Former DHS Secretary Chertoff: DC Safe to Begin Reopening in a Week

Melanie Arter | May 26, 2020 | 5:22pm EDT
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 Michael Chertoff, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of The Chertoff Group, speaks onstage during the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Michael Chertoff, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of The Chertoff Group, speaks onstage during the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

( - Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who co-chairs the task force focused on reopening the District of Columbia, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that if the decrease in coronavirus cases continues, the city is on track to begin reopening in about a week.

“Of course, the paramount concern has been safety, and the good news, at least in the district, is it looks like over the past 11, 12 days, we have had a steady decrease in new cases, and our transmission rate is now somewhat less than one transmission per person,” Chertoff said.

“So as long as that continues, we should be in a position to begin the process of reopening in about a week, but we're doing this in a very deliberate way. The mayor has set forth a series of stages, which we've recommended, and the idea is to simply take it a step at a time and make sure while we're doing this, we're doing it in a way that maximizes safety,” he said.

“DC is, you know, the nerve center for the federal government. It is where members of Congress fly in and out of. There's just a unique set of risk factors here. Why do you think that there still is this level of virus circulating and does that concern you at this point?” host Margaret Brennan asked.

“Well, obviously, we're concerned that you have virus at any level. We may have started a little bit later, for example, than New York and California, and therefore, their peak may have been earlier, but, as I say, we are in the process now, at least of beginning to see a decline, but, as you point out, Margaret, we do get a lot of visitors and people coming in to work who originate from other parts of the country,” Chertoff said.

“And that means we get more vectors coming in with infection than might be the case, for example, in a city where you don't get a lot of people from out of state. So that presents a unique set of challenges, and we're trying to work with our neighboring counties in Virginia and in Maryland, again, to mitigate the risk as we move forward,” he said.

Chertoff proposed delaying in-person learning for schools and not fully reopening schools until there is a vaccine.

“Well, the idea is, at least in stage one, to have distance learning, have it be done remotely, but then over the next two stages, which means that we would have basically reduced the outbreak to isolated outbreaks, during the next period of time, we would slowly begin to bring students in. Those entering transitional grades or needing extra instruction would come in first,” he said.

“We'd make sure to maintain distancing in classrooms to keep the collection of people in a particular classroom below a certain number, like 10; to make sure the same youngsters were together throughout the day so you don't have a lot of people mixing with other groups; and then to have present on staff people with health background and experience in case someone displays symptoms or some issue arises,” Chertoff said.

“And the idea would be eventually during the course of this time, to basically reopen, but in a very measured and deliberate way,” the former DHS chief said.

As DHS secretary during the George W. Bush administration, Chertoff simulated how to respond to a pandemic. When asked whether the Trump administration is running his playbook, he said, “Our playbook, of course, was something that was built about 15 years ago. Some of the elements of the playbook I think we see running now. 

“I know, for example, Doctor Anthony Fauci worked closely with us 20 years ago on this, and he is still very much involved and engaged. I think some areas where there's been perhaps a shortfall has been in the stockpiling of medical equipment and protective gear, which was not present in sufficient quantities when this began,” Chertoff said.

“And there was a bit of a delay, perhaps, in recognizing that we needed to deal with traveling from Europe, which turned out to be one of the major vectors for bringing the infection into the United States from other parts of the globe, but I always hasten to say that no crisis or emergency ever plays out exactly the way you've planned,” he said.

“What the planning should allow you to do is equip yourself and train yourself to adapt, and, fortunately, we have professionals in the health field and in Homeland Security who do understand how this works,” the former DHS secretary said.

Chertoff said that the presidential election “should definitely include mail-in ballots.”

“There's never been a demonstration of widespread fraud or misbehavior in mail-in ballots. Actually, many years ago, I prosecuted somebody who committed an election fraud, but it just was a handful of ballots for people who were incapacitated. The positive side of mail-in ballots is it allows people to vote without putting themselves at risk for long lines in an actual physical election voting sites,” he said.

“The other thing we can do in addition to mail-in is to have many more sites for curbside voting where you drive up and you can deposit your ballot right on the site and it's in lockdown. So having the most options possible is the best way to make sure people get to exercise their very important franchise as voters,” Chertoff added.

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