a whole lot of resemblance to what is happening. And so just in our final moments, I wonder how optimistic or pessimistic each of you is right now. Dr. Toner.
TONER: Well, I'm certainly less optimistic than I was a few weeks ago. It seemed like we were on the right track. We were getting in control of the epidemic.
TONER: But I'm concerned now that we will lose that progress.
SHAPIRO: I just want to give professor Stevenson one sentence as well.
STEVENSON: You know, my optimism comes from the ingenuity of American individuals and businesses.
STEVENSON: But I'd like to be more optimistic about government policy.
SHAPIRO: Betsey Stevenson and Eric Toner, thank you both.
TONER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.