Trump Team: Whatever Happened to Social Distancing?

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Time itself seemed to slow as the disease spread and millions of Americans self-isolated, creating a three-month monotony of press conferences and public health warnings that ended with the same directive: stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

When the White House suggested slowly reopening state economies, the president was lambasted. Governors and protesters pushing for the same were similarly admonished for not sufficiently valuing life.

Time seemed to speed back up in the last week. After the death of George Floyd, the streets of once-locked-down cities have been flooded with shoulder-to-shoulder protesters in daylight and rioters at night. Some wear masks. Others don’t. Criticism has been scant overall.

Whiplashed Trump World has a question: Whatever happened to social distancing?

“It wasn’t long ago that Democrats and the media claimed that Republican governors reopening their economies were putting their citizens at risk and had ‘blood on their hands,’” Trump campaign deputy press secretary Courtney Parella told RealClearPolitics. “But now? Nothing but crickets about the thousands of protesters not wearing masks or social distancing.”

“None of those facts fit their narrative. We’ve been told to stay home, social distance, and wear a mask,” the campaign spokeswoman continued, “but the streets are open for violent riots?”

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets over the weekend to condemn police brutality, and in cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, they have often turned violent. An official with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, meanwhile, told RCP that the guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remain in effect: Stay at least six feet apart from others, wear a mask in public, stay home when possible.

Public protests, even when peaceful, do not lend themselves to social distancing, and joining arms in common cause can inadvertently spread the virus. It was enough to frighten Deborah Birx.

“I worry terribly about the peaceful protests. I see some wearing masks. I see some others not wearing masks,” the White House Coronavirus response coordinator told PBS. “And so, we are really trying to work with each of the mayors to expand testing availability over the next week or two, so that the individuals who are involved in the peaceful protests can get tested.”

Ramping up testing capacity has been an arduous process, one that was painfully slow in the weeks preceding the death of Floyd. Now, it should be accelerated even more for protesters, according to a letter signed by 1,288 public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders, who say the risk of spreading the virus while peacefully protesting is worth taking.

"White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19," the letter reads, and while CDC guidance can save lives, the cosigners write that “as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission.” The anti-lockdown protests of previous months like those in Michigan, however, are “rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for black lives.”

Robbie Goldstein, an infectious disease physician and candidate for the Massachusetts 8th Congressional District, supports the protests. It's the use of tear gas that concerns him.

“Police are tear-gassing peaceful protesters during the worst respiratory pandemic we’ve ever faced. They are compounding the health risks to those fighting for justice by using weapons of war,” Goldstein told RCP before calling on Congress to ban the use of the riot control tool.

Conservatives gripe that they weren’t given the same consideration when they assembled in opposition to the economically devastating lockdowns. They protested. They never looted. They were told their actions endangered public health, delayed reopening the economy, and that for their civil disobedience they ought to forgo treatment for the virus if they got sick. This double standard doesn’t sit well over at the White House. One senior official there sees a conspiracy, one that’s “endemic [to] the media.”

“There was a realization that their efforts to lock people in their homes was not going to continue forever and that the White House effort to deal with the coronavirus outbreak was indeed successful,” the official complained. “Now they’ve got a new crisis they’re trying to bludgeon the president with.”

Rep. Jody Hice feels the same way and offered a similar diagnosis. Time has not dragged so slowly to keep the Georgia Republican from remembering how his governor, Brian Kemp, was accused of having “blood on his hands” for reopening his state in May.

Kemp reopened the state with restrictions that governed public gatherings and limited which businesses could operate and how. Confirmed cases of the virus have not spiked. They have plateaued.

So why the condemnation of Kemp and Trump but acceptance of the massive social gatherings in the last week?  “No. 1, you just have massive hypocrisy,” Hice concluded. “I think it comes down to extreme hatred for the president.”

There has not been any medical breakthrough in combating the virus. No cure exists, and public health officials warn that a vaccine could be months, if not years, away. “If COVID-19 was as dangerous two weeks ago as they say it was, well, it's equally as dangerous now,” Hice said. “The unwillingness to face that reality just highlights utter bias and hypocrisy.”



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