The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee this week criticized closing schools in his home state, California, as “way overkill” — even as President Trump came to a reckoning over the number of people who could die during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawmaker, Representative Devin G. Nunes, played down the gravity of the outbreak during a Tuesday night appearance on Fox News.
“Look, the schools were just canceled out here in California, which is way overkill,” Mr. Nunes said. “It’s possible kids could have went back to school in two weeks to four weeks, but they just canceled the rest of the schools.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Nunes, 46, who represents parts of Tulare and Fresno Counties, started trending on Twitter because of his comments, which were widely condemned.
Mr. Nunes’s criticism of stay-at-home orders came hours after Mr. Trump said that the United States was facing “a very, very painful two weeks.” At the same White House briefing on Tuesday, top public health officials warned that as many as 240,000 people in the country could die from the virus.
During the Fox interview, Mr. Nunes continued to press for reopening parts of the country in the coming weeks, a view previously held by Mr. Trump.
“We have to focus on keeping people employed,” he said. “I will tell you this, if we don’t start to get people back to work in this country over the next week to two weeks, I don’t believe that we can wait until the end of April.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who ordered the 40 million residents of his state to stay at home on March 19, told CNN on Wednesday that the social distancing measures were vital to preventing the spread of the virus. He said that those states that had not issued stay-at-home orders needed to act.
“Our message is this: What are you waiting for?” Mr. Newsom said. “What more evidence do you need?”
This is not the first time that Mr. Nunes has been criticized for playing down the outbreak, which has killed at least 4,576 people and sickened more than 200,000 in the United States.
During another appearance on Fox News in mid-March, Mr. Nunes encouraged healthy Americans to continue to eat out at restaurants to soften the economic blow of the pandemic, contradicting the recommendations of health experts on social distancing.
On Tuesday, Mr. Nunes accused politicians and the media of fueling hysteria over the outbreak.
“Let’s stop looking at the death counters and let’s talk about how we can keep as many people employed as possible,” he said. “When you have people staying at home not taking care of themselves, you will end up with a hell of a lot more people dying by other causes than you will by the coronavirus.”
Mr. Nunes rose to prominence during the early part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. At the time, he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee but lost the gavel to Representative Adam B. Schiff of California when Democrats reclaimed control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.