The Barrett supporters in attendance might have been ignoring social-distancing recommendations in other settings, too—which makes it difficult to pinpoint one risky exposure as the source of this outbreak. In the days after the Barrett party, we know that many of the attendees spent time inside, maskless, in close proximity to others; it is reasonable to think they might have done the same in the days before the event as well. That day at the White House could have sent the virus spreading. Or the virus could already have been rampant.
Public-health experts have good reasons for recommending the measures that Trump’s cohort dismissed. A highly contagious virus like this one spreads quickly in a previously uninfected population, and the only way to stop it is by denying it hosts. For the past six months, these measures have slowed the virus’s spread. But they have not stopped it, and like all other humans, the Republican elites around Trump are vulnerable. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the outbreak is that these are the people who are supposed to be making the rules.
This is what happens when a president is in denial about a global pandemic, and acts accordingly. Trump has repeatedly mocked mask wearing, engaged in wishful thinking, and otherwise minimized the threat of the virus. Many of his supporters, from state leaders to rank-and-file citizens, have followed his example. Now Trump’s recklessness is upending his own world—and the government itself—just weeks before the election. In the hours before and after his COVID-19 diagnosis was revealed on Friday, additional infections and exposures likely stemming from the White House were reported in at least three states and the District of Columbia. Among the infected are Lee and two other senators, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel; the president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien; Trump’s adviser Hope Hicks; Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the president of the University of Notre Dame, John Jenkins.
Again, it’s not clear whether the Barrett event is what spawned all these cases. (Barrett, who tested negative for the virus on Friday, contracted and recovered from COVID-19 over the summer, according to The Washington Post.) It was the earliest event that many of the infected attended together, but from there, it appears that the virus may have moved with the president, first to a campaign rally the next day in Pennsylvania, then to Trump’s golf club in Virginia, and then on to the first general-election debate in Ohio on Tuesday night.
Officials in Cleveland, which hosted the debate, said that they were aware of 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 stemming from “pre-debate planning and set-up.” The majority of cases were among out-of-state residents, officials said, suggesting that the virus had been brought to the debate, rather than contracted there. Members of the Trump entourage, including family members, aides, and campaign staff, watched the indoor debate without wearing masks. When offered masks by officials with the Cleveland Clinic, which co-hosted the debate, they “waved them away,” according to the debate moderator, Chris Wallace.