DETROIT—When Haley Levinsky arrived at Renaissance High School to volunteer at former Vice President Joe Biden’s final rally before Michigan goes to the polls on Tuesday, she did not expect to be assigned to Purell duty.
“I don’t know what other campaigns’ strategy is to fight coronavirus,” Levinsky, a 21-year-old from Wilmington, Delaware, said as she squirted a dollop of hand sanitizer into the open hand of an attendee, “but apparently this is ours.”
“I just try to come to the nearest events and do what they need, and today, they needed me to do this,” she laughed.
Residents of Seattle have been asked not to gather in groups of more than 10 people. Prisoners in New York have been conscripted into manufacturing a “state hand sanitizer” to help replenish empty grocery store shelves. Fears on Wall Street of a potential pandemic have helped drive stocks to their steepest dive since the 2008 financial crisis.
On the campaign trail, however, the novel coronavirus is largely being treated as just another logistical problem to be solved, like setting up a private Wi-Fi or renting enough portable toilets.
The coronavirus outbreak has already felled SXSW, Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and Italy, making massive political rallies, filled with voters packed shoulder to shoulder, some of the last remaining large-scale events that haven’t been cancelled to prevent its spread. But with the Democratic primaries at a critical juncture and President Donald Trump’s continuing preference for high-spectacle rallies with audiences numbering in the tens of thousands, no one seemed to be in a hurry to cancel them.
But candidates and campaigns are quietly indicating that they appreciate the risk of crowding thousands or tens of thousands of people into enclosed spaces for long periods of time. Ersatz decontamination stations have begun appearing at the entrances of rallies here in Michigan, lines of off-brand hand sanitizer serving as an unspoken request that attendees at least cough into their elbows.
At Biden’s get-out-the-vote rally in Detroit on Monday evening, for example, 14 bottles of hand sanitizers of varying brands, sizes, scents and germ-killing effectiveness—mileage varied from 99.95 percent to 99.99 percent, cucumber to plain—were displayed hectically on a table near the press filing area.
At least, until attendees started filing by.
“Yeah, so... I don’t know where those went,” Levinsky told The Daily Beast, surveying the table where roughly 10 bottles had mysteriously disappeared. “I did hear one little kid say, ‘I’m gonna take one of these,’ but I don’t know if he did!”
At a public health roundtable about the novel coronavirus at the airport Westin earlier that day, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign allocated one bottle of hand sanitizer per table, as well as at the check-in station.
At the roundtable’s outset, the Vermont senator, flanked by a mix of public health experts and political allies from the medical world, condemned the “reckless statements” by Trump about COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, calling Trump’s assertion that people could still work while ill possibly “the stupidest advice ever made by a president of the United States,” but spent most of his speaking time linking the specific crisis posed by the coronavirus outbreak in the context of his larger political platform, particularly in relation to access to healthcare.
“In the midst of a potential pandemic, no one should be stopping themselves from going to the doctor simply because they are afraid they cannot afford it,” Sanders said. “It’s a little hard to wash your hands and keep clean if you don’t have running water because you are too poor to pay your water bill.”
Speaking at the roundtable, Dr. Abul El-Sayed, a onetime gubernatorial candidate and former executive director of the Detroit Health Department, predicted that the mitigation protocols could be “dire,” including “mandated reductions in congregation, limitations on public transit, [and] limitations on inter-state travel.” But Sanders hedged on whether such protocols, which are directly at odds with modern campaigning, might be used to limit his own events.
“It is an issue that we think about all the time,” said Sanders. “Every rally is held only after consultation with local public health officials.”
The tension between rallying supporters in a tight primary race and ensuring public health was in vivid display at Sanders’ rally in Ann Arbor the night before, when an estimated 10,000 people crowded to see him speak at the center of campus at the University of Michigan—most of them bypassing a small hand sanitizer station near the public entrance without availing themselves.
Other campaigns are making more direct appeals for voters to limit their exposure to the virus, with mixed results. At a campaign event in Tampa on Sunday night, Dr. Jill Biden told attendees that out of an abundance of caution, that night’s photo line would still happen, but with a healthy physical distance between the photo’s subjects, less the former second lady accidentally become a vector for the virus.
Though Biden dutifully held her hands behind her back for the duration of the queue, participants were occasionally too exuberant to follow her example, wrapping their arms around Biden’s shoulders and closely sharing words of encouragement.
Biden, for his part, appeared open to following the consensus of public health experts on whether large rallies should be cancelled or postponed in the near future to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“If they conclude that there shouldn’t be big indoor rallies, then we’ll stop big indoor rallies,” Biden told NBC News on Monday. “We’re going to do whatever they say.”
Privately, the Biden campaign is even considering putting a hold on in-person fundraisers with the candidate, although officials declined to comment on the possibility.
“The Biden campaign will continue to closely follow guidance offered by federal and local public health officials on the types of events we hold and how we execute them,” a Biden official told The Daily Beast in a statement. “In contrast with our current president, who not only doesn’t amplify the guidance that the experts offer—but directly contradicts it—Vice President Biden and our team will lead by example in following expert advice and complying with reasonable risk mitigations.”
One candidate, of course, has declined to make even that rudimentary protective measure available. President Trump, an acknowledged germophobe whose skepticism of the potential pandemic’s scope, size and scale is nonetheless well documented, responded to a question last week about the responsibility of holding massive indoor rallies by bragging about the size of his crowds.
“No, I haven’t,” Trump said on Saturday, after a reporter asked him whether he had considered not holding campaign rallies. “I’ll tell you what, I haven’t had any problems filling them. I mean, we just had one in North Carolina, South Carolina—all over the place. And we have tens of thousands of people standing outside the arena... It doesn’t bother me at all and it doesn’t bother them at all.”
Trump, who is belligerently hostile to science and prone to suspicion that all obstacles are part of a massive and intricate plot to undermine him, also appears not to have been tested for the virus, despite direct exposure with numerous lawmakers who have self-quarantined after shaking hands with a coronavirus-infected man later at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.
Biden and Sanders are, at least publicly, taking the same attitude with their own health, despite questions about the potential risk that the novel coronavirus poses to candidates who are 73, 77, and 78 years old, respectively.
“Well, I’m surrounded by medical health experts, first of all,” Sanders said at the roundtable, brushing off a question about how he was personally approaching the issue. “I am running for president of the United States, and that requires a whole lot more than shaking hands.”
But Levinsky, the volunteer tasked with sanitizing voters’ hands, said that at least on the campaign trail, that grip-and-grins are nothing to, well, sneeze at.
“I’m sure they’ll keep doing it,” Levinsky said, gesturing to the two other volunteers given a bottle of hand sanitizer. “Because Joe shakes a lot of hands—a lot of hands.”