WASHINGTON (AP) — As coronavirus cases spike, public health officials are pleading with Americans to avoid large crowds and hold more muted Independence Day celebrations, but subdued is not President Donald Trump‘s style, and he was going big with a “special evening” that could bring tens of thousands to the National Mall.
Trump’s “Salute for America” celebration on Saturday evening was to include a speech from the White House South Lawn that he said would celebrate American heritage, as well as a military flyover above the city and an enormous fireworks display that could pack people downtown.
In many parts of the country, authorities sought to curb the enthusiasm for mass gatherings after days that have seen COVID-19 cases grow at a rate not experienced even during the deadliest phase of the pandemic in the spring.
In New York, once the epicenter, people were urged to avoid crowds and Nathan’s Famous July Fourth hot dog eating contest happened at an undisclosed location without spectators on hand, in advance of the evening’s televised fireworks spectacular over the Empire State Building.
In Philadelphia, mask- and glove-wearing descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence participated in a virtual tapping of the famed Liberty Bell on Independence Mall and people were asked to join from afar by clinking glasses, tapping pots or ringing bells.
Yet Trump continued to crave big crowds when it came to his events.
He opened the holiday weekend by traveling to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota for a fireworks display Friday night near the mountain carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In stark words, he accused protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.”
Even as he pushed ahead with celebrations, the shadow of the coronavirus loomed closer to him. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraiser for the president and girlfriend of his eldest child, Donald Trump Jr., tested positive for the virus, Trump’s campaign said late Friday. Guilfoyle tweeted Saturday that she was looking forward to “a speedy recovery.”
In a presidential message Saturday on the 244th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Trump acknowledged that “over the past months, the American spirit has undoubtedly been tested by many challenges.”
His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, said in a statement that the U.S. “never lived up” to its founding principle that “all men are created equal,” but today “we have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country.”
Trump’s endorsement of big gatherings at the National Mall and at Mount Rushmore came as many communities decided to scrap fireworks, parades and other holiday traditions in hopes of avoiding yet more surges in infection.
Confirmed cases are climbing in 40 states, and the U.S. set another record Friday with 52,300 newly reported infections, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
For the Mount Rushmore event, GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, insisted social distancing wasn’t necessary and masks were optional. Trump spent little time in his Mount Rushmore address reflecting on pandemic, which has killed more than 129,000 Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that mass gatherings like the one scheduled for Washington present a high risk for spread of the virus. Yet Surgeon General Jerome Adams sidestepped when asked if he would caution a loved one against attending a large gathering. He said people should wear masks and otherwise make up their own mind.
Trump has been aching to see the nation return to normalcy, and has been willing to push the envelope farther than many states and big city mayors are willing to go.
Officials said they would hand out 300,000 face coverings to spectators at the National Mall. Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said visitors would be encouraged to wear masks and keep a six-foot distance from one another. But there was no indication masks would be mandatory.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said she didn’t have the right to shut down the holiday spectacle because it’s on federal land. But she warned the federal government about the dangers of such a large crowd and told her constituents: “Just because someone invites you to a party doesn’t mean you have to go.”
For Trump and the country, it was yet another holiday clouded by a pandemic that the U.S. has failed to bring under control.
In late March, a little more than a week after he bowed to the need to shut down much of the country, Trump spoke of reopening with “packed” churches by Easter Sunday. He relented on that push as his medical advisers warned that it was far too ambitious. Then he spent chunks of his Memorial Day weekend fuming about critics who he said were ignoring falling cases and deaths at the time.
With the Independence Day holiday, he told Americans that the nation is “getting close to fighting our way” back. His rosy outlook was out of sync with officials in swaths of the South and West pulling back on reopening because of a surge of cases in their communities.
“A lot of things are happening that people don’t quite see yet, but you’ll see over the next couple of months,” Trump said in a video message on Twitter.
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