WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump makes his third coronavirus-themed trip to a battleground state in as many weeks, some experts are expressing concern that the visits could put communities at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Even though additional precautions have been undertaken by the White House, public health experts and aides in previous administrations warn that it is nearly impossible to eliminate all risk of exposure during such trips. Those who have planned similar trips for past presidents also warn of the massive footprints the swings cover and the huge burden they place on local governments, many of which are already stretched thin because of the pandemic.
“The White House is a potential hot zone for COVID — aides and valets close to the president are diagnosing positive,” said Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and global health policy expert who is an NBC News and MSNBC contributor.
“If I’m a factory owner, do I really want a large group of visitors from the West Wing visiting me now under these circumstances, just to snap a few pictures? No,” Gupta said, urging the president to “lead by example” by limiting his nonessential travel.
The White House said factory workers who meet with the president have been required to take rapid coronavirus tests. The requirement is now standard for anyone who comes into close contact with the president and the vice president.
But the Abbott Labs ID NOW testing system the White House uses for rapid results may not always deliver accurate results, the Food and Drug Administration warned recently. And even if the results are accurate, the precise window of time between infection and a positive test result remains unknown.
Any trip outside the Washington area involves hundreds of traveling advisers, security staff members, logistical experts and journalists. Typically, advance staffers arrive several days early to prepare, often staying in local hotels and eating at local restaurants.
“Any Presidential visit outside of Washington, D.C. is a heavy lift in terms of personnel and resources,” Greg Jenkins, who was deputy assistant to the president and director of White House advance operations during President George W. Bush’s administration, said in an email.
“It’s almost impossible to think through how to do this. You’ve got to consider every potential infringement of social distancing and mitigate that,” Jenkins said.
Johanna Maska, who was the White House’s director of press advance during President Barack Obama’s administration, said she viewed Trump’s recent travels as “extraordinarily risky.”
“Every time they put him on the road they’re sending people from Washington, D.C., a place that’s not experiencing a decrease [in coronavirus cases] yet,” Maska said.
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Then there is the risk to local government budgets. Local governments are already strained because of the coronavirus, with revenue down and health costs up. Some parts of the country have struggled to keep paying public employees, including health care workers and teachers.
“There’s massive debates between the Secret Service and the local police on what they will pay for. The Secret Service will pay for things to protect the president, but, for example, if it has to do with protesters — [of] which there are a lot — that is not a cost that the Secret Service would be willing to assume,” Maska said, adding that “there’s long fights in any administration between the Secret Service and the local community.”
Jenkins said the financial impact on local governments was always a consideration when the Bush administration was planning a trip.
“The impact is real and costly. This is one of the chief reasons Presidents consider the timing of a visit to a disaster area as security and other resources will almost certainly need to be siphoned away from disaster work to support the visit. Airports, roads and event sites all require local resources,” Jenkins said.
Some have also criticized Trump for promoting the taxpayer-funded trips to important battleground states as official White House events.
“I think they’re just trying to get on the road, take him on the road for a campaign event,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said in an interview with MSNBC before Trump visited to Allentown, Pennsylvania, last week.
“The safer thing to do would be to sincerely thank this manufacturing facility and not put anybody at risk,” Dean said, adding, “I call upon the president to stay home, stay at of the way and pay attention to the guidelines that my governor has put forward, Governor [Tom] Wolf, and the guidelines of his own team.”
Dean was not alone in her concern.
The White House had hoped to visit a Braskem factory in Pennsylvania that makes personal protective equipment, whose workers had spent nearly a month living in the facility to ensure that no one contracted the virus and that production would not be interrupted.
Factory officials ultimately asked the White House to postpone the visit out of fear that it could put their workers in danger. The White House opted for the Allentown factory, instead.
Trump has also visited an N95 mask factory in Arizona and plans to visit a Ford factory in Michigan that is producing medical equipment on Thursday.
All three states are important to the president’s re-election campaign. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania and Michigan by less than 1 percentage point each, and he won Arizona by less than 4 points.
Vice President Mike Pence has been visiting battleground states, as well, having recently attended the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony in Colorado, toured the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and visited with Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida on Wednesday.
The White House has said that for now, the trips will continue.
“It’s important to remind Americans what’s being done. Individuals, how much they stepped up, the way manufacturers have been able to repurpose what they do,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said last week. “Yes, he will continue to do that.”