Trump to hold rally in Wisconsin county facing record-breaking coronavirus cases
BY: CHEYENNE HASLETT, WILL STEAKIN, and SOO RIN KIM, ABC News
(MILWAUKEE) -- President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Wisconsin on Thursday will not only kick off a precarious string of large, in-person campaign events for the president across crucial swing states, but it'll also be held in a state and county that's seeing a spike in coronavirus cases as the country nears 200,000 deaths from the pandemic.
The rally, taking place at an airport hangar in Mosinee, Wisconsin, comes as the county hosting the event, Marathon County, saw 925 positive coronavirus cases as of Sept. 16 and as the president publicly clashed with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a timeline for a vaccine.
After a brief pause in packed rallies over the summer, the president has returned to full-steam ahead with less than 50 days to go until Election Day. He has begun holding multiple packed rallies each week that often break local guidelines and ignore the recommendations his own administration is promoting, though in Wisconsin and nationally, Trump continues to trail Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls.
"This week, the COVID-19 activity level for Marathon County is: HIGH," reads the county's coronavirus online dashboard. "High" is defined as a "significant increase in cases in the past two weeks."
Fourteen people have died between July 15 and Sept. 7.
"In the past several days we have seen an increase in the daily number of COVID cases reported to the Marathon County Health Department," department spokesperson Judy Burrows told ABC News, adding that the county has yet to experience the "exceptionally large increases that some other Wisconsin communities are seeing."
Cases across Wisconsin have skyrocketed in the past couple weeks, with the state reporting a record of 2,034 cases on Thursday.
State and local officials have attributed much of the increase in cases across the state to a spread among college students. According to data released by the state, there has been a significant jump in cases in the 18- to 24-age range, which tends to include college students.
Despite that, the Trump campaign said the event is moving forward.
This will be Trump's second visit to Wisconsin in the past month -- the president held a rally on Aug. 17 in Oshkosh, which is in Winnebago County.
There, signs of a surge in cases showed a week after the president's visit, with a steeper spike over the past week. The county reported a record 149 cases on Thursday.
Elizabeth Goodsitt, a spokesperson for the state's health department, however, told ABC News that there's only been one case linked to the Trump rally in Oshkosh.
"As part of their routine interview, people who have COVID-19 are asked about any large gatherings they attended," Goodsitt said. "One person who has tested COVID-19 positive reported being at the Oshkosh visit. However, they reported other possible exposures as well. So we can't say this event was or was not the cause."
Goodsitt said one possible explanation for the surge in Winnebago County could be the return of students to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, adding that the health department doesn't have specific case counts related to the university.
And while the airport hanger rally will be mostly outdoors and the Trump campaign said it will check temperatures, provide hand sanitizer and masks -- if recent Trump rallies are any indication, most supporters do not wear masks and no social distancing will be enforced.
The rally will likely violate state policy even if those precautions are taken. In social-distancing guidance updated last week, the state advised the public to "avoid gatherings of 10 or more people." Marathon County does not have its own policy that prohibits large gatherings, Burrow said, but the county encourages "anyone who attends any large gatherings to do what they can to protect themselves: wear a mask, social distance and stay home if you are sick."
"Large gatherings of many people provides more opportunity for the virus to spread from person to person," Burrows said.
Trump's rally has drawn strong rebuke from Democrats, who say they fear it'll only push Wisconsin further from a return to normal life.
"There is so much that needs to be done, and we don't need to have him coming here to Marathon County, which had record-high COVID-19 cases just yesterday, for this super spreader event," said Tricia Zunker, a Democratic candidate for Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District, which represents Marathon County.
Zunker said the county is "working so hard to, you know, get students back in buildings," but that Trump's visit Thursday will do "the complete opposite."
"I think it's a completely dangerous event that he's having here," Zunker said, speaking at a press conference ahead of the visit.
Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, warned that Marathon County was not a place "where we should be pouring gasoline on the fire."
Trump's visit "really illustrates the difference between how Democrats are responding to this crisis, versus how Trump is pretending it's not happening," Wikler said in a phone interview with ABC News ahead of the rally.
Biden, Trump's opponent, visited Wisconsin for the first time this year at the beginning of September. He met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot by police in Kenosha and held a community meeting at a church with about 20 mask-wearing attendees.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris also visited Wisconsin earlier this month. Similarly, Harris held a small event that mandated masks and social distancing.
Asked if Biden will be waiting for the statewide spike in cases to fall before he returns, Wikler said only that any visit Biden makes will look different than Trump's.
"What you're not going to see is big indoor mask-less rallies from Biden or any other Democrat here," Wikler said. "Biden is very focused on Wisconsin and I'm confident that we will see more of him, but anything that you see from a Democratic campaign will be grounded in public health research and great care for the communities that are affected."
While the president's rally in Wisconsin is outside at an airport hangar, it's unclear if social distancing or masks recommendations will be adhered to Thursday. But at recent rallies, it hasn't been enforced or required.
The Wisconsin Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
The president will next head to Bemidji, Minnesota, on Friday night, Fayetteville, North Carolina, Saturday night, and Swanson, Ohio, on Monday -- with more rallies yet to be announced for the rest of next week.
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