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Biden returns to Michigan, calls for unity in fight against COVID-19

Grand Rapids — At the end of a week that shook the race for president, Democratic nominee Joe Biden returned Friday to Michigan, where he said the nation must come together to get COVID-19 under control.

Biden's visit — his second to the state in less than a month — came the same day President Donald Trump revealed that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the virus and three days after the first presidential debate in Cleveland.

Biden was also tested for the virus Friday, but his results came back negative. The situation was "not a matter of politics," the former vice president said.

"We have to take this virus seriously," he said in Grand Rapids. "It's not going away automatically. We have to do our part to be responsible."

The former vice president called for heeding science to save lives, expanding testing, instituting national mask mandates, and generally encouraging people to wear masks.

“Be patriotic," he said. "It’s not about being a tough guy. It’s about doing your part. Wearing a mask is not only going to protect you but also protects those around you."

He added: "Don't just do it for yourself. Do it for the people you love."

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 951 in Grand Rapids, Friday.

At the beginning of his 20-minute speech, Biden said his family is sending prayers to Trump. He spoke in a parking lot in front of an American flag outside the office of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, along a wooded street in Grand Rapids.

The crowd was limited to members of the media and about a dozen essential workers. Much of the address focused on economic policy, including boosting pay for essential workers, hiking the corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year.

The Democratic nominee ended the speech with a call for unity.

"We can get this pandemic under control," Biden said. "We can get our economy working again.

"But this cannot be a partisan moment. It must be an American moment. We have to come together as a nation."

The Nov. 3 election is more than 30 days away and absentee voting has already begun in Michigan, a state Trump won by 10,704 votes in 2016. It was his smallest margin of victory nationally, and he became the first GOP nominee to carry the state since 1988.

Grand Rapids is Michigan's second-largest city and is in Kent County, an area that will help decide who wins the state.

Trump claimed Kent County by 3 percentage points, fewer than 10,000 votes, in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Two years later, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won Kent County by 4 percentage points, or 11,641 votes, on her way to becoming governor.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden campaigned in Grand Rapids.

In an interview Thursday, Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, criticized Biden for the small events with limited crowds he's been holding during the pandemic.

"I'm not worried about it at all," Cox said of the Grand Rapids visit. "The president has unbelievable enthusiasm across the state for him."

At Friday's event in Grand Rapids, reporters and a small group of Biden supporters wore masks and sat in folding chairs with a white circle surrounding each to maintain social distance.

Biden was supposed to have two events in the city Friday but decided it was "best not to do" the second, a voter mobilization function with a larger crowd, after talking with experts.

As of Friday, there had been 7.3 million cases of the virus in the U.S. and 208,000 deaths linked to it, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

The former vice president last visited Michigan on Sept. 9, when he spoke to a group in Warren and met with steelworkers in a backyard in Detroit.

Trump's campaign has focused on large rallies outdoors. Thousands gathered for a rally at an airport hangar in Freeland near Midland and Saginaw on Sept. 10, the president's last visit to Michigan. Trump held another airport rally in Swanton, Ohio, near the Michigan border, on Sept. 21.

It had been unclear whether Biden's trip to Michigan would proceed as planned after Trump revealed early Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Biden appeared on the debate stage with Trump on Tuesday.

"I’m happy to report that Jill and I have tested negative for COVID," Biden said on Twitter. "Thank you to everyone for your messages of concern. I hope this serves as a reminder: wear a mask, keep social distance, and wash your hands."

Trump for months has downplayed the seriousness of the virus while he has campaigned for re-election. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Friday the president is experiencing "mild" symptoms, and that other senior White House officials had tested negative for COVID-19.  

Later Friday, the White House said Trump would spend "a few days" at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

Trump's campaign on Friday postponed previously announced events where the president or one of the members of the first family were to appear, saying some would be converted to virtual events.

Vice President Mike Pence, who tested negative for the virus Friday, planned to resume his scheduled campaign events, according to the Trump campaign.

Grand Rapids is part of the 3rd Congressional District, a seat held by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Cascade Township. Amash is a former Republican who has clashed with Trump and decided against running for re-election.

Now, Democrats are hoping to flip the district that's been long held by Republicans. Their candidate is immigration attorney Hillary Scholten of Grand Rapids. The GOP candidate is Peter Meijer, a military veteran and grandson of the founder of the Meijer supermarket chain.

Democrats haven't made a strong push to win the district since it was redrawn for the 2012 election. Amash, who was first elected in 2010, was re-elected in 2016 by a 22-point margin. In 2018 — with Democrats still not spending money on the district — Amash won by 11 points.

Scholten appeared with Jill Biden when she stopped in Grand Rapids on Sept. 15.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com