HHS Chief Alex Azar Says Defying Social Distancing Is Part Of American ‘Freedom’

Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, on Sunday stopped short of condemning Americans who flout the federal government’s social distancing guidelines, claiming such actions are “part of the freedom” in the United States.

During CNN’s “State of the Union,” host Jake Tapper asked Azar if he’s concerned by photos of people without masks crowding together in large groups in some states that have begun to ease coronavirus restrictions.

″I think, in any individual instance, you’re going to see people doing things that are irresponsible,” Azar said. “That’s part of the freedom that we have here in America.”

He said the federal government can give guidance, but that it’s the responsibility of local leaders and people who live in areas where there’s an “ongoing spread” of the virus to know what “steps” they should take.

“But we have got to get this economy and our people out and about, working, going to school again, because there are serious health consequences to what we’ve been going through,” Azar added. 

At least 48 states will have eased coronavirus restrictions in some form by Monday. While some governors are making slow changes, others, such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, are allowing a sweeping return to work and other activities for many.

Photos taken in some states that have eased restrictions show crowded bars, beaches and restaurants, leading some medical experts to worry about a potential surge in coronavirus cases.

Azar said Sunday that “the president has left it up to states to know their local situation the best.”

“It’s very hard to judge in any community whether a bar being open, a restaurant, a school, is the right thing,” Azar said. “There should not be one-size-fits-all approaches to reopening. But reopen we must, because it’s not health vs. the economy. It’s actually health vs. health.”

Trump last month announced a three-phase set of guidelines for reopening parts of the country, which requires local officials to confirm a two-week downward trend of new coronavirus cases and adequate hospital and testing capacity.

But the president has since contradicted his own recommendations, urging some Democratic-led states to reopen despite not having met the criteria for doing so as outlined in his own guidelines.

Trump has also encouraged protests of governors’ stay-at-home orders, including those in Michigan, where demonstrators crammed into the state capital building without masks. Some were armed and held up racist signs.

“These are very good people, but they are angry,” the president tweeted. “They want their lives back again, safely!”

Dr. Deborah Birx, an infectious disease expert on the White House’s coronavirus task force, called the Michigan protest “devastatingly worrisome,” citing the lack of masks and social distancing.

“If they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition, and they have a serious or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives,” she told Fox News.

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