President Trump has been repeatedly downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, including at the CDC on Friday when he insisted he was not worried about the risk the virus could pose at his political rallies or any other large public gatherings. He then reaffirmed that on Saturday — after the American Conservative Union (ACU) announced that an attendee of the organization’s recent CPAC event had tested positive for COVID-19. President Trump, Vice-President Pence, and numerous other senior Trump administration officials and Trump-orbiting celebrities went to the multi-day event, which was attended by thousands of conservatives from around the country.
In response to the report, a White House statement noted they were aware of the case, but that “at this time there is no indication that either President Trump or Vice-President Pence met with or were in close proximity to the attendee.” A CPAC statement released Saturday night concurred, explaining that the attendee was exposed to the virus prior to attending the event, did not interact with Trump or Pence, and never even went to the event’s main hall. However:
“I’m not concerned at all,” Trump told reporters on Saturday night at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, insisting he was not planning to scale back his campaign rallies because of the coronavirus, and that he was not worried about the virus having reached Washington, D.C. (The District’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced earlier in the day.)
“We’ll hold tremendous rallies,” said Trump.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference was held from February 26-29 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. The ACU said that the attendee with COVID-19 tested positive in New Jersey, where he remains hospitalized and isolated.
“Our children, spouses, extended family, and friends attended CPAC,” the statement read. “During this time, we need to remain calm, listen to our health-care professionals and support each other. We send this message in that spirit.”
Even if the attendee did not expose anyone at the conference to the coronavirus and Trump isn’t worried about the risk, the case may bring home the reality of the coronavirus to others at CPAC. So far there is at least anecdotal evidence that some Trump supporters have not been taking the virus seriously, in line with what Trump has said about the outbreak.
It’s also not totally clear what extra precautions Trump’s staff and the Secret Service are taking to protect the president from exposure to COVID-19 at public events, particularly when public health officials around the country are saying that without more widespread testing, it’s not possible to know how far the virus has spread within the country.
The president originally canceled his trip to the CDC on Friday after a staffer seemed to have contracted the illness, but their test came back negative and Trump ultimately decided to go anyway. Meanwhile, the White House imposed new restrictions on Friday and will now look into guests’ recent travel histories to make sure they haven’t been to an outbreak area. White House staff have also been given some limited guidance on prevention, per CNN:
Staffers recently received advisories about the coronavirus epidemic that focused on prevention and guidelines for what to do if experiencing coronavirus symptoms. The information distributed to staff included a one-pager from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention reminding people to wash their hands, stay home if they are sick and informing people of the coronavirus symptoms, similar to information health officials have publicly distributed or discussed.
One official said staffers have appeared more attuned to their health amid the outbreak, wiping down desks with anti-bacterial wipes and being more careful about sneezing into a tissue or arm. But aides have not received any formal guidance on workplace procedures if the virus escalates further, like lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently received, according to officials.
Numerous reports have indicated that Trump — a notorious germophobe — was already the hand-sanitizer-in-chief long before the COVID-19 outbreak. “When somebody sneezes — I mean, I try and bail out as much as possible when they’re sneezing,” Trump said at a coronavirus press conference last week.
But while Trump may not have much close contact with the masses at his political events, his supporters and staff do. As large scale events around the country continue to be canceled out of concern over the coronavirus, the president will eventually have to either decide to suspend big events during the outbreak or push ahead and risk the health of his supporters, even if that risk is low. At a time when the president is already trying to project confidence about the U.S. coronavirus response, and denying any missteps by his administration, Trump could be damned either way. Or maybe he has already made his decision: As of Saturday, he has no future rallies on his schedule. And according to ABC News, his campaign has also started thinking through how they might adjust to cancellations:
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told ABC News on Saturday that they were “proceeding as normal” with the reelection events, though Trump currently has no rallies on his public schedule … While there haven’t been changes in planning so far around the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump campaign has held discussions about what to do if the rallies have to be put on hold, which currently isn’t the plan, two campaign sources told ABC News.
“We will announce rallies when we are ready to do so,” a Trump campaign spokesperson claimed.