President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants the U.S. economy to "open" back up by Easter Sunday, despite expert warnings about the deadly threat of the coronavirus.
Easter is April 12, less than three weeks away.
Trump's remarks in a Fox News "virtual town hall" event at the White House came as more states imposed extreme measures, including shutting down businesses and ordering residents to stay home, to try to slow the spread of the disease.
"We're opening up this incredible country. Because we have to do that. I would love to have it open by Easter," Trump said.
"I would love to have that. It's such an important day for other reasons, but I'd love to make it an important day for this. I would love to have the country opened up, and rarin' to go by Easter."
In a second interview with Fox that aired Tuesday afternoon, Trump said he offered the holiday as a deadline because "Easter's a very special day for me."
"Wouldn't it be great to have all the churches full?" Trump asked. "You'll have packed churches all over our country … I think it'll be a beautiful time."
Trump added that "I'm not sure that's going to be the day," but "that would be a beautiful thing."
At a press briefing Tuesday evening, Trump appeared to back off the idea even further. "We'll only do it if it's good," Trump said, adding that he is "very much in touch" with White House experts. "I just think it would be a beautiful timeline."
"Our decision will be based on hard facts and data as to the opening" of the economy, Trump said in that presser. "Every decision is grounded solely in the health, safety and wellbeing of our citizens."
Medical experts had recoiled at Trump's suggestion that Americans could gather en masse amid the coronavirus outbreak.
"Obviously Trump is not rooted in reality," said Dr. Tina Tan, a board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a staff member at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
"This is the making of a major public health disaster. I am not sure where he is getting his information from, but it is extremely flawed," Tan said.
The number of people found to have COVID-19 has increased significantly in recent days, as testing kits have been made more available to states.
At least 46,500 cases of COVID-19, including 590 deaths, have so far been confirmed in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.
"Our current plan is to have Masses and other Holy Week liturgies celebrated privately by the priests, with no congregation present," a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York told CNBC.
The New York metro area has quickly become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other tri-state officials banned large gatherings of people last week.
Medical experts, including the Trump administration's scientific point man in the crisis, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have strongly advocated restrictions on people-to-people contact, saying it's better to overreact now than to be sorry later.
"I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting," he told NBC last week.
Asked at the White House on Tuesday about the Easter timeline, Fauci said there could be flexibility in different areas of the country where coronavirus cases are less prevalent.
Fauci has been lauded across the aisle for his straight talk about the coronavirus, offering blunt risk assessments – even at times when Trump has downplayed the threat. Fauci was absent from the White House's most recent briefings on the virus, but appeared at the Tuesday evening briefing.
A senior administration official told CNBC that Fauci was at the White House on Monday and had numerous meetings with the coronavirus task force earlier Tuesday.
Fears about the coronavirus — and the impact of government containment efforts on businesses and workers — have prompted a dramatic surge in unemployment and have sent stocks spiraling down in recent weeks.
The White House and leading lawmakers are working long hours on Capitol Hill to hash out the final details of a massive stimulus bill that would offer relief to those affected by the virus. The stimulus package is expected to cost at least $1.5 trillion and could include direct cash payments to Americans and around $350 billion in relief for small businesses.
Trump in the past few days has repeatedly expressed a desire to have the economy "reopen" by allowing businesses to "return to work."
"The faster we go back, the better it's going to be," Trump said during the virtual town hall in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
He and his top economic advisor, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, suggested Tuesday that the stimulus bill could provide the springboard for an economic revival.
After hemorrhaging value for weeks, stocks jumped higher Tuesday as lawmakers signaled a bipartisan deal was nearing and as Trump pushed to get workers back in stores within a month.
The U.S., Trump said, can't sustain the current trend of closing down business and commerce in entire states.
"We're not built that way," Trump said. "I don't want the cure to be worse than the problem itself. … You can destroy a country this way."
Trump also once again compared the coronavirus to more common dangers, such as flu and car accidents, in an apparent attempt to play down the risk posed by the new disease.
"We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu. We don't turn the country off," Trump said.
Few other countries are currently looking to loosen the strict steps being taken to slow the disease's transmission. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, announced on Tuesday a "total lockdown" for the country of 1.3 billion people.