If it was up to Patrick Austin, President Donald Trump would hold off from heading to Sanford, Florida, on Monday for his first major campaign rally since being hospitalized with COVID-19.
But the local city commissioner had no illusions that not much could be done to stop the president once he’s made a decision like this, for what the president bragged on Twitter would be “a very BIG RALLY!”
“He has the right to do it,” Austin said early Sunday afternoon. “I just don’t think it’s the right time.”
When Trump speaks at Orlando Sanford International Airport Monday night, it will be one week since he left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after announcing in the early hours of Oct. 2 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Rallies in Pennsylvania and Iowa later this week will follow the Florida trip.
Late Saturday, the White House released a carefully worded letter from the president’s physician saying the president “is no longer considered a transmission risk to others.” But the letter did not specifically say the president had tested negative for COVID-19.
While Austin said he didn’t think the event was “a huge health scare for our community” when it comes to the crowd, citing a mask order in place in the county, he wasn’t without concerns about the timing of Trump’s appearance. In a text message Sunday morning, he said, “I’m still skeptical and wish he’d be more conservative. A few extra days just to be safe would be nice, no matter any tests or press releases.”
“I’m worried about anybody that has had COVID or tested positive being out in the community in less than two weeks,” Austin said in an interview shortly after. “It could be the president, it could be my worst enemy. I don’t care who it is. They shouldn’t be out in public.”
Trump’s rallies during the pandemic have alarmed health experts, but Monday’s rally may come to be the most stunning example yet of the president trying to push away the harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic with election day coming ever closer.
Trump claimed without evidence later on Sunday he “tested totally negative,” according to NBC News, but there has been no release from the White House at press time.
After hearing the announcement Friday afternoon that Sanford would be the president’s first major rally following the health scare, some local business owners were alarmed. One local business owner, who asked to be quoted anonymously over fears of hurting their business, told The Daily Beast: “No person in their right mind would do this and risk so many people.”
Another local business owner called the planned rally “crazy.”
“Do I think it’s safe to have this rally? No I don’t,” they said. “Am I kind of just over it all? Yes. Am I worried that it’s not good for our community health wise? Yeah, I don’t think it’s good for our community.”
And the Trump campaign carried a familiar warning and liability waiver for people registering for the event on its website, saying “by registering for this event, you understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”
“We take strong precautions for our campaign events,” the campaign said in a statement. “Every attendee has their temperature checked, is provided a mask they’re instructed to wear, and has access to plenty of hand sanitizer. We also have signs at our events instructing attendees to wear their masks.”
The last major rally Trump had before publicly disclosing his positive COVID-19 test came on Wednesday, Sept. 30 in Duluth, Minnesota. Around 1 a.m. the following Friday, Trump announced on Twitter that both he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19.
What followed was a week of confusion and concern, with the president heading to Walter Reed later that day, and a weekend of mixed signals on his public health standing. By the night of Oct. 5, Trump had returned to the White House and made a show of taking his face mask off. In the days after, the president continued to tout how well he was feeling in sometimes rambling videos posted to social media, even as it became clear that there was an outbreak tied to the White House.
But back in Minnesota, worries about the impact of Trump’s visit in the wake of him testing positive were also apparent. In a statement the same day the president announced he had tested positive, the state’s health department warned “there is a potential risk that transmission occurred at the Duluth rally and other events associated with President Trump’s visit.”
“Community transmission of COVID-19 was high in St. Louis County prior to this week’s rally, and people attending the rally may have been infectious without realizing it,” the state health department said in the statement.
The state’s health department also said in an email Sunday that “9 people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported attending the Trump rally held in Bemidji on 9/18. Of those, there have been 2 hospitalizations (1 in ICU).”
And now those anxieties are headed to Sanford, a community well known for the 2012 killing of the unarmed 17-year-old Black youth Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The president was originally scheduled to hold a rally at the city’s airport on the night of Oct. 2, but those plans were thrown out after his COVID-19 disclosure. The president won Florida in the 2016 general election, and the swing state is seen as playing a major role if Trump is to go on to win a second term.
Patty Mahany, one of the city’s commissioners at that time as well, became well known for vocally defending the city’s police chief when it came to the controversial handling of Martin’s case, according to Fox News. Mahany, a 2016 Trump voter, was critical of Trump and said she planned to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Trump is allowed to have the rally, Mahany said, and the onus is on peoples’ “personal responsibility” to decide whether it’s safe for them to attend.
“It could be absolutely fine, nothing could happen,” Mahany said of the rally’s likely crowd shortly after the event was announced. “Or it could end up a superspreading event.”
A pair of Republicans on the county commission that includes Sanford embraced the president’s upcoming visit in interviews with The Daily Beast, including Jay Zembower, the chairman of the Seminole County Board of County Commissioners, who called the news “fantastic.”
“It’s going to be an outside rally so for the most part I think everybody’s going to be fine,” Zembower, a Republican, said. “I don’t suppose that the president’s going to be in that close proximity to folks. So no, we don’t have a really big concern about it at all.”
Sanford Mayor Art Woodruff also steered clear of specifically criticizing the rally, saying “the people that will be attending are making that choice to attend.”
“Seminole County has done a very good job in terms of people being responsible,” he said.
But Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of South Florida, urged caution and warned that “if it's like previous (rallies) then the risk to individuals coming is not necessarily low.”
“It’s not meeting the critical role of leaders to role-model the behaviors that we need everybody to do to help control this pandemic,” Levine said of the president’s Monday rally.