Absolutely no one thought Donald Trump and his U.S. re-election campaign would learn their lesson after a plague rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June that local officials later said likely helped fuel an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. So it comes as no surprise that event organisers at the Republican National Convention over the past week took only half-assed precautions to guard against the virus — and also didn’t enforce them.
Trump has made a spectacular mess of the pandemic and the GOP tried its hardest to steer clear of the topic throughout the entire event. Estimates of the death toll during Trump’s tenure range from over 181,000 to well over 200,000 — and thanks in large part to the president’s denialism, Republicans and Trump supporters in particular have lagged far behind the rest of the U.S. in adopting basic precautions like wearing masks or socially distancing. This was quite apparent at the RNC, which unlike the Democratic convention, recklessly charged ahead with numerous in-person events.
According to the Charlotte Observer, local hospitals carried out some 792 coronavirus tests for the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina — an epicentre of the pandemic in the state, and the location where delegates to the RNC amassed this week. New case numbers in Mecklenburg County have fallen significantly since June, but have remained at over a hundred each day through most of August.
The 336 GOP delegates were tested when they arrived the week before the RNC and questioned about symptoms. Yet they were allowed to mingle freely at restaurants and events as well as travel over the weekend, the Observer reported, raising the prospect of a covid-positive attendee spreading it to others before they received test results. Complicating the situation is that many attendees at both the pre-convention events and the actual RNC itself declined to wear masks (despite organisers supposedly requiring they do so) and did not engage in social distancing.
On Monday, the Observer wrote, Trump made a surprise appearance in Charlotte and watched them do the YMCA:
Shortly after, delegates swiftly converged near the stage of the Richardson Ballroom as President Donald Trump came to the podium for a surprise speech. Attendees, packed close to one another, danced the YMCA after the speech concluded — with many still not wearing face coverings.
When asked why they allowed delegates to do this, an RNC staff member said that that was the purview of the U.S. Secret Service. The Secret Service did not reply to a request for comment.
Some four individuals, including two attendees and two local workers, received positive results for the virus. It’s not known how many people may have been exposed, although attendees wore badges that tracked which people they had been in contact with, and the duration of the interaction.
“It was disappointing to see reports that the RNC failed to follow through on their plan, potentially putting attendees and North Carolinians at risk,” a spokesperson for North Carolina Department of Health secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen told the Observer.
County officials have no evidence as of yet that RNC attendees actually transmitted the virus, the Observer wrote:
For now, Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris has said the convention posed no infection risk to the greater Charlotte area.
“There have been no known incidences during the five days of RNC meetings in Charlotte where the public has potentially been exposed to an individual involved in the event (local or otherwise) who may have tested positive for COVID,” Harris said in a statement Tuesday.
However, it can take weeks for health officials to notice upticks in infections, as the virus has an incubation period of up to two weeks or longer. It’s also possible for people to transmit the coronavirus asymptomatically or before they develop symptoms.
Some 1,500 Trump supporters showed up to the president’s nomination acceptance speech on Thursday evening at the South Lawn of the White House, and the stream of the event showed that face-mask wearing attendees were a distinct minority. (Slate looked at photos of the event and couldn’t find one where more than roughly 15 per cent of individuals pictured were wearing masks.)
According to the Washington Post, Trump campaign and convention officials admitted that the “vast majority” of the crowd was not given rapid coronavirus tests, meaning it is totally unknown how many attendees may have been infected by the coronavirus. One White House official justified the lack of testing by claiming the large number of people made it unfeasible.
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Trump’s speech was outdoors, where the risk of infection is known to be considerably lower. For example, surveys have strongly suggested that far larger mass protests against police brutality and racism this summer across the country were not a significant driver of coronavirus spikes. In fact, a survey of 40,000 protest attendees released by Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers university researchers this month found a “clear and significant negative correlation between the percentage of a state’s population who reported protesting and the subsequent increase in cases of COVID-19.”
However, the vast majority of protesters wore masks, and unlike attendees at the White House event, were generally not sitting inches from each other in the same place for hours. There was no mask requirement for attendees — whether for ideology or to avoid photos of Trump surrounded by masks, who’s to say — and chairs were barely separated.
Two attendees told the Post that they had not even been screened for basic symptoms of the virus for Trump’s speech, such as a cough or elevated body temperature. The paper noted that attendees at Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in Baltimore, Maryland, had their temperatures taken and were questioned about travel and symptoms, but were otherwise not tested. Melania Trump also gave a speech in the White House Rose Garden. Elderly people, including disabled veterans, were present at all of these events; not all of these people wore masks.
Photos showed that Trump and other administration officials were in close contact with unmasked attendees during the RNC. Reporters indicated that only those who were in “close proximity” to Trump were given coronavirus tests prior to the speech on Thursday.
Can confirm this. People in what’s considered “close proximity” to potus were tested but not several hundred people in audience, who are seated right next to each other. https://t.co/2eVHpIfrpW
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 28, 2020
This wasn’t just the individual choices of attendees, but actively encouraged by the Trump administration, which only reluctantly began urging mask use last month but is unwilling to let go of its insistence that it is also a matter of personal “choice.” This wackadoodle conception of liberty as intransigence and contrarianism at all costs is still part of the administration’s inconsistent messaging. As the New York Times noted, the intro video for the final night of RNC warned that Democrats are “telling you what to wear.”
“When you look at the way the president has handled the pandemic, it has basically been one evasion after another evasion,” Johns Hopkins University Centre for Health Security infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja told the Post. “And when you see this type of event and the way he is acting and the way he is allowing his supporters to act, it cements the fact that they have never taken this outbreak seriously from the beginning.”
While one could chalk this all up to incompetence — and that’s certainly a part of it! — the recklessness on display is also deliberate, toxic disregard for consequences. According to CNN, an anonymous senior White House official justified the nonexistent safeguards at Trump’s speech by saying, “Everybody is going to catch this thing eventually.”