US president Donald Trump was set to sign an executive order on Tuesday requiring meat plants to remain open, amid growing fears that the coronavirus is impacting on America's food supply.
Mr Trump indicated he would invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure meat companies continue to operate, promising to provide extra protective gear and additional help to businesses that have been forced to close. The federal government may also grant liability protection to companies, including Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat enterprises in the country.
Staff illnesses and a drop in demand from bulk customers including restaurants have hit the US’s meat industry, with several of the country’s largest processors ceasing operations in recent weeks.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Mr Trump insisted there was “plenty of supply” in the country, but confirmed that he would be intervening.
The Defense Production Act enables presidents to direct private industry to prioritise certain products as deemed to be in the national interest.
The president also defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic as the number of cases in the United States passed one million, according to some estimates.
Asked about a report in the Washington Post that US intelligence agencies repeatedly warned about the virus in briefings prepared for Mr Trump in January and February, the president said he would have to check the dates.
“I want to look as to the exact dates of warnings.”
But he added: “Whether it was luck, talent, or something else, we saved many thousands of lives.”
He again highlighted his decision to ban flights from China in late January as proof that he had acted decisively to combat the spread of Covid-19. When it was pointed out that an estimated 40,000 people entered the United States from China after that date, most of whom were Americans, Mr Trump defended the decision.
“Are we supposed to say to an American citizen, ‘you can’t come back into your country’?”
Mr Trump was speaking as he welcomed Florida's Republican governor Ron DeSantis to the White House. Mr DeSantis, who was elected in 2018 and is a vocal ally of the president, defended his state's handling of the outbreak, contrasting Florida's "tailored" and "measured" approach with the "draconian" measures adopted by other states.
"Everyone in the media was saying Florida was going to be like New York or Italy and that has not happened," he said, pledging to reopen the state in a "a measured, thoughtful and data-driven way".
Noting that he allowed construction work to continue, he said he was able to accelerate key infrastructural projects by as much as two months because of reduced congestion. He also said that he would allow licensed pharmacists to offer tests.
Florida, a state of 22 million people, has confirmed more than 32,000 cases of Covid-19 and close to 1,100 deaths. Mr DeSantis said the focus of testing would continue to be on elderly people living in the state, which is a popular retirement destination.
Other states also unveiled plans to ease restrictions. Texas governor Greg Abbott said he would allow stores, restaurants and cinemas to reopen on Friday with limited capacity, though gyms, hairdressers and other businesses would remain shut.
In New York, governor Andrew Cuomo said a further 335 people had died from the virus, compared to a peak daily toll of well over 700 earlier this month.
Also in the northeast of the country, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker extended the closure of non-essential businesses until at least May 18th.
“We’re all incredibly eager to move on from this phase of our lives but, if we act too soon, we could risk a spike in infections that could force our state to revert to serious restrictions again,” said Mr Baker, a Republican.
White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett said the administration was considering offering further money to citizens in addition to the $1,200 (€1,100) direct payment agreed last month as part of a $2.2 trillion rescue package.