WASHINGTON – There are no crowds at Disneyland, still shut down by the coronavirus. Fewer fans attended the World Series this year than at any time in the past century. Big concerts are canceled.
But it's a different story in Trumpland. Thousands of President Donald Trump's supporters regularly cram together at campaign rallies around the country — masks optional and social distancing frowned upon.
Trump rallies are among the nation's biggest events being held in defiance of restrictions designed to stop the virus from spreading. This at a time when public health experts are advising people to think twice even about inviting many guests for Thanksgiving dinner.
"It doesn't matter who you are or where you are, when you have congregate settings where people are crowded together and virtually no one is wearing a mask, that's a perfect setup to have an outbreak of acquisition and transmissibility," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, recently told Yahoo News. "It's a public health and scientific fact."
The Trump campaign, which distributes masks and hand sanitizer at its rallies, says those who attend are peaceful protesters who, just like Black Lives Matter demonstrators, have a right to assemble. The GOP president says he wants to get the country back to normal.
Some states have fined venues that host Trump rallies for violating limits on crowd size. But the rallies continue, even at Rochester on Friday. The nation posted a record high number of new infections last week — nearly 500,000.
The Minnesota Department of Health says 24 coronavirus cases have been reported among people who attended large Trump campaign events in the state, including 16 at a rally in Bemidji. Officials said four more cases were reported among anti-Trump protesters who attended the Bemidji rally.
And crowds keep coming.
Ysabel Benejam, 69, of West Bloomfield, Mich., drove about 90 minutes to Lansing and waited more than four hours in rainy, cold weather to see Trump on Tuesday.
"I'm not afraid at all," said Benejam, wearing a mask emblazoned with "Trump 2020." "We need to step back into normality."
Democrat Joe Biden, in contrast, has shunned rallies and instead holds online and drive-in events where people honk their horns to show support. He calls the Trump rallies "super-spreader events" and says he's listening to public health experts.
Since Feb. 7, when Trump told author Bob Woodward that he knew the virus was airborne and deadlier than the flu, the president has hosted more than 50 rallies in more than two dozen states. They were halted during most of March, April and May. After they resumed in late June, they were held primarily outdoors at airports, but supporters are packed together and mask use is spotty.
Pete Kingsley, 80, of Strasburg, Pa., was not wearing a mask as he approached the security line at Trump's rally Monday in Lititz. He said he believes the virus is being hyped to hurt Trump's chance of re-election and to "bash the economy — destroy it."
Lita Ciaccio, 65, of Laurel, Md., was concerned about contracting the virus but showed up anyway. She arrived wearing a mask and plastic face shield and said she planned to stand on the "edges" of the crowd.
Not all locals are happy to have Trump come to town.
Trump held a rally Sept. 25 in Newport News, Va., even though public health officials warned that it would violate Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's executive order generally banning gatherings of more than 250 people.
Zach Nayer, a resident at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, and a colleague later compiled county data on new cases at Trump rally sites from late June to the Newport News event. They reviewed the number of cases for the 14 days before and after each event and published their findings on the health news site STAT.
They found that spikes in COVID-19 cases occurred in seven of the 14 cities and townships where rallies were held: Tulsa, Okla.; Phoenix; Old Forge, Pa.; Bemidji on Sept. 18 and Mankato on Aug. 17, and Oshkosh and Weston in Wisconsin.
The researchers acknowledged, however, that increased caseloads could not be definitively linked to the rallies.