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Trump urges economic reopening in virtual town hall as U.S. coronavirus deaths pass 60K

COVID-19: Americans refuse to physical distance as states reopen
WATCH: Americans refuse to physical distance as states reopen

Anxious to spur an economic recovery without risking lives, U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday insisted that “you can satisfy both” — see some states gradually lift lockdowns while also protecting people from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 60,000 Americans.

The president, fielding questions from Americans in a virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial, acknowledged valid fears on both sides of the issue. Some people are worried about getting sick; others are reeling from lost jobs and livelihoods.

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But while Trump increased his projection for the total U.S. death total to 80,000 or 90,000 — up by more than 20,000 fatalities from what he had suggested just a few weeks ago — he struck a note of urgency to restart the nation’s economy, declaring “we have to reopen our country.”

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“We have to get it back open safely but as quickly as possible,” Trump said.

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After more than a month of being cooped up at the White House, Trump returned from a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for the virtual town hall hosted by Fox News Channel.

The president said of his backdrop: “We never had a more beautiful set than this.”

As concerns mount about his reelection bid, Trump stuck to his relentlessly optimistic view of the nation’s ability to rebound soon.

President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, May 3, 2020, in Washington, co-moderated by FOX News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a Fox News virtual town hall from the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, May 3, 2020, in Washington, co-moderated by FOX News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci). (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“It is all working out,” Trump said. “It is horrible to go through, but it is working out.”

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Many public health experts believe the nation cannot safely reopen fully until a vaccine is developed. Trump declared Sunday that he believed one could be available by year’s end.

U.S. public health officials have said a vaccine is probably a year to 18 months away. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said in late April that it is conceivable, if a vaccine is soon developed, that it could be in wide distribution as early as January.

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Though the administration’s handling of the pandemic, particularly its ability to conduct widespread testing, has come under fierce scrutiny, the president defended the response and said the nation was ready to begin reopening.

“I’ll tell you one thing. We did the right thing and I really believe we saved a million and a half lives,” the president said. But he also broke with the assessment of his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saying it was “too soon to say” the federal government had overseen a “success story.”

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Trump’s impatience also flashed. While noting that states would go at their own pace in returning to normal, with ones harder hit by the coronavirus going slower, he said that “some states, frankly, I think aren’t going fast enough.”

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He singled out Virginia, which has a Democratic governor and legislature. And he urged the nation’s schools and universities to return to classes this fall.

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Federal guidelines that encouraged people to stay at home and practice social distancing expired late last week.

Debate continued over moves by governors to start reopening state economies that tanked after shopping malls, salons and other nonessential businesses were ordered closed in attempt to slow a virus that has killed more than 66,000 Americans, according to a tally of reported deaths by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. economy has suffered, shrinking at a 4.8 per cent annual rate from January through March, the government estimated last week. It was the sharpest quarterly drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

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Roughly 30.3 million people have filed for unemployment aid in the six weeks since the outbreak forced employers to shut down and slash their workforces. It was the worst string of layoffs on record.

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The president’s advisers have nervously watched Trump’s support slip in a number of battleground states and he was presented with polls late last month that, if the election were held that day, had him losing to Democrat Joe Biden.

The president’s aides believe restarting the economy, even with its health risks, is essential to a victory in November and are pushing for him to pivot away from discussions about the pandemic and onto an American comeback story.

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To that, he will begin traveling again, with a trip to a mask factory in Arizona planned for Tuesday. And the grand setting of Sunday night’s town hall was meant to evoke patriotism and overcoming national adversity.

Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the administration would “pause” to review the effectiveness of trillions in economic relief spending before making any decision on whether additional aid is needed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that state and local governments are seeking up to $1 trillion for coronavirus costs.

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The Senate planned to reopen Monday, despite the Washington area’s continued status as a virus hot spot and with the region still under stay-at-home orders. The House remains shuttered. The pandemic is forcing big changes at the tradition-bound Supreme Court: The justices will hear arguments, beginning Monday, by telephone for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention in 1876.

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The leaders of California and Michigan are among governors under public pressure over lockdowns still in effect while states such as Florida, Georgia and Ohio are reopening.

READ MORE: Civil servants describe government’s COVID-19 response to ‘Dunkirk’ style rescue

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said Sunday that the armed protesters who demonstrated inside her state’s Capitol “depicted some of the worst racism” and “awful parts” of U.S. history by showing up with Confederate flags, nooses and swastikas.

Despite the opposition of Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature, Whitmer has extended a state of emergency declaration and directed most businesses statewide to remain closed. Trump on Sunday night singled out her and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, for criticism even as he praised the federal coordination with most governors.

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Some people participating in other public protests across the U.S. have not kept their distance from one another and have rallied without masks, not heeding public health recommendations.

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Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, called that behavior “devastatingly worrisome.” She said people will feel guilty for the rest of their lives if they end up infected and unwittingly spread the virus to vulnerable family members.

Lemire reported from New York.