Donald Trump will hold a rally in Wisconsin on Saturday evening, despite state health officials declaring a crisis over the coronavirus pandemic and his own experts warning that public gatherings there risk causing “preventable deaths”.
Cases are rising in Wisconsin, as they are across the American heartland. On Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University, the US passed 8m confirmed cases. The death toll is close to 220,000. Both figures are the highest in the world.
The Trump rally is schedule for Janesville, a small city in the south of the crucial swing state, where Trump trails Joe Biden by about eight points in poll averages. The president had been due to campaign there on 3 October, before he contracted coronavirus and was airlifted to hospital.
Earlier this week, Trump’s own White House taskforce issued a warning to Wisconsin, which is considered to be in the “red zone” for high infection rates, saying people should avoid crowds if they want do not want to cause “preventable deaths”.
The warning was included in a weekly report issued to governors but not made public. It was reported by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), an investigative nonprofit in Washington.
The report urged people in Wisconsin to be diligent about “mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene, avoiding crowds in public and social gatherings in private”.
“Wisconsin’s ability to limit … hospitalisations and deaths will depend on increased observation of social distancing mitigation measures by the community until cases decline,” it said, adding that “lack of compliance with these measures will lead to preventable deaths”.
Trump’s rally will be held outdoors, at the Janesville airport. Attendees will be instructed to wear masks, but such instructions have not been enforced at other rallies, where social distancing has not been observed.
Trump’s election website demands attendees absolve the campaign of any liability if they fall ill and says that “by registering for this event, you understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to Covid-19 exists in any public place where people are present”.
Those registering must voluntarily “assume all risks” related to catching coronavirus.
“That indicates they know the reality, because if they weren’t worried about it then they wouldn’t bother,” William Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told the CPI. He said the virus could spread amid crowding at the rally, even outdoors, and at any indoor celebrations.
“Given the rates of disease currently in Wisconsin, we can say pretty categorically this is going to produce opportunity for transmission,” Hanage said.
Janesville is in Rock county, which earlier this week reported its highest levels yet for coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and positive tests, according to local media.
The county has almost 1,000 cases and 143 new positives were reported on Monday, the most in a single day, according to state health data. Of test results reported, a new high of 83% were positive.
Trump first planned to rally in Janesville after officials in La Crosse, on the border with Minnesota, urged him not to hold an event there because the city was a coronavirus “red zone”.
Rock county board chairwoman Kara Purviance asked Trump not to hold the event in Janesville either, saying: “It is irresponsible of the president to hold a rally that will put Rock county citizens in danger of contracting and spreading the virus.”
Rock county administrator Josh Smith told the Janesville Gazette the county was now taking a different approach, because he didn’t think asking the president not to visit would “result in any different outcomes”.
“Based on our previous conversations with the campaign and information we put out, we believe everyone is aware of the concerns we have about mass gatherings and the need to comply with public health guidance. At this point, we’re encouraging all attendees to wear a mask, remain physically distant, sanitise.”
With more than 1,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital in Wisconsin, the state this week opened an overflow facility, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“We are in crisis here in Wisconsin, and so we are ready to accept patients as the need arises,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department. “The trajectory does not look good. We need to be prepared for that.”