The campaigns for the two Democratic candidates have started to heed public health officials’ warnings about the dangers of campaigning during the coronavirus outbreak. President Donald Trump has taken a more muddled approach.
A week ago, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign told Vox it wasn’t planning on canceling rallies or other public events but was monitoring the outbreak. Now his campaign, along with that of Sen. Bernie Sanders have begun canceling events.
Both candidates canceled rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, last night after being warned off by local public health officials. Sanders was scheduled to hold an event at a Cleveland convention center as primary election results were set to begin coming in from several states Tuesday evening.
“Out of concern for public health and safety, we are canceling tonight’s rally in Cleveland. We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak,” Sanders campaign spokesperson Mike Casca said in a statement.
After initially saying that their own campaign event would go on, the Biden campaign ended up canceling a similar event in Cleveland after local health officials discouraged large gatherings in the area.
As of March 11, 1,050 people in the US have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease stemming from novel coronavirus, and 29 people have died from it, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Public health officials have warned people from attending large gatherings of people where germs could be easily spread among many people quickly, in order to prevent transmission of the virus.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the United States,” Nancy Messonnier, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told reporters on February 25. “It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”
Many states and localities have ordered cancellation of large gatherings and events, and numerous conferences, including SXSW in Austin, Texas and Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, Washington, have either canceled or postponed. And concern over spreading Covid-19 finally hit the political world after several elected officials at an annual conservative conference were notified that an attendee they had come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
Trump’s reelection campaign, however, doesn’t seem to be taking the situation as seriously.
Presidential campaign officials have a responsibility to protect rally attendees
Central to political campaigning is human contact. Canvassers knock on thousands of doors every day; candidates shake hands with voters and donors at a myriad of events; and supporters gather in large (and often raucous) crowds at rallies — all things that public health experts would advise against in the middle of an outbreak.
For public health officials, it all comes down to whether community spread is affecting an area hosting a campaign event.
“If you’re talking about a campaign rally tomorrow in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgement,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, at a press conference Monday. “If you want to talk about large gatherings in a place where you have community spread, I think that’s a judgement call. And if someone decides they want to cancel it, I wouldn’t publicly criticize it.”
So far, presidential campaign events had mostly gone on as usual — until Tuesday evening. After listening to local health officials, the campaigns for both of the two major remaining Democratic presidential candidates canceled their Cleveland rallies out of an abundance of caution. When campaigns were still hosting events, the Biden campaign had posted staffers at the doors for several events Monday to provide squirts of hand sanitizer to everybody attending.
Hand sanitizer — for all that it only goes so far, especially if an infected person is in attendance and spreading germs to others — has become a prerequisite for taking photos with Trump during fundraisers.
The Trump campaign did not return comment for a previous story on how campaign officials were planning contingencies for a coronavirus outbreak, but Trump himself has been adamant that he would continue holding rallies.
He defended holding a rally last Monday evening in Charlotte on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries early last week. “These were set up a long time ago,” Trump told reporters during his White House meeting last week with Colombian President Ivan Duque. “And you could ask that to the Democrats, because they’re having a lot of rallies, they’re all having rallies, they’re campaigning. I think it’s safe, I think it’s very safe.”
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told the Washington Post Tuesday, “The campaign is proceeding as normal.”
The campaign has dialed back on some public events, and currently does not have any big rallies featuring the president currently planned. First lady Melania Trump canceled a fundraiser in Beverly Hills due to a “scheduling conflict,” and the Trump campaign canceled a three-day bus tour through Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania featuring Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump that was supposed to start Monday.
However, the campaign maintains that none of the cancelations were related to fears over coronavirus.
In fact, on Tuesday the campaign announced a new event: one launching “Catholics for Trump” in Milwaukee on March 19. The Wisconsin event doesn’t appear to be a regular campaign rally, which often draws thousands of people in attendance, but it’s unclear how many are expected to attend. His campaign announced the event shortly after the White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, encouraged people to “avoid crowding.”
At this point, with the World Health Organization declaring novel coronavirus a pandemic, campaigns have a duty to protect their supporters, staff, and the candidates themselves. It remains to be seen what modern campaigning during a global pandemic will look like.