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Crowds eschew masks at Trump rally as president mocks Biden over social distancing

People await the arrival of Donald Trump before a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photograph: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

US elections 2020

The president also chose to ridicule the mass protests against racism and policing, saying, ‘We call our rallies peaceful protests’

A packed crowd of hundreds gathered in North Carolina for a Donald Trump campaign rally on Tuesday, with many people forgoing masks, in defiance of state guidelines capping gatherings at 50 people.

Ahead of the president’s visit to Winston-Salem, the chair of the local county commission, a Republican, urged Trump to wear a face mask. The state has a mask requirement in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s been ordered by the governor,” said Dave Plyler, the Republican chairman of the Forsyth county board of commissioners, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in North Carolina, do as the governor says.”

Trump “is a citizen of the United States, but he is also a guest in our county”, Plyler said. “Without a mask, he could get sick, and he could blame the governor.”

However Trump did not wear a mask, and used the event to mock his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, for following social distancing guidelines. “You ever see the gyms with the circles?” he said, an apparent reference to a Biden event held in a school gymnasium with attendees observing social distancing guidelines.

Nearly 178,000 people in North Carolina have tested positive Covid-19, with more than 1,000 cases reported on Tuesday – though the number of cases and deaths are slowly trending downward.

Recent polls have found Trump locked in a close race with Biden in North Carolina. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the president has often sought to focus on the economy and policing rather than the virus.

While supporters waited for Trump to arrive, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door played over the loudspeakers, making for an inadvertently dark soundtrack.

Deriding the mass demonstrations across the country against racism and policing, Trump told the jam-packed, cheering crowd: “We decided to call our rallies peaceful protests.”

The president has previously used the phrase to describe gatherings of his supporters, saying that if protestors against police brutality are allowed to gather then his supporters should be able to as well.

“Because they have rules in these Democrat-run states that if you campaign you cannot have more than five people,” the president said. “You can’t go to church, you can’t do anything outside. If you are willing to riot, running down the main street, if you want to riot and stand on top of each other’s face and do whatever the hell you want to do, you are allowed to do that because you are considered a peaceful protester.”

His claims, however, are an exaggeration. In North Carolina, governed by Democrat Roy Cooper, gatherings are currently capped at 50, and masks are mandated. Going outside is allowed in North Carolina (as it is in all states), and churches are allowed to conduct services, though officials recommend that worshippers follow social distancing and wear masks.

There have been more than 6.3 million cases of coronavirus in the US, with the country approaching 190,000 deaths. Trump’s rally comes as health experts warn the hunt for a vaccine has become increasingly politicized, with the Trump administration rushing to release one ahead of the November election.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading White House infectious disease expert, who has been increasingly at odds with Trump, stressed on Tuesday that a coronavirus vaccine would be unlikely to be ready “by the end of the year”. Fauci contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has signaled that health officials might expect a vaccine to be ready before the election.

“It’s unlikely we’ll have a definitive answer” on whether a vaccine is safe and effective by the election, Fauci said at the Research! America 2020 National Health Research Forum.

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