The number of coronavirus cases detected in the United States rose past half a million over the Easter weekend with more than 18,600 deaths, as President Donald Trump said the decision on when it was safe to reopen the country would be the biggest he had ever had to make.
Public health experts have warned that the US death toll could spike to 200,000 over the summer if unprecedented stay-at-home orders that have closed businesses and kept most Americans indoors are lifted after 30 days.
Trump, seeking re-election in November, has said he wants life to return to normal as soon as possible and that the sweeping restrictions on movement aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus carry their own economic and public-health cost.
"I'm going to have to make a decision, and I ... hope to God that it's the right decision," he told reporters on Friday. "It's the biggest decision I've ever had to make."
Trump said the facts would determine the next move. Asked what metrics he would use to make his judgment, he pointed at his forehead: "The metrics right here, that's my metrics."
The current federal guidelines run to April 30. The president will then have to decide whether to extend them or start encouraging people to go back to work and a more normal way of life.
Trump said he would unveil a new advisory council next week that will include some state governors and will focus on the process of reopening the US economy.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks surpassed 15 million, as weekly new claims topped 6 million for the second straight time last week.
The government has said the economy purged 701,000 jobs in March. That was the most job losses since the Great Recession and ended the longest employment boom in US history that started in late 2010.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, and other health officials have pointed to declining rates of coronavirus hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units - particularly in hard-hit New York state - as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
The stay-at-home orders imposed in recent weeks across 42 states have taken a huge toll on American commerce, with some economists forecasting job losses of up to 20 million by month's end, raising questions about how long business closures and travel restrictions can be sustained.
The Trump administration renewed talk of quickly reopening the economy after an influential university research model this week lowered its U.S. mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by Aug. 4, down from at least 100,000, assuming social-distancing measures remain in place.
However, new U.S. government data show infections will spike over the summer if stay-at-home orders are lifted after 30 days, according to projections first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Department of Homeland Security official.
Only Italy has recorded more coronavirus fatalities than the United States.