Since March 11th, when the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus were reported in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania—which encompasses Pittsburgh and counts some 1.2 million residents—thirteen thousand people there have tested positive, and nearly four hundred people have died. Cases spiked in June and July, after local bars reopened, but the numbers have since come down. “We’ve really struggled to keep our numbers where they are,” Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, told me recently. “It’s a lot of people co?perating, being very vigilant about listening to our medical experts.” There have been exceptions to these efforts. On September 22nd, nine days before he revealed he had tested positive for the coronavirus, Donald Trump rented out a private hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport, where he spoke for an hour and a half in front of a large crowd of fans, some wearing MAGA-branded face masks, some not. At the time, local reporters asked Fitzgerald why the President was allowed to flout the state’s emergency limits on outdoor gatherings. “You think he’s gonna listen to me?” Fitzgerald, a Democrat and no fan of the President’s politics, told them. “He gets subpoenas he ignores. He doesn’t listen to the court, he doesn’t listen to Congress.”
This week, Trump, still suffering symptoms of his illness, began to publicly muse about going back on the campaign trail. Allegheny County was reportedly a possible destination. It was unwelcome news for Fitzgerald. “You want to get your message out, certainly I get it—we’re a couple weeks from an election,” Fitzgerald said, of the President. “But putting people at risk, it’s just irresponsible. I don’t know how many people come with him—fifty, a hundred people that are going to be part of the entourage? They’re going to be in contact, and potentially spreading this disease in western Pennsylvania.”
What’s a local official to do about a heedless President? Trump, of course, has shown few signs of caring about the health of anyone but himself. There has been a full-fledged outbreak among both White House and campaign staffers—seemingly related to the events that were held late last month in honor of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. And yet the Administration’s contact-tracing efforts have been minimal. It has refused to disclose when the President last tested negative, leaving open the possibility that he was contagious when he shared a debate stage with Joe Biden. He almost certainly was contagious a few hours before his first known positive test, last Thursday, when he attended an indoor fund-raiser with supporters at his golf club in New Jersey. And he was definitely contagious at Walter Reed military hospital, when he compelled Secret Service agents to drive him around in a hermetically sealed S.U.V. so that he could wave at fans who had gathered outside. The first thing Trump did upon returning to the White House on Monday night was remove his mask for a photo op. His doctor, Sean Conley, initially said he wouldn’t consider Trump out of the woods until this coming Monday, but as Trump increasingly made noise about wanting to get back out there, Conley suddenly issued a statement saying that he thought Trump would be “safe” to return to public engagements by Saturday. Outside experts disagreed. “Trump still contagious? Experts say it’s impossible to know,” one Associated Press headline ran. On Thursday night, Trump coughed through a telephone interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “What I took is incredible,” Trump said, of the drugs the doctors had given him to fight the infection. “To me, I viewed it as a cure.”
There’s not much evidence that the rallies Trump was holding before he fell ill were doing him much good, politically. Now the country may be about to witness the spectacle of a President who has already been at the center of at least one superspreader event actively hosting other potential superspreader events. Before his diagnosis, Trump had taken to describing his rallies as “peaceful protests,” a swipe at the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that took place around the country this spring and summer despite the restrictions on outdoor events. As the days left before Election Day tick down, this is all Trump really has left to offer: grievance. His tweets and interviews since returning to the White House have been a stew of rants about Hillary Clinton, the F.B.I., the Democrats, his own Attorney General. “They send millions of gallons of water out to sea, out to the Pacific,” Trump told Hannity on Thursday, during an impenetrable tangent about water shortages in California. “Because they want to take care of certain little tiny fish that aren't doing very well without water.”
In the face of such recklessness, even a booster like Hannity was compelled to commit journalism. “Have you been tested recently?” he asked Trump on Thursday, as the President went on about his treatment and his plans for upcoming events. “Did you test negative?” This past week, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, disclosed that he hasn’t visited the White House since August, out of concerns for his personal health. And health officials in and around Washington, D.C., put out an open letter urging anyone who attended the Barrett event at the White House, or who has worked at the White House in the past two weeks, or who has had contact with people in either of those two groups, to get a coronavirus test. “We had a superspreader event at the White House,” Anthony Fauci told an interviewer on Friday. Not long after, news broke that Trump was thinking about inviting a few hundred people to the South Lawn on Saturday. “He pitched the idea of staging events and concerts on the South Lawn every week up through Election Day,” a Times reporter tweeted. “He appeared to be half kidding, but half intrigued by the idea, aides said.” The campaign then announced that Trump planned to attend a rally in Sanford, Florida, on Monday. According to the press release, “All attendees will be given a temperature check, masks which they are encouraged to wear, and access to hand sanitizer.”
The President and his team have given local officials no reason to trust that these events will be safe. But those same local officials will be left to deal with the consequences. Already, Trump’s rally last month in Bemidji, Minnesota, has been linked to nine cases and two hospitalizations. The President’s campaign rallies are now confirmed public-health hazards. Fitzgerald, in Allegheny County, also worries about what else these events might stir up. “Tensions right now are so high,” he said. “He’s got a lot of supporters that are going to want to show up and show support. And then on the other side you’re going to have a lot of people who are anti the President and might want to show up and protest. I don’t want either one of those things. Stay home.”
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