ATLANTA — President Trump has been open about his eagerness to see the economy and some semblance of business as usual spring back to life as soon as possible. His surgeon general, Jerome Adams, in a television interview on Friday noted the potential for reopening the country — “place by place, bit by bit,” beginning as early as next month.
But on Sunday, officials still in the thick of the grim reality caused by the coronavirus pandemic urged caution, fearing that relaxing protective measures too early could cause the virus to surge once again.
In interviews on Sunday morning talk shows, governors and mayors acknowledged the delicate balance between aggressively combating the virus and limiting the economic pain, but they said that public health concerns were their priority.
“We could be pouring gas on the fire, even inadvertently,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said in an interview with CNN on Sunday. He said that returning to a semblance of life before the outbreak was crucial but, “It’s not Job No. 1., because right now, the house is on fire and Job No. 1 is to put the fire out.”
In communities around the country, Easter Sunday played out as yet another reminder of just how much life has been upended. Millions of Christians celebrated the holiday separated from their extended families and friends as they watched religious services broadcast online and on television. In some cases, congregations worshiped together, but it was in defiance of official guidance to stay home.
But there were signs, in some places, of the crisis leveling off or that it might not be as devastating as had been feared. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Sunday that 758 more people had died, bringing the state’s total to 9,385 and other data showed that the virus’s spread had slowed in the state. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said his state had 8,000 hospital beds ready, and that there had been about 80 hospitalizations.
Even so, the United States recently marked a grim milestone, surpassing Italy in the total number of confirmed coronavirus deaths. Tens of thousands more could die. Millions more could lose their jobs, with the pandemic having already put more than 16 million people out of work in the United States in the space of a few weeks.
Mr. Trump has acknowledged the gravity of the question of when to reopen the country but seldom hesitates to show his impatience. On Sunday he said in a tweet: “Governors, get your states testing programs & apparatus perfected. Be ready, big things are happening. No excuses!”
But the decision to reopen businesses and civic life is not entirely, or even primarily, his to make. And many governors have expressed wariness about lifting stay-at-home orders prematurely.
“We’ve got to balance those needs,” Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week” of weighing public health concerns against economic considerations. “But, really, right now, the first thing is saving lives and keeping people safe. We do also have to think about how do we eventually ramp up and get some folks back to work. But you can’t just pick a date and flip a switch. I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.”
Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, said the virus has had a punishing impact on the city’s African-American population. “It’s devastating our community,” Ms. Lightfoot said in an interview on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” Nearly 70 percent of the people who died from the virus in Chicago were African-Americans, who make up only 30 percent of the city’s total population, according to an examination of death records by The Chicago Tribune.
She said that, in order to relax stay-at-home measures, there would have to be “not just a flattening of the curve but a bending down.”
“We’ve got to see a lot more progress on the health care front,” Ms. Lightfoot, a Democrat, said, “before we can start talking about reopening the economy.”
Mr. Hutchinson, the Arkansas governor, said that responses have varied state by state because needs differed in different parts of the country. He is one of the few governors who has not imposed a statewide stay-at-home order, a measure that, he said, might have been essential in limiting the virus’s spread in other places but less so in his state. He noted that much of his state is not nearly as densely populated as New York or New Jersey.
“It just reflects the flexibility a state needs,” Mr. Hutchinson, a Republican, said.
He noted that the hospitalization rate in Arkansas had been low so far. The state, with a population of 3 million, has reported 1,280 cases and 27 deaths through Sunday.
Arkansas has called for strict social distancing, but has allowed businesses to stay open and people to go to work. “That’s the important balance that we have in our state,” he added. “If we need to do more, we will do more.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that reopening the country would not be an “all or none” proposition. Dr. Fauci said in an interview with CNN that restrictions must be lifted in a gradual manner to prevent a resurgence of cases. Models show that lifting all social-distancing measures at once nationally may set the stage for a rebound sometime in July.
“If all of a sudden we decide, ‘OK, it’s May, whatever, and we just turn the switch on, that could be a real problem,” Dr. Fauci said.
He said that governors would need to manage a “rolling re-entry,” guided by testing results and local risk levels. “I think it could probably start, at least in some ways, maybe next month,” he said on the network’s “State of the Union” program. But he added, “Don’t hold me to it.”