PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s a familiar sight at President Donald Trump’s rallies: few face masks, a limited attempt at social distancing — and no regard for health guidelines.
As the coronavirus rages through the White House, sending Trump to the hospital last week and infecting nearly 30 people directly connected to him, the Trump re-election campaign shows no signs of acknowledging the reality of the deadly virus.
At a campaign rally in a Phoenix suburb Thursday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence spoke to a crowd of a few hundred mostly maskless supporters in an outdoor lot at TYR Tactical, a company that manufactures body armor equipment for police SWAT teams.
Supporters crowded together as they made their way through a gated entrance and packed into tight lines as they went through security. While folding chairs appeared to have been set up with some attempt to follow social distancing, those efforts were quickly abandoned as people flooded in, dragging chairs to better position themselves to see the vice president. Others huddled together in the shade, seeking respite from the sun.
Hand sanitizer and face masks were provided, but their use was not enforced.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., a close ally of the president, made her way through the crowd at the end of the event, shaking hands and chatting with supporters without wearing a face mask.
“He’s going to be back on the road and in the fight before you know it,” Pence promised the crowd, thanking them for their “outpouring of concern” for Trump’s health.
As Trump continues to run behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national and key battleground state polls, some Republicans had hoped that Trump would use his coronavirus diagnosis as an opportunity to strike a different tone on the pandemic that has claimed more than 210,000 American lives and left millions more sick or unemployed.
Instead, the campaign is plowing ahead with its strategy to project normalcy.
The Trump campaign held numerous events on Thursday, deploying their top surrogates around the country as part of their “Operation MAGA” plan to keep supporters energized as Trump recovers from the virus.
Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle held an indoor campaign event in Panama City Beach, Florida. Eric Trump rallied supporters in Monroe, North Carolina, posting pictures of himself interacting with voters. Many attendees did not wear face masks and there appeared to be no social distancing.
“We take strong precautions for campaign events. Every attendee has their temperature checked, masks are provided and their use is encouraged, and there is plenty of hand sanitizer,” said Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, when asked about what safety measures were being taken in light of the recent Covid-19 outbreak among White House and campaign aides.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines advise against mass gatherings, especially indoors.
On Thursday, Trump said he would not participate in the next debate on Oct. 15 after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would be virtual given that the CDC has said a person with a severe case of Covid-19 can be contagious from 10 to 20 days after symptom onset. Trump’s physician later in the day said the president could start public events in the coming days and campaign then called for the commission to reverse their decision.
In lieu of a debate, Trump said he would hold a campaign rally.
Trump began experiencing symptoms sometime around Oct. 1. Some of his staff members who would typically travel to debates with him have been diagnosed even more recently than the president.
“This is clearly a strategy,” said Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland.”
“It seems to me an admission of failure. They’ve really lost the narrative on the coronavirus so instead of taking the responsible path, they’re doubling down. It’s to hide their responsibility.”
Trump, who has downplayed his own experience with the virus even though he was given oxygen and a steroid treatment, seems to have used his diagnosis to deepen his supporters’ conviction that the virus is nothing to worry about.
“I had a family member die from Covid. But still, I think this Covid thing is overblown,” said Jeanette Colbert, 58, from Anthem, Arizona, who voted for Obama twice and supported Trump in 2016. “You can’t be handcuffed. We had a tuberculosis outbreak and we didn’t wear masks then.”
Steve, a retiree from Phoenix who did not want his full name published, said that his first thought when he heard of Trump’s diagnosis was “someone gave it to him on purpose, with all that protection he gets as president.”
“Just because there’s a virus doesn’t mean my freedoms can be taken away from me,” he said, adding that he disagreed with mask mandates and would not be wearing one during Pence’s campaign speech.
Corky Haynes, 72, from Peoria, said she never wore a mask and neither did her 91-year-old mother. Trump’s Covid-19 experience was further evidence, she said, that the death rate was inaccurate.
“I don’t wear it because I have CS. Do you know what that is? Common sense,” said Haynes. “I know if I get the coronavirus, I’ll be fine.”