The first to arrive at Mike Pence’s rally in The Villages, Florida, took their places on the socially distanced chairs. When the seats filled up, the rally-goers who had turned out to see the Vice President crammed in together.
The supporters kept coming and coming and before long it was standing room only.
The mask-optional event at America’s largest retirement village on Saturday afternoon risked becoming a superspreader event among the country’s most vulnerable population.
When registering to attend the event, attendees had to acknowledge that the Trump campaign would not be liable if they contract Covid-19.
One retiree just joked to her similarly aged friend: “there goes social distancing.” The few who are wearing masks are pulling them down to speak to each other and eat ice cream.
Several began leaving before Mr Pence took to the stage. Were they worried about the virus, I asked? “No,” replied one woman through a mask. “it’s just really hot and we’ve been waiting for two hours already.”
As the people kept coming, one concerned attendee asked a Secret Service officer on duty if there was an upper limit to the number of attendees. “You’d think so, but no,” he replied.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s director of communications, later tweeted that 3,000 showed up.
At least six people had to be led out of the paddock by medics and campaign organisers – some of whom not wearing masks – after becoming faint in the hot Florida sun.
Some health experts said as the head of the government’s coronavirus task force, Mr Pence should have taken greater care in protecting attendees in The Villages, home to some 125,000 senior citizens.
“It’s great to be back in the Sunshine State, it’s great to be back in Trump country,” Mr Pence said as he took to the stage in Brownwood Paddock Square.
The vice president made little mention of the coronavirus in his 45-minute speech, focusing instead on his performance in Wednesday night’s debate with Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party’s vice president nominee.
“It was a debate between two visions,” he told the crowd. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want higher taxes, open borders and socialised medicines,” he said to jeers from the crowd, many of whom were over 55 and rely on Medicare. “They want to abolish fossil fuels, they want taxpayer-funded abortions. They want to defund the police and pack the courts,” he said to even louder boos.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, late last month decided to fully reopen the state, even as its cases rose to more than 3,000 a day. Nearly half of the some 15,000 who have died from the virus were older citizens.
Florida, the nation’s largest bellwether state, is a must-win for Mr Trump, who is slumping in the polls.
The Villages, a reliably Conservative stronghold which crosses three different counties, including Sumter, has the highest turnout in the entire state.
Mr Trump has been haemorrhaging support among older voters, including here in central Florida.
A poll taken after Mr Trump’s diagnosis shows Mr Biden leading by 21 per cent among over 65s, the biggest lead by a Democrat in 25 years.
They have been put off by the president’s handling of the coronavirus, which affects these voters more acutely than others. They were particularly alarmed by his performances at daily task force briefings in the spring because his remarks showed an uneven handling of the crisis and inspired little confidence.
“If Trump doesn’t win Sumter County at least two-to-one, he’s not winning Florida, or a second term,” predicted Dave Wasserman, House Editor for The Cook Political Report, where he is responsible for analysing US House Races.” In 2016, it went 68 per cent to Trump.
“If we see Sumter’s mail-in and early results at 7pm that come in something like 62 per cent -37 per cent for Trump with more than 75,000 ballots counted, I’d personally consider that to be game over for the president.”
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