WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to send the United States back to work within weeks, despite warnings from medical experts that might be premature to prevent an even wider spread of the COVID-19 virus.
"I would like to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," which is April 12, Trump said during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday.
"We have to go back to work sooner, much sooner, than people thought," the president said, warning of the severe damage to the economy that could shave 20 to 25 points off gross domestic product.
In a subsequent White House interview with Fox News, Trump also said it would "be beautiful" to "have packed churches all over our country" on Easter, despite the warnings from the medical community that social distancing may have to continue across much of the United States for months.
At a White House briefing for reporters later in the day, Trump said he would rely on the coronavirus task force and data for setting a date that could see some sections of the country that are not hot spots for COVID-19 — such as the Farm Belt, some of the western states and Texas — released from coronavirus guidance on social distancing.
"I hope we can do this by Easter," the president reiterated.
The Democratic Party candidate that Republican Trump is likely to face in November's general election appeared incredulous when asked about the president's comment to re-open the country within weeks.
"By Easter, he wants everyone back to work? What he's talking about?" said former Vice President Joe Biden.
"We all want the economy opened as rapidly as possible," Biden said on CNN. "The way to do that is let's take care of the medical side of this immediately."
The president has made clear in remarks to reporters and on social media in recent days that he believes rigid enforcement of social distancing for months, which would prevent most U.S. businesses from operating normally, would be worse than the casualties caused by a protracted halt to the economy.
"You can destroy a country this way by closing it down," Trump said in the Fox News TV program billed as a virtual town hall in the White House Rose Garden, with some questions being asked on video by viewers.
"You're gonna lose a number of people to the flu, but you're going to lose more people. By putting a country into a massive recession or depression," according to Trump. "You're going to lose people, you're going to have suicides by the thousands, you're going to have all sorts of things happen. You're going to have instability. You can't just come in and say, 'Let's close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.'"
On March 16, Trump helped introduce a 15-day plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to stem the rise of coronavirus cases by encouraging most people to stay home. The campaign is scheduled to end March 31, but many expect it to be extended.
WATCH: US looks into reopening country
Trump said on Monday that governors will "have a lot of leeway if we open up."
His top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, on Tuesday, told reporters there are zones of the country "where the virus is less prevalent. Things are safe. We're not abandoning the health professionals' advice, but there is a clamor to try to reopen the economy."
Health experts continue to affirm the importance of taking steps like social distancing to stem the spread of coronavirus.
"Clearly, we're not at a point now where we can relax," said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the school of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
"Social distancing now is a really urgent period where we need to kind of get a better handle on the epidemic that's happening here in the United States and to try to reduce the number of cases that are climbing each day," she added. "That said, I think, being concerned about the long-term impacts of these measures and trying to better understand them and getting us to a place where we can relax these social distancing measures is absolutely essential."
The cost to the U.S. economy from more people being sick would be worse than it is now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC.
"This is not a time for notion-mongering," Pelosi said.
A House member from Trump's Republican Party is also among politicians cautioning against relaxing social distancing.
"There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what's necessary to stop the virus," tweeted Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney.
There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus. https://t.co/AchwfXtuLi— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) March 24, 2020
The governor of New York, the hardest-hit state in the country by the coronavirus outbreak, is also criticizing the president's suggestion.
"No American is going say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life," Andrew Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday. "Don't make us choose between a smart health strategy and a smart economic strategy."
The focus, Cuomo added, should be "on the looming wave of cases" of COVID-19 patients coming in about two weeks.
Several U.S. states announced new restrictions Monday, boosting the number of people under stay-at-home orders to about one-third of the population.
The World Health Organization is warning that the United States could be the next epicenter for the global coronavirus pandemic, noting 40 percent of new cases recorded around the world during the previous 24 hours were from the United States.
"They have a very large outbreak and an outbreak that is increasing in intensity," a WHO spokesperson, Margaret Harris, said Tuesday.
The United States has the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases of any country after China and Italy, with about 50,000 people confirmed to have been infected and more than 600 dead.
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.