FAYETTEVILLE — An estimated 5,600 people attended President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Fayetteville on Saturday, and a majority were not wearing masks or social distancing during the president's speech.
That concerns health officials, who are urging people who attended the event to be tested for the coronavirus.
Fire Marshal T.J. McLamb said Monday that fire officials counted about 5,600 people coming through the gate at Fayetteville Regional Airport to attend the rally.
Fayetteville Observer reporters and photographers at the event estimated that about one-third of those who attended were wearing masks. The Trump campaign passed out masks to people as they entered the event.
Jennifer Green, Cumberland County's public health director, said Monday in an emailed response to questions that crowded settings like the rally "can make it difficult to practice social distancing and can increase the risk for transmission of COVID-19."
"This is especially true for individuals who are in close contact within six feet for prolonged periods of times and when those individuals don't live in your household," Green said. "The risk for transmission can increase when singing and shouting occurs, especially if people are not wearing masks."
She added that contact tracing after large events like this can be difficult if someone tests positive because individuals may not be able to readily identify those who were close to them at the event.
"We appreciate those who attended the event and wore their face covering and practiced social distancing," she said.
Green said Gov. Roy Cooper's Executive Order 163 limits mass gatherings to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors but allows exemptions for individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights, including political rallies, "but strongly urges exempted groups and individuals to avoid holding mass gatherings."
"We strongly recommend organizers of large events limit their crowd sizes and engage attendees in other ways," Green said. "We've seen examples from around the country where large gatherings can turn into super spreader events that impact individuals who did not attend the event. There is still accelerated community spread in Cumberland County. Event planners should continue to take precautions to prevent spread among attendees.'"
As of Tuesday afternoon, there have been 5,178 coronavirus cases in Cumberland County and 75 deaths, state data shows.
"We're still among the lowest in the surrounding region," Green said.
Of the people who have died in the county, 80% are age 65 or older, 70% are male, 57% are African-Americans and 51% have been in congregate living settings.
Green said it's too early to tell what the impact of the rally will have on the overall numbers.
"Our contact tracing team asks individuals about their attendance at large gatherings during their case investigation interviews," Green said. "We encourage anyone (who has) tested positive after attending the rally to communicate this with our contact tracing team. This will help us to identify any spike in cases as a result of the rally."
Green said scientific evidence indicates wearing a face covering "greatly reduces the risk for transmitting COVID-19."
"However, face coverings are not a replacement for physical distancing. Individuals should wear their face mask and socially distance themselves from others and wash their hands," she said. "Doing all three significantly reduces risk. However, these events are not risk-free, even when practicing your Ws. There will always be some associated risk when interacting with other individuals."
She said testing is available and encouraged it for individuals who have attended protests, rallies or other mass gatherings where it is difficult to practice effective social distancing.
A spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services also said in a statement Monday that large rallies like those the Trump campaign is holding in the state carry health risks.
"While activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights are exempt from the requirements of the Governor's Executive Orders, large gatherings increase the risk of spreading COVID-19," said Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager for the N.C. DHHS.
The Trump campaign took temperature checks of people entering the event and passed out free masks and hand sanitizer.
A sign with a legal disclaimer posted at an entrance gate read: "You understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present."
Jackie Taylor, the chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Party, said she was ordered by Trump campaign officials to wear a mask at the rally. She was among the group of people that could be seen behind the president on television.
But thousands of others in the audience were not wearing masks.
Taylor said it should be an individual's choice whether to wear a mask, especially since there is debate about whether they are effective.
"Most conservatives feel that it is our choice," she said. "That's how I feel. I did wear one because I really wanted to come within 5 feet of President Trump. But I hate wearing masks, and so do many other people. Let's be honest, we have been told at the beginning that masks don't work."
She said as a 40-year-old she is not worried about contracting coronavirus, but for people who are worried, they have the right to wear a mask or not attend the event.
"Conservatives understand that," she said. "They try to be respectful, especially in a big crowd. I think anybody that was worried had a mask on, as it should be. If you are worried, don't be there. If you are at risk, don't be there. Wear a mask. Take precautions."
She said it is also unrealistic to think that the staff at the rally could make sure that everyone was wearing a mask.
"They had a lot of staff there — tons of volunteers — but there will never be enough people there to make sure everyone wears their mask and keeps it on," she said.
"With the freedom that we have of making choices for our own bodies not everybody is going to comply," Taylor said. "But I did see quite a lot of mask-wearers, and not just in my section. I don't think I've ever seen that many people wearing masks, honestly."
Subhan Cheema, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign in North Carolina, criticized Trump's rallies in an email.
"More than 3,200 North Carolinians have lost their lives and thousands have lost their livelihood because President Trump deliberately downplayed the risk of COVID-19, and now he holds campaign rallies that ignore public health guidance and put his own supporters at risk," he said. "North Carolinians deserve a president who will protect and support working families and honor the sacrifice of our essential workers by taking the steps needed to get the virus under control and build our economy back better. Joe Biden will be that president."
Sharon Johnson, chairwoman of the Cumberland County Democratic Party, said it didn't surprise her that only about a third of the people at the event were wearing masks, which she said is concerning.
"Then the other two-thirds are clearly in a position to be spreading the virus," she said Monday. "We'll never get over this if we don't do what the health professionals tell us to do."
She said she did not believe that Trump was gaining a competitive advantage over Democratic candidate Joe Biden by continuing to hold these large rallies and Biden not holding them.
"I don't think we're at a disadvantage," she said. "Our candidate — Vice President Biden — is very prudent. We are engaging in limited activities, but they are (being held with) the interest of safety for all."
She said Biden doesn't need to go "tit for tat" with Trump in holding large rallies to run a successful campaign.
This is not the first time Trump has held a rally in North Carolina where a large number of people didn't wear masks.
Earlier this month, Trump spoke at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem. According to press reports, thousands of supporters crammed together without the 6 feet of social distancing the White House itself has recommended.
Airport Director Mark Davidson told the Winston-Salem Journal somewhere between 7,000 to 9,000 people attended the event, though Trump claimed in his speech to have drawn a crowd of 15,000.
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