As Northland sees COVID-19 surge, officials ask Trump to follow health guidelines at Duluth rally

People standing in a crowd and on bleachers.
Supporters of President Trump gather before his arrival for a rally in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News File

By Tom Olsen | Duluth News Tribune

President Donald Trump will fly in to Duluth for a reelection rally Wednesday night, bringing with him public health fears as the Northland experiences its most significant surge of COVID-19 cases to date.

Trump is scheduled to speak at the Duluth International Airport at 8 p.m., with doors opening to the general public at 5 p.m. The "Make America Great Again" rally will utilize an airfield ramp and private hangar, airport spokeswoman Natalie Peterson confirmed.

The president is known for holding large-scale gatherings that have flouted state and federal guidelines during the pandemic. When he was last in Minnesota on Sept. 18, Trump spoke to a crowd of thousands in Bemidji, with few masks and no social distancing observed among attendees, according to the Bemidji Pioneer.

Minnesota's emergency measures still cap gatherings at 250 people, even when outdoors, with masks required in situations where physical distancing cannot be properly maintained. Minnesota Department of Health officials say the state is currently experiencing "uncontrolled spread" of the virus, strongly discouraging large social events that are frequently tied to outbreaks.

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Locally, nearly half of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in St. Louis County since the start of the pandemic have been in September alone, with a monthly total of more than 800 as of Tuesday. Meanwhile, the 10-county region of Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin reported a record-high 100 new diagnoses in a single day Monday.

"One event can affect so many people," Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota's infectious disease director, said during a media briefing this week. "Being outdoors is not a substitute for safe practices. It is essential that people still keep a distance and wear a mask."

Ehresmann said the state is experiencing regular outbreaks stemming from social gatherings. She said there have been 37 clusters tied to weddings, 11 to funerals, 22 to gyms and 62 in other social settings.

Gov. Tim Walz previously sent a letter to the campaigns of both Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, asking them to adhere to state guidelines for safe gatherings. Health officials later acknowledged Trump's team appeared to disregard those suggestions in Bemidji, but the agency has been tight-lipped about the potential of taking any enforcement action.

A man speaks at a podium.
President Trump addresses the crowd during a rally in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18.
Evan Frost | MPR News File

"Any time we have large groups gathering and people are not socially distanced and not masking, that's always a risk for transmission," Ehresmann said in response to a question from the News Tribune. "Whether it's political or social, any of those things are certainly concerning, so that's why we're asking the public to consider the guidelines when they find themselves in those settings."

A handful of area residents expressed concern to the Duluth City Council about the rally.

"Allowing the president to hold a campaign rally and disregarding our state rules is reckless endangerment of our community," Verne Wagner wrote, noting the "sacrifices" of major events such as Grandma's Marathon and the Bayfront Blues Festival.

"Yet we are allowing a rally that will bring in supporters from not only all over Minnesota, but neighboring states," Wagner said. "We are allowing these folks to spread this pandemic to all of us. This is reckless endangerment and could lead to reckless homicide of our loved ones."

Pressed on the potential for enforcement before or after the fact, Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff would only say the agency will be "monitoring" Trump's rally.

"We know that all the campaigns care about the health of their supporters and we ask for them to make sure to structure and stage their events in such a way that is protective of the health and safety of everyone involved," Huff said.

He noted that even young, seemingly healthy people can be at risk of serious complications if they contract COVID-19, and those who do escape any serious effects may spread it to others.

"That's why we have really emphasized that for us to prevent continuing spread of this disease, it's important that we all take responsibility for protecting each other and protecting the most vulnerable among us," Huff said.

Peterson said the airport serves as an impartial, nonpartisan host for events. She said officials have advised the Trump campaign of state guidelines, but it's ultimately up to his team to coordinate and manage the event.

“There have been a lot of public events politically, on both sides, locally — not just this side — and clearly there’s been probably pushing of limits of some of the state mandates," Peterson told the News Tribune this week. "That goes on both sides. But, regardless of that, we’ve asked that the campaign follow the state mandates."

She added: "We would make the same statement no matter the political affiliation of anyone who is requesting to hold an event on our airfield. We don't look at it based on party."

The Trump campaign did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment on any precautions that will be in place for his Duluth visit.

When the president spoke in Bemidji, staffers checked temperatures of attendees and offered free masks at several points, the Bemidji Pioneer reported, but few were seen keeping their faces covered or attempting to distance once inside.

A man speaks to other people in a workshop.
Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden tours Jerry Alander Carpenter Training Center on September 18, in Hermantown, Minnesota.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images File

There have been striking differences in the two presidential campaigns over the past six months, with Trump resuming his classic rallies this summer and Biden opting for more virtual campaigning and restricted-access events on the ground in battleground states.

Trump will be hosting his third major rally at a Minnesota airport since August, with previous events drawing crowds in Mankato and Bemidji. Vice President Mike Pence also held an outdoors rally at the Duluth port last month.

When Donald Trump Jr. campaigned on his father's behalf in Duluth earlier this month, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center made the campaign agree to a 250-person cap, along with mandatory masks and spaced-out seats, interim executive director Roger Reinert said.

Biden was in the Northland on Sept. 18, but he did not advertise any events for general public attendance. Instead, the Democratic nominee toured and delivered remarks at a severely restricted union training center in Hermantown before making unannounced stops at a Duluth fire hall and Canal Park, where he chatted outdoors with a few dignitaries.

This reporting is by our newspartners at the Duluth News Tribune. Read the original report here.

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