Hours before President Trump arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C., for a campaign rally on Tuesday, the county’s top Republican official issued a warning: The president better be wearing a mask.
But when the president emerged Tuesday evening to address a cheering group of supporters, his face was fully exposed, a likely violation of the state’s coronavirus rules.
The same was true of many of the supporters behind his podium, especially those high up in the stands and out of view. And in fact, the whole event appears to have defied restrictions from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who has limited outdoor mass gatherings to 50 people under the state’s current phase of reopening.
Trump jeered that crowd cap too, suggesting that his supporters received less leeway than the widespread demonstrations for racial justice that have swept the nation this summer, often bringing hundreds of people in proximity on city streets.
“We call you peaceful protesters, you know why?” Trump told his supporters, who were tightly packed into several bleachers erected near Smith Reynolds Airport. “Because they have rules in these Democrat-run states that if you’re campaigning, you cannot have more than five people. They did that for me.”
Both his words and the optics of his rally in Winston-Salem point to a growing rift in the 2020 campaign season: As Democratic nominee Joe Biden quietly holds small campaign events with only a few dozen people, the president has instead orchestrated loud, in-person gatherings that flout local health rules.
It is another sign of the long shadow the coronavirus pandemic has cast over this year’s presidential election. The virus, which has infected nearly 6.3 million Americans and killed at least 186,000, has become a signature talking point for Trump as he insists on “The Great American Comeback” and asserts that a vaccine could come as soon as Election Day.
For months, the president ridiculed masks and refused to appear in public with one on, until he suddenly changed course in July and tweeted a photo of himself with his face covered, calling it a “patriotic” act. But after mocking Biden for wearing a mask and insisting that reporters remove theirs while asking him questions during a news conference, Trump on Tuesday evening appeared to make a full, unabashed return to his previous stance on the coverings.
Trump’s campaign told CNN that masks and hand sanitizer would be provided for Winston-Salem rally attendees, who would be screened before the event with temperature checks. Anyone signing up for a ticket was also required to acknowledge the possibility of infection, as has been true of other audiences on the campaign trail.
Earlier on Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows suggested that Trump did not need to wear a mask because he is tested daily.
“When you wear a mask, it’s really for others’ protection, not for your own protection,” Meadows told reporters.
Still, Plyler, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners chair, said that the president needed to stop politicizing the issue and instead lead the country on the single prevention measure that has shown to be most effective in curbing the spread of the virus.
“The president of the United States sets the example for everybody else,” Plyler told CNN. “You can hear it: If the president of the United States says I don’t have to wear it, I’m not going to wear it. And I can guarantee you that will be done.”
Plyler also pointed to the situation in North Carolina as a sign of the need for Cooper’s mask mandate. Although the state has moved to “Phase 2.5” of reopening, with gyms and playgrounds allowed to reopen under certain conditions, 6,000 people are infected in Forsyth County, he said. The county has had 86 covid-19 fatalities.
“We’ve got the virus here. The virus doesn’t give a rip whether it’s the president or God Almighty himself. It’s going to find its place,” he told CNN. “And the way we have to figure this, at least in my mind, is that we all have to be careful about it.”
A proud Trump supporter, Plyler said he would have tried to attend the rally if he had not scheduled a medical procedure well in advance. And looking ahead to other rallies, he offered a practical suggestion for the campaign.
“You know what would be neat?” he said. “If before he got off the plane, if he gave everybody a box of Make America Great Again masks.”
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