FROM THE CENTER OF A SOCIALLY DISTANCED CIRCLE IN MIAMI — María José Wright, one of the few voters to have been in a room with Democratic nominee Joe Biden lately, took her place Monday at the center of a white circle on a gymnasium floor, marooned at least 6 feet away from fellow supporters, and cheered for him through two masks.
“This is actually the first time I am with more than my immediate family” indoors since the pandemic began, she said. But all things considered, she felt safe.
Five days earlier, the geometry was much different around President Trump: 3,000 people crowded elbow to elbow on an airport tarmac in Duluth, Minn. Faces mostly uncovered, they broke into cheers and chants, wisps of their breath lingering in the cold night air.
The coronavirus safety protocols that have become a fixture of American life — and that govern every second of a Biden campaign event — were nowhere to be seen at Trump’s rally, and it didn’t bother Forrest Hyatt, an unmasked volunteer who casually waved attendees toward the security line. Not one bit.
“The largest fallacy out there is that you stay healthy by washing your hands, social distancing, or wearing a mask,” Hyatt, 62, declared later, ticking off most of the federal guidelines for avoiding COVID-19.
Since that rally, Trump and many of his closest associates have tested positive for the virus, pulling him off the campaign trail. And as the nation reels from his diagnosis and the upward creep of cases, the comparison between his last rally and Biden’s full day of campaigning in Florida on Monday offers a window into their polar opposite approaches to mitigating risk during a pandemic, which mirror the deeply divided views of their supporters on the subject.
“All politics aside, we’ve seen an amazing contrast in approaches here,” said Marissa Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida.
Biden’s campaign events adhere stringently to public health guidelines — to the point where few regular voters can attend them — and the security measures have only intensified since he stood on the same debate stage with a possibly infected Trump last week.
The 77-year-old Biden now frequently keeps his mask on while speaking at campaign stops, is tested more often, and is publicly disclosing the results of those tests. On Monday, his wife, Jill, grabbed him by both elbows to firmly steer him a few more feet away from the semicircle of masked reporters who were questioning him outside his campaign plane.
“I’ve been fastidious about the social distancing,” Biden said Monday night at a town hall event in Miami. “I have been fastidious about wearing a mask when I’m not socially distanced, and even then, remaining socially distanced.”
Trump, who has attempted to spin his illness as a sign of bravery, continues to spread the inaccurate message that COVID-19 is not dangerous — even from the hospital — and has vowed to quickly get back to holding the large rallies that have concerned public health officials as he tries to project normalcy during his struggling reelection bid.
“Will be back on the Campaign Trail soon!!!” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
In Duluth, it seemed like every one of the safety rules that have become orthodoxy in most public spaces was broken.
Before the rally, attendees wearing black and red flannel — a sign of their solidarity with the logging industry — squeezed into shuttle buses for their ride to the airport, with most faces uncovered. Outside the hangar, they packed like sardines into a line that snaked around metal stanchions, and squished through metal detectors on their way out to the tarmac.
When Air Force One landed, hundreds of people moved as close to the plane as they could, angling for a picture. And then Trump himself emerged and drank in the jubilation of the crowd, his face bare as he descended the steps and made his way to the podium. Later, a group of unmasked teenage girls in matching Trump bucket hats approached the metal barriers separating the media from the rest of the crowd, whooping and waving.
It was all in direct defiance of Minnesota’s executive order on COVID-19, which bans gatherings of more than 250 people and strongly recommends the use of masks outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible, and a nightmare for local public health officials.
“We really want people to follow the recommendations of social distancing and wearing face coverings,” said Amy Westbrook, the public health division director for St. Louis County, which contains Duluth. “Any large gathering is a concern for us.”
Westbrook said there has not yet been a discernible uptick in cases clearly connected to the rally, but it would be too early to tell either way. The very existence of the event frustrated local officials and added a new layer of anxiety about the virus in a region where cases began to climb last month.
Trump’s campaign has insisted it is taking necessary safety precautions. “I can tell you, it’s mandatory at every campaign stop and rally that people wear masks,” said Corey Lewandowski, a campaign adviser, in an interview on Friday.
But there were few if any obvious efforts to enforce any such requirements — or even to remind people of them — suggesting safety measures that have become standard in gas stations and grocery stores are a bridge too far for the Trump campaign.
Fewer than 20 percent of the attendees kept their masks on, as did the people staffing the event. Many more wore them scrunched around their necks or had them flapping out of their pockets. The rally seemed to be a dangerous safe space, a respite from the judgment and requirements enforced elsewhere — and if the most powerful man in the world approved of the situation, how could it be wrong?
“If you don’t think you should go because you’re worried about getting sick, then don’t go,” Hyatt said later. “That’s freedom of choice.”
Biden, on the other hand, frequently touts mask-wearing and other mitigation efforts as patriotic, and says he feels a duty to model the behavior that could stop the spread of the virus. His campaign’s thorough approach to COVID-19 safety can make for unusual events, which often include few regular voters due to crowd restrictions in each area. The local elected officials and community leaders who are invited are spread far from each other — and the candidate — with masks required.
During a stop at a cultural center in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami on Monday, campaign staffers ushered reporters and campaign surrogates into separate white circles marked by masking tape on the ground, ensuring everyone was at least 6 feet apart. While keeping his black cloth mask on at the outdoor event, Biden greeted Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida from a safe distance with a wave, and was careful not to touch or get too close to any of the other local bigwigs.
At times, the distance appeared to bother Biden, who is known for being a touchy-feely politician who is liberal with his bear hugs. At one point he left his podium, which was isolated at least 10 feet from the nearest spectator, to get a bit closer to the listeners as he delivered his brief speech urging Haitian Americans to vote. After Biden was finished, he took a knee to pose for a distanced group photo with the Haitian dancers and local politicians who joined the event.
The combination of an outdoor event, a limited number of people, social distancing, and masks makes for a public health expert’s dream. “The optics of that are really important because that’s really implementing all of the components of what we know works,” said Levine. The limit on gatherings in Miami Dade county set by health officials is 50 people.
Trump has mocked Biden’s social distancing circles as an excuse, saying he only uses them because he can’t attract crowds. “He’s got the circles. You know those big circles?” Trump told a packed airplane hangar of mostly maskless fans in Ohio in late September.
Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Biden surrogate, said Trump’s mocking of Biden’s safety measures looked different now that Trump contracted the disease himself. “The reality of it is, that attitude is now coming home to roost,” he said.
Back at the Trump rally, some of the people who did choose to wear masks used them to send a message. One man in the crowd wore a black mask with white lettering that read, “This mask is as useless as Joe Biden.”
It very well might have been keeping him safe.