Easter Sunday dawned across America like none before it.
Millions of Americans are celebrating in the shadow of the coronavirus, forcing many congregations to celebrate online in an effort to honor social distancing efforts.
But some planned to gather anyway, putting public health restrictions on a collision course with religious institutions.
The country has recorded at least 20,614 deaths and 530,200 cases during the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. All 50 states are under a federal disaster declaration for the first time in US history.
On Saturday night, the Justice Department said it expects to take action this week against regulations on religious institutions, as states and local governments try to curtail gatherings.
Various courts are already hearing cases about the regulations, but the department said it may file lawsuits alongside churches.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the state amended a public health order banning mass gatherings to include houses of worship.
“The risk is simply too great,” the governor said on Twitter Saturday. She said she was “so grateful for the support & cooperation from the vast majority of religious leaders of all faiths who have already made the difficult decision to cancel services in the interest of public health.”
In Kentucky, authorities said they will record license plates of those who show up to any gatherings and hand that information over to the local health department. That will require those people to stay quarantined for 14 days, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, tried to stop a church from holding a drive-in Easter service, even though drive-in liquor stores are still permitted under the state’s stay-at-home policy. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Saturday that overturned the effort.
Efforts to contain virus continue across states
President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration Saturday for Wyoming, the final state to get one. It makes federal funds available to supplement state and local efforts to deal with the pandemic.
A state declaration of disaster also focuses the entire state government on the emergency and heightens awareness. Declarations also allow governors to sidestep certain laws and regulations.
Most emergency responses in the US come from the bottom up. They typically filter from local authorities to state governments to the federal government.
In addition to the states, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Washington, DC, Guam and Puerto Rico have also been declared disasters.
States are feeling the impact of the pandemic in many ways.
• Illinois announced its second highest day of deaths Saturday with 1,293 new reported cases and 81 additional deaths.
• In South Florida, families lined up for up to five hours before food distribution even began outside Magic City Casino, according to CNN affiliate WPLG.
• And in New Jersey, the state with the second highest number of coronavirus cases, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is asking all businesses — even those deemed essential — to shut down for “Be Still Mondays.” The goal is to further limit the spread of the virus as the death toll rises in the state and, according to Baraka, “We can get everything else back. What we can’t get back is people’s lives.”
Pushes to reopen and the risks
Trump said Saturday night that he hopes to make a decision “fairly soon” on when to reopen the country currently shutdown by the coronavirus pandemic. He said he will set up a council to examine the issue and will base his decision on “facts” and “instinct.”
Two weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to open the country by Easter, but Friday he said he wouldn’t do anything until he knew the country was healthy again. Internally, officials are pushing to reopen the country by next month, with specific discussions underway about May 1, a person familiar with the talks told CNN.
But government projections obtained by the New York Times show that if stay at home orders were lifted after a month, there would be a bump in demand for ventilators and the US death toll could see a dramatic increase to 200,000, the Times reported.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects that if the country keeps social distancing measures until the end of May, about 61,500 Americans will lose their lives to the virus by August.
Still, the nation’s top infectious disease expert on Sunday conceded lives would have been saved had efforts to contain the virus been put in place earlier.
“Obviously you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Diseases said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
His comments came after The New York Times detailed the Trump administration’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic and how President Trump ignored his advisers’ warnings.
“But you’re right,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, if we had right from the very beginning shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different.”
New York City mayor, governor in dispute over school closures
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools there would remain closed through the end of the school year while students continued to receive remote instruction.
But that was soon undercut by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said that “no decision” had been made on closing schools through the end of the year, adding that he valued the mayor’s “opinion.”
“We may do that, but we’re going to do it in a coordinated sense with the other localities,” Cuomo said, adding: “It makes no sense for one locality to take an action that’s not coordinated with the others.”
De Blasio said Saturday evening he and the governor would always “work things through in the common interest of our people.”
“But the bottom line is my responsibility is not to the federal government, the state government, my responsibility is not to another elected official. My responsibility is to those kids, those parents, those educators who need to be safe,” de Blasio said.
Additionally, Cuomo said no decision has been made on when businesses will reopen. That step, he said, should be coordinated with schools.
The state will gather the best minds to study whether reopening the economy would trigger a “second wave” of infections, Cuomo said.
“The worst thing that can happen is we make a misstep and we let our emotions get ahead of our logic and fact, and we go through this again in any manner, shape or form,” he said.