Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has long refused to mandate masks in her state. What was new when she appeared with Donald Trump in Des Moines last week was his own recent case of COVID-19, and with it a new frontier of campaign-trail coronavirus recklessness.
Reynolds was visibly enthusiastic to be speaking to the large outdoor crowd at a rally for the president’s re-election on Wednesday. As she took the stage before Trump spoke, with state data showing Iowa at a new high for COVID-19 hospitalized patients, the governor could be seen on a livestream of the rally maskless, tossing hats into the audience before intoning, “This is an amazing, amazing crowd.”
“I am proud to be a governor that puts her trust in our people because they are responsible, they are resilient and they will do the right thing,” Reynolds said soon after.
The scene worried local officials like Connie Boesen, a Democrat serving as an at-large member of the city council. “Every place he's been, I mean I think every city should be concerned," Boesen said of the president, adding, “Everybody should be concerned, when you couldn't even protect the people at the White House.”
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, also a Democrat, said he was discouraged at the sight of Reynolds on stage not wearing a mask in front of the large crowd. “I had hoped that we could, as leaders, project a better example for our citizens on how we should handle ourselves during a pandemic,” he told The Daily Beast.
After testing positive and being hospitalized for COVID-19 earlier this month, the president returned to the campaign trail almost immediately, again playing down a pandemic that has now killed over 219,000 Americans. He held rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, before heading to Georgia on Friday night and Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada over the weekend.
At those events, the president found himself in the midst of GOP governors and members of Congress who rushed to publicly embrace his return to rallying with large, mask-skeptical crowds. A president who had just been sick was spurring common sense and back on the trail, and GOP leaders were on hand, amplifying what experts described as dangerous behavior.
The undercutting of public health may have been best displayed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was captured maskless on video posted by 10 Tampa Bay as he high-fived members of the crowd last Monday at a Trump rally in Sanford, Florida.
That display shows a lack of leadership, argued Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida, and he criticized “the modeling of the behavior on the podium which disregards the science, attempts to create distrust about the institutions, organizations and public health facts that we know work is only serving as a reservoir for continuing to spread this disease.”
“And it reflects a lack of responsibility and in some respects a lack of integrity among the leaders who are organizing, managing and participating in these events,” Wolfson told The Daily Beast.
The events are larger and pack more potential pandemic danger—both epidemiologically and in terms of the example they set—than the kind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participates in. While the former vice president also spoke without a mask during an event in North Carolina on Sunday, he could at least be seen wearing a face covering that he took off as he walked on stage. And in Michigan on Friday, he didn’t remove his mask until he was at the podium.
Jill Roberts, an associate professor focusing on communicable diseases at the University of South Florida, expressed worry about the president’s rallies and people saying, “‘Well, here's our governor, here's our president, and here's whoever not wearing a mask and not taking precautions and so there's no reason why we can't do that as well.’”
“And I think it can backslide into a lot of things," Roberts said. "Like, for example, if it's safe to hold a rally, why isn't it safe to hold a sporting event, why isn't it safe to hold a concert? Now us in public health would say, ‘Of course it isn't safe, we shouldn't be doing any of those things, including the rally.’”
None of that appears to bother the Florida Republican. A spokesperson for DeSantis said in an email “he chooses not to live in fear,” and also defended the president’s rallies by adding that “as to whether or not President Trump’s rallies increase COVID cases, there is no evidence for that nor is it a cause of concern.”
The disregard for health by the Trump orbit was again on display Friday night during a Trump rally in Macon, Georgia, that was attended by Republican leaders like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. The governor also walked on stage and spoke maskless before the president appeared, according to video from local television station WGXA, though he later tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask at the rally.
But at the same event, state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat who endorsed Trump and spoke at this year’s Republican National Convention, proudly crowd-surfed—and bragged about it on Twitter.
The following day in Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson further undercut public health advice before Trump even spoke, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when he told reporters that he usually passes on donning a mask while outside. According to the newspaper, he said of the rally, “I don't think this is particularly dangerous at all.”
Johnson, who has also had COVID-19 himself according to CNN, later joined Trump on stage. Both were maskless.
The Trump campaign’s defense is that they “take strong precautions” involving temperature checks and instructions for people to wear a mask. But experts say that doesn’t dilute the potential corrosive effect of large crowds and maskless faces that can clearly be seen in videos and photos, including of Trump himself.
Ahead of Trump’s visit, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers voiced his worries about the event during a press briefing Thursday. Wisconsin has become a major hotspot for the virus and reported a new high in one-day cases on Friday, according to state data. A state judge also halted an emergency order from Evers’ administration limiting capacity in bars and restaurants amid the outbreak last week.
“Unless something extraordinary happens between now and then, he'll be encouraging a superspreader event,” Evers warned Thursday. “And as governor of the state of Wisconsin I sure would ask him personally, have people wear a mask, have them be physically distant. I don't think he'll do that. There's been no indication that he's willing to do that. And that's just a problem. That's the wrong message, that's the wrong everything.”
Back in Iowa, Reynolds defended the rally and her participation in it when speaking to reporters, according to video from We Are Iowa Local News Five. The governor also said she wore a mask the “majority of the time” at the event when pressed.
“They have a right to peacefully gather and that was what took place (Wednesday) night," Reynolds said of the rally. "But they took the precautions, many wore a mask, and we were able to gather and that is Iowans’ rights and Americans’ rights to do that.”
Reynolds has also said when it comes to localities and their own mask orders, “we don't believe during a public health emergency that the local governments have the authority to supersede what has been put in place at the statewide level by the governor.” Still, a mask requirement has been put in place in cities like Des Moines.
But a leading Republican with the GOP in the county that hosted the Iowa event showed just how cavalier latter-day MAGA rallies can be. Connie Schmett, the co-chair of the Polk County Republican Party, conceded it was “probably 50/50” when it came to people wearing masks that day.
The self-described senior citizen made clear she doesn’t wear a mask in her daily life because she wants her freedom and doesn’t believe wearing a mask all the time is healthy, verbalizing the kinds of dubious pandemic thinking that frustrates health experts. She wore a mask as she entered the rally, but took it off once she was in the crowd, she said.
“It’s my constitutional right not to wear one,” she said, despite the clear public health advice that masks are a critical tool against the virus.
The rallies and the GOP governors participation sends a worrying message to the public, said Peter D. Jacobson, professor emeritus of health law and policy at the University of Michigan, who made clear that masks save lives.
“By making no attempt to demand that you wear masks and maintain a social distance they're sending a message that is frighteningly at odds with how to stop the disease,” Jacobson said.