After delay, CDC releases new guidance on how states can safely reopen

The guidance comes after most states already have started to reopen.

May 14, 2020, 6:12 PM

After weeks of delay, the federal government's top experts on infectious diseases on Thursday released new, more detailed guidance on how states can safely allow businesses and schools to reopen their doors during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, while voluntary, is the most specific instruction yet from the federal government on how not to trigger an outbreak, as President Donald Trump pushes states to reopen and most have already started to do so.

The guidelines, posted on the agency's website, include ones designed for businesses and workplaces as well as for schools and childcare programs.

The guidance includes various "decision tools" for specific institutions.

For example, if a restaurant can answer "yes" to several questions -- such as whether it's prepared to encourage social distancing among patrons and encourage flexible leave among employees – then it could reopen safely.

Another "decision tool" for youth programs and camps asks whether the program could stagger drop-offs and limit how often kids are mixed into groups, as well as having a plan if the children or employees get sick.

The language in the guidance issued does not appear to be as prescriptive as a previous 63-page draft CDC document The Associated Press reported was "shelved" by the White House.

That document called on restaurants to "provide physical guides" such as tape on the floors to ensure 6-feet of social distancing among patrons.

The new guidance asks restaurant owners in general whether they can "encourage" social distancing and "enhance" spacing.

It's also likely that many of the questions posed in these CDC "decision tools" will be difficult for some communities to answer.

For example, the guidance on reopening schools doesn't tell a community what percentage of students should be tested or how many contract tracers employed.

Instead, it starts with asking, "Is the school ready to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness?"

Large parts of the country have been in lockdown for two months, as health officials have implored Americans to stay home, limit social contact and shop only for essentials.

PHOTO: The Centers for Disease Control's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center in Atlanta is shown in a 2006 photo released by the CDC.
The Centers for Disease Control's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center in Atlanta is shown in a 2006 photo released by the CDC.
James Gathany/CDC

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The new guidance came after weeks of impatient lawmakers and state officials insisting that they needed more detailed suggestions from the nation's top infectious disease experts.

"The point is, that America needs -- and must have -- the candid guidance of our best scientists, unfiltered, unedited, uncensored by President Trump for his political minions," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

The White House has previously pointed to an earlier plan as sufficient. That previous guidance suggested that certain institutions move forward once they can document fewer cases or positive tests in a 14-day period, among other recommendations.

President Trump has repeatedly said states should make their own decisions on timing and how much testing is needed, and even encouraged schools resuming classes.

"I think they should open the schools, absolutely. I think they should," Trump told reporters this week. "And it's had very little impact on young people."

That suggestion runs directly counter to recommendations by his top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said the impact of children is still unknown.

Fauci told Congress on Tuesday that states should resist the urge to reopen too soon.

"There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control," he told a Senate panel.

In that same hearing Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testified that the highly anticipated guidance would go online "soon," to which Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said "isn't very helpful" as his and other states reopen -- many without waiting for a 14-day downward trend in cases Fauci and others have warned is crucial in safely doing so.

Addressing the delays, coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said last week she was still working with the CDC on "edits."

"We're working with the CDC on a whole series of products, from how to improve community mitigation, what to do about contact tracing, how to improve surveillance, and certainly these more detailed guidelines about child care and camps. Those are still being worked on. No one has stopped those guidelines. We're still in editing," Birx told CNN.

When pressed on whether science or political and religious beliefs were guiding the process, Birx said, "Well, I like to believe that I'm a scientist, and I've been working with the CDC on the edits. It was more about simplification to really make sure that both the American people as well as public health officials understand the guidelines."

On the same day, another task force official defended the decision to not issue more detailed guidance earlier, saying that "overly specific instructions" would be counterproductive, and echoing President Trump that the onus is on the states to make case-by-case decisions they see as best for their communities.

"On April 16, President Trump released guidelines for opening America up again. Those guidelines made clear that each State should open up in a safe and responsible way based on the data and response efforts in those individual states. Issuing overly specific instructions for how various types of businesses open up would be overly prescriptive and broad for the various circumstances States are experiencing throughout the country," a task force official told ABC News last Thursday.

White House press secretary Kaleigh McEnany has said twice in the last week that additional guidance was still "in the works" but "forthcoming," while President Trump has ramped up his push to for the country to get back to work.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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