MIAMI—Fresh off a vice presidential debate where he sported a reddish, sickly-looking eye, Vice President Mike Pence appears to be charging ahead with a plan to visit America’s largest retirement community in the critical swing state of Florida.
But with the White House battling a spiraling COVID-19 outbreak, not everyone in the traditionally Trumpy stronghold of The Villages will be happy to see him.
On Saturday, Pence is slated to stop by the 55-and-older community in Sumter County as part of a campaign bus tour through the Sunshine State. The VP would arrive in The Villages as President Donald Trump’s support with senior citizens has shown signs of a drop-off in recent months—and with the president dealing with his own case of the novel coronavirus.
Unlike Trump, who is already making noise about returning to the campaign trail, Pence has not announced a positive test result for COVID-19. But the vice president’s proximity to the growing number of White House staffers who have contracted the virus after a now notorious Rose Garden event has some Villagers—and infectious disease experts—running scared.
“The virus was a hoax here until Trump got it,” Chris Stanley, president of The Villages Democratic Club, said of the MAGA crowd’s attitude. “The other night they did a prayer vigil and for the first time, they posted in a big font, ‘You must wear a mask.’ I looked on the webcam and didn’t see many wearing masks, but they now seem to be accepting this is not a Democrat hoax at all.”
Marissa Levine, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida, said it was on elected officials to demonstrate safe habits. That category does not include campaign rallies among vulnerable communities when you have recently been proximal to a possible superspreader event.
“It is really important for leaders to role-model the behaviors that are being recommended from a public health point of view,” Levine told The Daily Beast. “In effect, they are flouting the CDC guidelines.”
People exposed to COVID-19 should comply with adequate testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures, especially when preparing to meet with senior citizens, Levine said. “In an area where there are individuals, based on age alone, at higher risk for complication and death, that seems like a concerning thing to do,” she said of a Pence Villages visit.
Sumter County, where a majority of the sprawling housing development is located, has reported a total of 2,593 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. Two hundred and sixty people have been hospitalized and 75 have died—a mortality rate of 3 percent of all positive cases, which is 1 percentage point higher than the statewide average for deaths, according to the latest update from the Florida Department of Health.
Over the past week, Sumter County has experienced some of the highest daily positivity rates in the state. On Sept. 30, the daily positivity rate was 21.86 percent. Then it dropped below 10 percent for six consecutive days. But on Oct. 7, the daily positivity rate sprang up to 15.3 percent. The daily case count jumped from just 14 on Tuesday to 98 on Wednesday.
The Trumpian response to the pandemic has created fissures in the president’s once seemingly impregnable wall of support in The Villages, where an overwhelming majority of the 132,000 residents are white, conservative voters. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Trump won Sumter and the two surrounding counties of Lake and Marion by 115,000 votes in 2016, nearly 40,000 more votes than Mitt Romney picked up four years earlier.
By early summer, Democratic Villagers were mounting protests to counter roving golf cart caravans of Trump supporters. During one mid-June parade, protesters shouted “Nazi lovers” and “fuck Trump” at a parade of pro-Trump golf carts, prompting a white haired man to yell back, “white power!” The scene was captured on a video that went viral and was tweeted by Trump himself on June 28. The president deleted the tweet the same morning.
“There are a few people in every organization that want to be ugly, and that happens here too,” said Fred Briggs, a 79-year-old retired naval officer who’s resided in The Villages since 2012. “But there have been no physical confrontations. It’s just words. When you get to be our age, you realize your physical limitations and try not to exceed them.”
Since Trump tested positive, the White House has been cartoonishly slow to share details about the virus’s spread, especially as it pertains to an event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in the Rose Garden that has been linked to more than 30 cases. The administration has conducted selective contact tracing at best, leading to concerns about yet-undetected cases among other officials and staff. Announcements and news reports of new White House COVID cases have emerged steadily for days, and Trump quickly returned home after a hospital stay this week, infamously removing his mask before he went inside.
The Villages’ administration isn’t coordinating Pence’s visit; the vice president’s invitation came from an “independent” organizer, not the official Villages staff, a representative for the community told The Daily Beast, adding that she could not comment on COVID precautions for the event because she had “no clue” who’d arranged it.
The Trump campaign, for its part, insisted the Pence rally would be a safe one, despite a long tradition of risky arena events dating back long before the president got sick. “We take strong precautions for campaign events,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Every attendee has their temperature checked, masks are provided and their use is encouraged, and there is plenty of hand sanitizer.”
John Calandro, who recently served as president of the Sumter County Republican Executive Committee, said the Pence visit would take place with adequate precautions—even as he nodded to the anxiety in the area.
“I know things will be fairly socially distant,” he told The Daily Beast on Thursday, adding that he was on his way to examine the event setup. The Trump campaign was taking the lead in planning the event, he said.
“I certainly don't think any of us will get real close to him,” he added of Pence, laughing.
Ed Brennan, a Democrat living in The Villages, said he wasn’t scared, but that Trump supporters were notoriously enthusiastic about campaign visits, which didn’t exactly lend itself to pandemic safety.
“The last time Trump was down here, we had a whole bunch of screaming Trump people,” he told The Daily Beast. “I went down to the square to watch. I was accused of George Soros paying me, and I should be in jail because I supported Democrats.”
He predicted mask use at the event would be hit or miss.
Judy Pristaw, a member of the Villages Democratic Club, said her group was steering clear of the Pence party—but also that Trump’s own COVID diagnosis might have scared some sense into others in the area.
“A couple restaurants told me that the day he tested positive, restaurants weren’t as crowded that night,” she said. “But I think people who like Trump are just as excited about him as we are about electing Joe Biden.”
On Wednesday, ahead of the VP debate, face-covered Villagers in 400 golf carts decked out in Biden-Harris signs participated in a caravan to deliver mail-in ballots to the Sumter County Supervisor of Elections, Stanley, the Democratic club president, recalled. “People are revved up, man,” she said. “They are excited.”
But Robin Viger, a volunteer with the Villages Democratic Club who knows a family of three who came down with the disease, was more focused on the immediate danger of the vice president coming to town than electoral prospects.
“I’m opposed,” she said. “I don’t want him here. I don’t want the virus.”