COVID-19 infections peaked on April 24, or so Americans assumed. State health authorities reported 36,738 new cases that day, a record. By mid-May, the United States had reduced that rate of infection by nearly half, to 17,618 on May 11. The accomplishment had come at a tremendous cost: the lockdown of much of the national economy, Great Depression levels of unemployment, the shift to online schooling for millions of children, families denied final visits to dying loved ones. Still, these sacrifices had delivered the desired result. Had that progress continued, the American people—and the American economy—could have likely foreseen a further decline in cases and perhaps a near end to the pandemic, even before a vaccine.
But that’s not what happened. On June 24, the number of infections surpassed the April 24 peak. On June 25, the number surpassed that of June 24. On June 26, the country suffered almost 46,000 new infections—nearly 10,000 more in one day than on the worst day in April. All of the sacrifices of the past weeks have been thrown away.
The first coronavirus spike in late April can be blamed on President Donald Trump’s negligence. The second spike in June is his own doing. This is Trump’s plague now.
A Washington Post report on June 27 captures Trump’s culpability with horrible aptness. The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been enforcing social-distancing rules, and for good reason. From June 1 to June 15, new COVID-19 cases in the state jumped from 67 in a day to 186. In advance of Trump’s rally in Tulsa on June 20, city employees affixed do not sit here please stickers to every other seat in the stadium venue. Trump campaign workers were captured on video removing the stickers so that Trump could cram attendees closer together. On June 26, Oklahoma reported 396 new infections in a single day.
Trump’s rally may not directly account for all those new cases. But Trump’s elevation of the needs of his own ego over the well-being of even his strongest supporters is profoundly implicated in the virus’s powerful June comeback.
Even before the viral peak on April 24, Trump urged the reopening of the U.S. economy. On April 16, Trump convened the nation’s governors by conference call to press them to lift restrictions by May 1. The White House that day also released a set of highly permissive guidelines to inform the process, recommending a three-phased plan to begin after states had established a 14-day “downward trajectory of documented cases.” But how steep a decline? Many decisions were left to the governors, at least ostensibly.
“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told the governors on the call. “You’re going to be calling the shots. We’ll be standing right alongside of you, and we’re going to get our country open and get it working. People want to get working.”
At the time, this show of deference to the governors looked like a political retreat by the president. Days earlier, Trump had declared that he alone had “total authority” to reopen the economy—and it would be “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.” But the deference soon proved a sham. Trump was set on the widest and earliest possible opening, and he exerted the immense political power of his office to get his wish.
In mid-April, protesters—many of them openly brandishing weapons—assembled at the capitols of Democratic-governed states to demand immediate reopening. Trump tweeted his support. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
From mid- to late April, the trajectory of infections in states such as Georgia, Florida, and Texas was relatively flat, not down. Despite that, Trump cheered for governors to reopen fast and faster. On April 29, Trump declared that federal social-distancing guidelines would be “fading out.” “I am very much in favor of what they’re doing,” Trump said in the Oval Office about the southern and western governors who were racing to reopen by May 1. The governors were responding to political pressures from local business owners, yes. But they were also obeying the president’s wishes and yielding to pressure from right-wing media.