The ranks of Americans thrown out of work by the coronavirus ballooned Thursday to at least 22 million in an unprecedented collapse that has fueled widening protests and propelled President Donald Trump’s push to relax the nation’s social distancing guidelines.
Trump planned to announce new recommendations later in the day to allow states to reopen, despite warnings from business leaders and governors that more testing and protective gear are needed first.
The government said 5.2 million more people applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to about 22 million out of a U.S. work force of roughly 159 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job losses on record. The losses amount to about 1 in 7 workers.
Some economists said the unemployment rate could reach 20% in April, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
While some leaders and citizens around the U.S. have called on government to reopen stores, factories and schools — especially in rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major outbreaks — health authorities and many politicians warned that returning to normal is a distant goal and that lifting restrictions too soon could allow the virus to come storming back.
The decision of when and how to ease up rests not with the White House but with state and local leaders, who imposed the mandatory lockdowns and other restrictions over the past month.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of hard-hit New York City, with more than one-third of the nation’s coronavirus deaths, was among those urging caution.
“Everyone wants our economy to restart … but there has to be a really clear understanding,” he said. “If we can’t provide the basics for our people, then you can kiss your recovery goodbye.”
The outbreak has infected more than 2 million people worldwide and killed approximately 140,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be much higher. The death toll in the U.S. topped 31,000, with over 600,000 confirmed infections.
The World Health Organization’s European chief said optimism that the spread of the virus is declining in Italy, Spain and France has been tempered by the knowledge that it is rising or remaining at a high level in Britain, Russia and Turkey.
“The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region,” Dr. Hans Kluge said.