WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Tuesday will travel far beyond the Washington area for the first time in weeks to visit Arizona, one of dozens of U.S. states that is partially lifting its shutdown of businesses to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
The Republican president is going to the Republican-led southwestern state a day after a new projection that COVID-19 deaths in the United States could reach about 135,000 by early August as social-distancing measures are relaxed, double the model’s previous forecast.
The novel coronavirus already is known to have infected almost 1.2 million people in the United States, including nearly 69,000 who have died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes, according to a Reuters tally.
The U.S. death toll is the highest in the world.
Trump will visit a Honeywell International Inc aerospace facility in Phoenix that is making protective face masks. Before leaving the White House, Trump, who has declined to wear a mask despite White House guidelines urging people to do so, suggested he could this time.
“Everybody traveling has been tested,” Trump told reporters, adding that all those on the trip had been tested in the last hour. “If it’s a masked facility, I will” wear a mask, he added.
Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for not wearing a face mask when visiting patients at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic last month, and he apologized for it during a television interview on Sunday.
Texas, Georgia and other southern states are leading the way in letting stay-at-home orders expire and gradually allowing people go about their business. But the early days of the opening in Texas showed many residents might want to stay home anyway.
“The cases of coronavirus aren’t really going down, so I suspect people aren’t comfortable going to malls or getting back to normal life,” David Tamayo said while sitting on a shaded bench with his girlfriend at The Domain mall in Austin, Texas.
Restaurants, retail stores and malls in Texas are now allowed to open at 25% capacity in most areas. Stores in rural counties with five or fewer cases can operate at 50%. A second phase is planned for May 18 if infection rates decline.
Texas officials have reported nearly 33,000 people infected and more than 900 deaths.
Trump has remained at the White House for weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, only leaving this past weekend for Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland, about 70 miles (110 km) away.
When asked if Trump was making the visit to Arizona, a battleground state in the 2020 presidential election, in part to pressure the state to reopen more quickly, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway praised Republican Governor Doug Ducey and said the pace of reopening was the governor’s call.
Two weeks ago, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix where they called for Ducey to reopen the state. Many of the protesters waved American flags and wore hats and shirts in support of Trump, who won the state in the 2016 presidential election.
On Monday, researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) almost doubled its previous U.S. mortality model to nearly 135,000 from 72,400 on April 29.
The revision reflected “rising mobility in most U.S. states” with an easing of business closures and stay-at-home orders expected in 31 states by May 11, the institute said.
The institute’s predictive coronavirus model, periodically revised to account for changing circumstances and scientific insights surrounding the pandemic, has become a data point often cited by the White House and public health authorities.
The upward spike reflects increasing human interactions as more states, under pressure to ease business and social life, relax social-distancing requirements - the chief public health tool available to curb the spread of the virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure.
The revised projection coincided with disclosure of an internal Trump administration forecast predicting a surge in fatalities to 3,000 a day by the end of May, up from about 2,000 now in the Reuters tally.
In Arizona, Ducey issued an amended stay-at-home order last week allowing for retail businesses to begin curbside pick-up and in-person operations if they follow social distancing measures.
The state has had 8,919 confirmed cases and 362 deaths and ranks in the bottom half of all states in terms of cases and deaths per 100,000 people, according to Reuters data.
Trump was scheduled to meet with leaders of the Navajo Nation and other Native American groups while in Arizona.
Like African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, Navajos are suffering a disproportionately high rate of coronavirus fatalities, twice the national per capita rate, according to Navajo Department of Health data.
The Navajo Nation has high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity - underlying conditions that increase risk of severe complications from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reporting by Susan Heavey and Steve Holland in Washington, Nathan Layne in Connecticut, Brendan O'Brien in Chicago, Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; writing by Grant McCool; editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller