Political rallies could become the next large-scale event to fall victim to the coronavirus — with medical experts saying the campaign trail staple can serve as a breeding ground for spreading the disease.
“We have to be very concerned about mass gatherings because while this tends to be overall a mild virus, it is very contagious,” said Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health. “These types of mass gatherings — especially if people are within 3 to 6 feet of each other — that can allow the virus to sort of just go through that population.”
President Trump told reporters hours before a Charlotte, N.C., campaign event Monday that “it’s very safe” to continue to hold political rallies despite the coronavirus. During a Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pa., Thursday night, Trump urged viewers “to be calm” amid the global outbreak.
But the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is climbing — with more than 100 confirmed diagnoses, and at least 19 deaths — prompting schools to close and major conferences to be canceled.
“The same thing applies to political rallies. You’ve got a lot of people in enclosed areas, and the risk of spread from person to person through the respiratory route is substantial,” said Davidson Hamer, a Boston University specialist in infectious diseases.
Fears of catching coronavirus are already on display at campaign events, with some supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders showing up to his 13,000-person rally on the Boston Common last weekend wearing surgical masks.
Big-name candidates like Trump, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who are used to packing rooms from school gymnasiums to sports arenas, may soon be forced to rethink their rallies — not only to protect their voters but, with all three men over the age of 70, to preserve their own health as they compete for the nation’s highest office.
“They need to be tremendously concerned about it,” said Republican strategist Mike Dennehy, who worked on the late U.S. Sen. John McCain’s presidential bids.
Candidates could pivot to holding smaller, town-hall style events, or to doing more media interviews that can be widely broadcast, Dennehy said.
But “at some point,” he said, “candidates are going to have to react or get in front of this situation and proactively say, ‘We aren’t going to hold rallies until we know that we’re in a safe environment and that everything’s under control.’ ”
With primary season underway, concerns are also trickling down to the voting booth, where hundreds of people can use the same machine or same pen in a single day. Ellerin recommended having hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer nearby at polling locations, and for candidates and poll workers to talk to local health officials about taking precautions.
And when it comes to rallies — if you’re feeling sick, stay home.
“We have to use mitigation strategies,” Ellerin said. “And part of that is social distancing, if possible.”
Meghan Ottolini contributed to this report.
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