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What virus? At GOP’s convention, pandemic is largely ignored

Jill Colvin
Associated Press

Washington – It was a scene from a bygone era: Vice President Mike Pence shaking hands with and fist-bumping audience members who rushed forward, shoulder to shoulder, to greet him and the president after Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention.

No one appeared concerned about social distancing at Wednesday night’s gathering at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Few wore masks. Some people told reporters they had not been tested for the coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands after speaking on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Expect an even more striking scene Thursday night, when more than 1,000 people assemble on the South Lawn of the White House for President Donald Trump’s renomination acceptance speech. That’s an eye-popping crowd in a time of a a global pandemic that has forced the cancellation of large gatherings, from sports events and concerts to weddings and funerals.

As Trump has tried to push past a virus that has tanked the economy and threatened his reelection, GOP organizers have worked to stage a convention that puts the pandemic in the rear view mirror and highlights the nation’s progress. But 42,000 new cases were reported on Wednesday and U.S. deaths have topped 2,700 since the week began.

Attendees listen as First lady Melania Trump speaks on the second night of the Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. Few masks were worn.

Few convention speakers have made reference to the virus; others have discussed it in the past tense.

“It was awful. Health and economic impacts were tragic,” said White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on the convention’s second night. “But presidential leadership came swiftly and effectively with an extraordinary rescue for health and safety to successfully fight the COVID virus.”

The display stands in jarring contrast with the Democrats, who dispensed with audiences at live speeches. At their convention last week, presidential nominee Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris wore masks outside even as they stood apart from one another.

“Is coronavirus gone? Is COVID-19 gone?” Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders asked Thursday on a call with reporters. “I didn’t see any masks or social distancing happening during the vice president’s speech last night. So, the reality is, there is a lack of leadership here.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway prepares to tape her speech for the third day of the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

To be sure, the Republicans’ event looked very different from past conventions. Because of the virus, the GOP canceled what would have been mass gatherings drawing thousands to North Carolina or Florida, and they have been consulting with a coronavirus adviser. Indoor speeches were delivered without audiences. But outdoor events have featured guests.

That included a Rose Garden address Tuesday by first lady Melania Trump, who spoke about the toll of virus, and Pence’s speech Wednesday, delivered in front of about 100 people, including Pence’s family and wounded veterans.

Chairs were positioned at Fort McHenry with some space between them, but many in the crowd rushed to the front at the end to greet Pence, Trump and their wives. While the president and first lady appeared to keep their distance, Pence was seen shaking hands, exchanging fist bumps, and at one point accepting a small gift from an audience member. Few in the crowd were seen wearing masks.

The White House and campaign refused to say how many in attendance had been tested Wednesday or would be Thursday. White House spokesman Judd Deere said only that “those in close proximity to the president and vice president are tested.”

Guidance sent to invited guests for Thursday’s event from the Republican National Committee makes clear that masks will not be required on the South Lawn, but are required upon arrival and in security screening areas and encouraged in “high traffic areas including restrooms and hospitality spaces.”

Guests have also been asked to “practice social distancing whenever possible” and stay home if they’re displaying coronavirus symptoms, have recently tested positive for the virus or have been in recent close contact with someone who has.

But the refusal to abide by other widely accepted mitigation recommendations – including those promoted by the president’s own heath agencies – confounded public health experts watching at home.

“The president and the entire RNC, they had an opportunity to show the seriousness of this pandemic, which is the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes, and it’s extremely concerning that only did they not discuss precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, they are going against all of our public health guidance,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy at The George Washington University and the former health commissioner of Baltimore.

Wen noted that mass gatherings pose the highest risk for transmitting the disease, and expressed concern both that Baltimore could see an increase in cases and that the display might lead viewers to believe that, they, too, can gather in groups and not wear masks.

Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University, said the event was focused on a different goal: bolstering Trump’s reelection chances.

“The president and the vice president are very aware that if people are going back to work and their kids are actually in school and they feel somewhat safe, the incumbent will have an advantage in the election,” he said. “They’re trying to do things to say that the risk of COVID is much less than public health and other people are saying.”

Even if the convention tries to stress progress made against the virus, the threat remains very much on the minds of some White House officials. Aides have been warily watching the calendar, concerned that Labor Day weekend activities might trigger another spike in infections, just as they believe happened on Memorial Day, according to three White House and campaign officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

They are also monitoring the impact of large protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller and Will Weissert contributed to this report.