The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I sat in the front row at the debate. Did Trump infect me with the coronavirus?

The president’s cavalier attitude toward the pandemic is infuriating

President Trump holds a mask during the presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. (Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Tuesday night, I sat in masked silence in the front row of the debate hall in Cleveland as President Trump mocked former vice president Joe Biden for wearing a mask. Earlier in the evening, I watched as Trump’s family and Republican insiders defiantly removed their masks, in violation of the clear guidelines set by the Cleveland Clinic, while most of the other audience members remained masked. We didn’t know it then, but at that moment, Trump and his entourage were potentially exposing us to the coronavirus, along with every other person present at the debate: members of Congress, Secret Service agents, campaign guests, members of the media, workers and janitors alike.

When I learned, along with the rest of the world, that the president had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, I felt betrayed and terrified. Already back at home, I scrambled to put together a plan to get tested, notify anyone I’d been in contact with and self-quarantine. A vision of my father, intubated, flashed in front of me, along with visions of so many others who have been lost because of this entirely preventable pandemic, and whose families told me their stories: Isabelle Papadimitriou, Juan Carlos “Charlie” Rangel, Gaye Griffin-Snyder, Jose Reyes, Mary Castro, Charles Krebbs.

I tried to process what had happened: The president of the United States may have exposed me and everyone in that debate hall to the coronavirus.

Biden had invited me to the debate to represent my dad, Mark Urquiza, who had died of the coronavirus in June — just weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey (R) lifted Arizona’s shelter-in-place order. Over the course of those 90 painful minutes, I saw, in real life and in real time, that the president lacked even a shred of a plan for responding to the worsening pandemic. He insisted that his actions had saved “thousands,” that he had done “a phenomenal job,” that a vaccine was mere weeks away. He only had one strategy, which was to do what he does best: gaslight the public so that they disbelieve what’s clearly going on, all around them. My dad, a Republican and Fox News viewer, had believed Trump when he said it was safe — and he, like so many others, lost his life because politicians had lied about the dangers, declaring the United States of America open for business.

Governor, my father’s death is on your hands

We know that Trump’s rhetoric is killing hundreds of thousands of people. The World Health Organization has identified what it calls an “infodemic” unfolding alongside the pandemic, and a Cornell study shows that the president is by far the worst offender in amplifying misinformation. This undermines not only the American response, but also global efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Trump’s absolute disregard for human life is staggering. This is a virus that has ravaged communities of color: The data shows that our hospitalization rates are at least four times as high as those of our White neighbors. I’d known that he dismissed the suffering of others who seemed distant from him — the elderly, people who died in “blue” states, people of color — and yet, it was surprising to see how this disregard reached even his inner circle. News continues to break about Trump, his allies and his closest confidants, the timeline of when they experienced symptoms and continued business as usual. Even after his own adviser, Hope Hicks, reported coronavirus symptoms, Trump continued to travel, attending rallies, private fundraisers and other events. He put everyone in his path at risk, from his donors and supporters to White House staff and the employees of his golf clubs. Now authorities across the country are scrambling to trace the president’s contacts. (I haven’t received any official call, though the Biden campaign and Jill Biden reached out to check on me.)

On Tuesday, I witnessed the president and his followers refuse to do the bare minimum to protect others. Under the rules of the debate, no one could enter unless they tested negative for the coronavirus and agreed to wear a mask while inside — but they acted as if the rules simply did not apply to them (ironic, given Trump’s fixation on so-called “law and order”). If Trump’s family and supporters had worn masks in that debate hall, they would have reduced exposure for everyone at the event. Biden, who spoke directly about the grief so many of us have suffered, shows his care and respect for other people — starting with the simple act of wearing a mask. For that conscientiousness, Trump jeered at him: “He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

I wouldn’t wish covid-19 on my worst enemy. I saw firsthand the darkest result of this virus: an undignified and lonesome death. With his diagnosis, Trump’s complete failure to manage this crisis is more blatant than before. Irresponsible is an understatement: It is criminal.

As we surpass 1 million covid-19 deaths globally, I’ll remember how politicians failed my father, and how they are still failing all of us. If we are to heal, we must stop denying that this virus is serious, and that the pandemic is decimating our country. We have to take what personal precautions we can: If even the most powerful people in the world — with all of their extra safety precautions and access to daily testing — are at risk to contract this virus, so are you.

We have to properly mourn the more than 200,000 lives lost in the United States. We have to vote like our lives depend on it. We have to muster the collective will to demand, from our government and the private sector alike, a response commensurate with this drawn-out crisis. We have to fight for the well-being of the people around us — even as our president, in both his political actions and his personal conduct, endangers us.

A previous version of this story stated that President Trump claimed that former vice president Joe Biden would wear a mask “speaking 20 feet away from me.” He actually said, “speaking 200 feet away form me.” The story has been updated.

Read more:

Presidents have often deceived the public about their illnesses

Trump’s campaign can be put on hold. Election Day can’t.

Trump’s diagnosis is a reminder that covid-19 isn’t a partisan illness