The president, who has resisted wearing a mask in public and played a starring role in politicizing the debate surrounding the use of masks, has taken to mocking the rigor of his challenger’s approach. And he’s flouted outdoor state mandates on attendance limits in numerous states in recent weeks, including Michigan and North Carolina.
“Have you ever seen the gyms with the circles? That’s his crowd,” Trump said gleefully in Winston-Salem, N.C., contrasting Biden’s low-key events with his own high-energy jamborees. In Latrobe, Pa., Trump asked his crowd: “Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?”
“It gives him a feeling of security,” Trump said of Biden. “If I were a psychiatrist — right? I’d say, this guy’s got some big issues.” Aides have joined in the jeering, teasing Biden for Labor Day pictures of him solemnly masked with a handful of union workers perched in picnic chairs.
On Sunday night, Trump defied state regulations in Nevada — and his own federal health guidelines — by hosting his first indoor campaign event before a packed crowd since June.
At Trump’s recent speeches — his campaign no longer refers to as rallies — many in the audience openly disregard local regulations by huddling close together without masks. But Trump believes he has an advantage to press with voters who are leery of government overreach and tired after months of keeping their distance.
Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director, said Biden’s “above-ground excursions” are proof the president has momentum in the race.
“President Trump has always had a huge edge on enthusiasm, and draws big, boisterous crowds,” he said, “while Biden could hold a campaign event in a broom closet.”
On Thursday, Biden seemed to return the taunts, releasing an Instagram Reel of him standing silently and sliding a large black mask over his face.
Trump’s disastrous rally in Tulsa, Okla., in late June, which saw lower-than-anticipated turnout and “likely contributed” to spreading the virus, helped Biden justify his slow summer ramp-up. But now that the former vice president has reemerged on the campaign trail — stumping three out of five days last week and four of five the previous week— the differences are coming into starker relief.
Nowhere was it more obvious than at the August party conventions. At the Democratic convention, any person who entered the Chase Center in Wilmington in the days where Biden was speaking had to submit to Covid tests and receive negative results for two consecutive days. The testing regimen extended even to people delivering food and custodial workers.
News reporters covering Biden and Harris also arrived days in advance to take consecutive tests and were asked to “self-isolate” in their hotel rooms. Their “crowds” were limited to a couple dozen reporters and some Secret Service, all of whom were masked.
Trump’s renomination speech, meanwhile, was delivered to a large, mostly maskless crowd on the South Lawn of the White House.
Polls show a majority of Americans across party lines say that wearing a mask helps limit the spread of coronavirus. But those same polls also show a partisan divide over the issue. Republicans (32 percent) remain far more likely than Democrats (3 percent) and independents (17 percent) to say masks don’t help to limit the spread, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Health tracking poll on Thursday.
While Biden’s increasing public appearances will test the campaign’s ability to keep him at a safe distance, Democrats are not eager to see Biden try to match what they view as his opponent’s rashness.
“The worst thing he could possibly have happen is to try to do what Trump is doing and then a bunch of people get sick,” said Joel Rutherford, chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of Macomb County in Michigan. “Trump is a showman. He’s all about the optics of things, not the safety. He doesn’t care about social distancing; he’s not concerned about masks. He just wants to look impressive on TV — and that means focusing on the more people he can get out [to his events].”
Still, Biden’s precautions have at times drawn criticism — and chafed some in his party. Media access to Biden’s events during his travel has been restricted to a small pool of reporters, who then shares quotes and observations with the campaign press corps. Critics say this has allowed the Biden campaign to control its message and candidate in ways that would be more difficult with a large group of media following him.
Terrance Warthen, former co-chair of Our Wisconsin Revolution, said Biden took it too far when he cited Covid-19 concerns in moving his nominating speech to Wilmington, instead of Milwaukee, where the national convention was originally scheduled to take place. Warthen said Biden should have given the speech and could have even taken a safe bus trip and waved out the window, to at least pay respects to the city and state.
“He could have had a very safe, and isolated trip,” Warthen said. “That would have been a cherry on top of a decent remote convention. He has the resources to do it, it’s the middle of a presidential race … Is he taking Wisconsin for granted?”
In Kenosha, there was private grousing from attendees who said they expected to pose for individual pictures with Biden. And on Labor Day, a Milwaukee TV reporter told Harris that locals were disappointed Wilmington was treated to a post-convention fireworks show, rather than their city.
Harris responded that it was a decision “no one was excited to make” and emphasized that her own Labor Day gatherings were small and vigilant: “all of us wearing our masks, indoors, being at least 6 feet apart, not having as big of a group as we would have liked,” she said.
Added Harris: “This is what we have to do in a Covid world.”