On Tuesday, barely 72 hours since the Phoenix City Council implemented a mandatory mask-wearing order, President Donald Trump is scheduled to address an estimated 3,000 people at a “Students for Trump” campaign rally at the Dream City Church in north Phoenix.
At the same time, Arizona is seeing record COVID-19 hospitalizations. And since the outbreak began more than 54,000 cases of coronavirus and nearly 1,300 deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded statewide.
At first blush, the event would seem tailor-made for a titanic political clash between Trump, who is seeking reelection to a second term as president, and a rising Democratic star, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.
But asked in a Saturday interview with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer if Phoenix would force the rally’s cancellation, Gallego said, “We are not going to be focused on enforcement during the rally,” adding that she expected Gov. Doug Ducey, who is scheduled to attend the rally, and Trump to set an example and tell “the young people who are there to wear masks.”
Asked by Blitzer if the president would be required to wear a mask, Gallego added, “Yes, the requirement is that everyone who is within six feet of other people be wearing a mask,” though she quickly noted, “Look, we’re not going to cite the president of the United States. But we would ask all other elected officials and every other type of leader to lead by example.”
Gallego also told the CNN host, “If (Trump) told everyone at that rally it’s important to wear masks. I believe they would do it.”
Ducey, until recently, has faced criticism for not wearing a mask at public events, though he’s gotten behind a major public service messaging campaign that encourages mask wearing, hand washing and social distance to slow the spread of the virus.
But under his direction, Arizona has not yet issued a statewide mask-wearing order. Ducey has left that to local government leaders to decide whether to impose a mask-wearing mandate, but only after skyrocketing COVID-19 cases led to a public backlash, pressure from city and county officials and a series of unflattering stories by national news outlets.
Trump, meanwhile, is famous for refusing to wear a mask, including at his campaign rally Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., where an estimated 6,200 people gathered inside a downtown arena to cheer on what the president billed as the kickoff of his campaign.
Video of the rally showed few of those who attended bothered to wear a mask or socially distance. The Trump campaign has announced that eight staff members who worked to prepare for the rally or during the rally have tested positive for COVID-19.
For their part, Dream City Church authorities say they plan to abide by the CDC guidelines during the Trump rally here, noting that they’ll be handing out masks and conducting temperature checks as people arrive. In a statement posted on the church’s website, the church says it was only made aware that Trump would be attending after it had agreed to rent the facility to the group Turning Point Action for the student campaign rally. The statement adds that money earned from the rental will go to help the needy.
In a video, the church’s Pastor Luke Barnett and Chief Operations Officer Brenden Zastrow brag about the church’s new special air filtration system that uses technology developed by some of its members that “kills 99.9% of COVID within 10 minutes….and it takes particulates out and COVID cannot live in that environment.”
Barnett closes the video saying, “So, when you come into our auditorium, 99% of COVID is gone, killed…You can know when you come here you’ll be safe and protected. Thank God for great technology.”
The website for the company that makes the filtration system, CleanAir EXP, notes that the 99.9% claim is based on tests performed “on active coronavirus 229E test surrogate.” Coronavirus 229E is better known as the common cold.
Despite those assurances, anyone registering to attend the event must agree not to sue the church or Turning Point Action if they’re exposed to COVID-19. Turning Point Action was founded by 26-year-old GOP-activist Charlie Kirk, who the New York Times recently described as “a right-wing provocateur with ties to the Trump family.”
“By attending this convention,” the registration page reads, “you & any guest voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 & agree not to hold Turning Point Action, their affiliates, Dream City Church … liable for any illness…”
In a statement released Monday, Gallego said Trump’s rally this week in Phoenix was “not sanctioned” by the City of Phoenix because the city doesn’t issue permits for political events, and because it is expected to violate the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines, which recommend against large indoor gatherings amid the current health crisis.
“While I do not believe an event of this magnitude can be held safely, particularly as Arizona sees rising COVID cases, the president has decided to continue with this rally,” Gallego said. “Everyone attending (Tuesday’s) event, particularly any elected official, should set an example to residents by wearing a mask. This includes the President.”
She added that “City officials have contacted both the church and presidential campaign staff to alert them to the city’s masking policy. The goal of this policy is not to hand out citations but to educate the public on the virus and its transmission.”
While that may not be the goal of the policy, under the city’s new mask-wearing ordinance, violators could be fined up to $250.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams has said officers will not be patrolling the streets on the hunt for mask-less scofflaws, though they will respond to complaints. If a complaint is made, officers would first inform the person about the rule and give them a flier with information about the CDC guidelines, and, if necessary, give them a mask. Repeat offenders could be fined.
According to a source familiar with Gallego’s thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly, the goal for the city’s mask ordinance is to concentrate for the first 30 days on educating the public about the health benefits of wearing a mask.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Trump rally, a Biden rally, (a Major League Baseball) game… For the first 30 days of this we are doing education. There will not be citations written,” the source said.