Donald Trump's planned rally causes alarm in New Hampshire

Even the state's Republican governor says he plans to stay away from political event in Portsmouth

US President Donald Trump is trailing his presumptive Democratic rival in polling for the November 2020 election. AP Photo
US President Donald Trump is trailing his presumptive Democratic rival in polling for the November 2020 election. AP Photo

Lagging in the polls, Donald Trump will once again venture out of the White House on Saturday to address a rally being held despite the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the United States, this time in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

But not everybody in the Granite State will be rolling out the welcome mat for the US president, with critics questioning the wisdom of holding the rally at a time when the country’s coronavirus infections are increasing by more than 50,000 a day.

Mr Trump's first campaign outing since the pandemic hit the US – in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20 – did not go so well.

The president was greeted by acres of empty seats in the 19,000-capacity arena and several Trump staffers tested positive for the virus after the rally, as did at least one reporter covering the event. Some health experts fear as many as 1,000 people could have been infected.

The Trump campaign has sought to reassure people that precautions will be in place at the New Hampshire rally, which is being held outdoors at Pease Air Force Base.

At the same time, those attending the rally have been told they must sign legal waivers indemnifying the campaign of responsibility should they contract Covid-19.

Hand sanitiser will be provided as well as masks which attendees are being encouraged, but not compelled, to wear.

Chris Sununu, New Hampshire's Republican governor, said he would wear a mask when greeting Mr Trump, but would not attend the rally. "I'm not going to put myself in a crowd of thousands of people," he said. "I try to be extra cautious."

Covid-19 has claimed more than 380 lives in New Hampshire. Nevertheless it is among a handful of states where the number of coronavirus cases has declined and locals would like to keep it that way.

"My concern is residents and businesses have sacrificed a great deal to manage the virus to the point that we are starting to recover," said Valerie Rochon, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.

"This has come at great cost. We have lost restaurants and businesses, but we have kept deaths down and we have kept infections down. We are one of the few states which are not spiking.

"Any rally coming into a state which has worked so hard to avoid a spike is not a great idea. I am very concerned that people coming to the rally will not take precautions. They will not wear masks, use hand sanitiser or socially distance,” she said.

"If businesses will have to close down again because of another shutdown, some will not come back – they have told me that."

Mr Trump sees things rather differently, despite the country recording more than 3.1 million confirmed cases and over 134,000 deaths.

He is desperate to reopen the economy, which he sees as the key to winning the election in November. At times Mr Trump appears to have been at odds with the country's leading epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, who has taken a far more pessimistic view of how the US is faring in the battle against Covid-19.

The president has even refused to wear a mask in public, flouting the advice given by the administration's health experts, the same experts who have counselled against mass gatherings – such as political rallies.

Chris Galdieri, associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, said going ahead with the Portland rally could be problematic for the Trump campaign.

"The optics run the risk of being terrible," he said.

"New Hampshire is one of a small number of states where the spread of the disease is slowing down.

"The campaign says it will encourage people to wear masks, but nobody will be thrown out – especially after there were all those empty seats in Tulsa."

The latest polls show Mr Trump trailing former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential candidate, by up to nine points. Alarmingly for the president, he is also lagging in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

"If you look at the electoral map, he is in real trouble,” Mr Galdieri said.

"His campaign is trying to do something different and get New Hampshire's four electoral college votes.

"The campaign is trying to keep him happy and a big part of what it is trying to do is manage his moods. If he can be put before a friendly crowd, he will feel better and more amenable to taking advice."

Trump loyalists, like Al Baldasaro, the co-chair of the president's campaign in New Hampshire, had no misgivings about the rally.

"Everybody is very excited about the president coming to New Hampshire, showing that he cares about us.

"It's only when there is a Trump rally that the Democrats are concerned about the threat of coronavirus.

"They weren't worried about hundreds of people coming together for Black Lives Matter demonstrations."

Daryl Abbas, a Republican member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said that holding the rally was a matter of principle, upholding the right of free speech enshrined in the US Constitution's First Amendment.

"I don't work for the campaign, but I think it is very important for our democracy for candidates to promote themselves and to state what they stand for.

"If people are unable to exercise their First Amendment rights, it would be very detrimental to our country.

"The campaign is recommending people wear masks and it wants people to be safe. Nobody is obliged to turn up, it's their freedom of choice.

"Even though I don't support vice president Biden, I would like to see him hold rallies: it is important to our democracy."

The question remains how viable it is to expect social distancing at a rally, even if it is held outdoors.

Jason Sullivan, a lawyer in Portsmouth, said it was a difficult call.

"I can see both sides. But there is the First Amendment of freedom of speech and assembly.

"There isn't an asterisk in the Constitution saying ‘except in the case of coronavirus’. People are adults and it is up to them whether or not they want to go."

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Coronavirus around the world

Updated: July 9, 2020 07:14 PM

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