President Donald Trump continues to hold large campaign events that public health experts say could lead to more infections and death amid a raging pandemic that has cost 200,000 American lives and counting.
The U.S. reached the grim milestone this week as Trump addressed thousands of supporters who were jammed together, mostly without masks, in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, where he mocked his Democratic rival Joe Biden for wearing a face mask.
Trailing badly in the polls and fighting for reelection, Trump has flouted coronavirus restrictions by rallying supporters at crucial battleground states across the country. He has two campaign events scheduled this week in Florida and Virginia.
The president and his supporters defended holding rallies by calling them “peaceful protests,” justifying skirting state rules limiting gatherings by pointing to national demonstrations against racial injustice. His allies also believe the images of crowded events compared to those of Biden, who has eschewed them out of safety, are a positive sign of enthusiasm for the president.
But Democrats say Trump is putting at risk the health of not only his own supporters but the general public, who could become infected by rallygoers days after the events are over.
“He’s got superspreader events all over the country,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told HuffPost. “I think it’s completely irresponsible for the president of the United States to be encouraging people to jeopardize their health.”
At least one person who attended Trump’s Freeland, Michigan, rally on Sept. 10 has since tested positive for the coronavirus, according to NBC. Michigan health officials could not confirm whether the person contracted the disease at the event, which drew about 10,000 people, according to CNN.
After holding a packed indoor rally in Nevada earlier this month that drew condemnation from the state’s Democratic governor, Trump suggested to a reporter that he is not worried about contracting COVID-19 at his rallies because he is on a stage that is “very far away.”
“I’m not at all concerned,” Trump said in an interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal.
He again attempted to downplay the pandemic at a campaign rally on Monday by saying it affects “elderly people with heart problems and other problems.”
“It affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing,” he added.
Republicans, especially those running for reelection, have tried to project a different message to the public by echoing public health officials and urging voters to wear masks and practice social distancing.
But as is the case with the vast majority of things Trump says or does, GOP lawmakers declined to directly criticize the president or urge him to change course.
“His supporters wouldn’t attend if they if thought they were at risk. He feels comfortable with his style and I don’t think it’s going to probably change,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Public health experts have repeatedly warned about the dangers of contracting coronavirus at social gatherings and unwittingly passing it on to more vulnerable groups, even if one doesn’t necessarily experience symptoms themselves.
“We know we could get into serious trouble if we don’t do certain things,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN this week. “And I hope that that understanding is not going to frighten people, but will jolt them into realizing that it is within our hands to prevent that.”
The retiring chairman of the Senate health committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), declined to comment on Wednesday when asked if Trump holding rallies amid a pandemic was appropriate.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he was glad that Trump is holding events outdoors, at least.
“It most certainly is better than inside,” Rounds added.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed, telling reporters last week that while “outdoor rallies would be better and social distancing would be better ... most of the people who attend those rallies are people who are going to come either way.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), meanwhile, said that everyone needed to be vigilant about taking steps to mitigate transmission but similarly declined to criticize the president.
“Anybody ― if I throw a birthday party ― I think we all need to be conscious of the setting that we invite people into,” Murkowski said.