Few masks, little distance at Trump’s Atlanta campaign rally

Rochelle Richardson (from right), Lynnette Hardaway (second from right) (known as Diamond and Silk); and Alveda King (fourth from right) are escorted into a ballroom at Cobb Galleria Centre before the start of a Blacks for Trump campaign rally in Atlanta, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Rochelle Richardson (from right), Lynnette Hardaway (second from right) (known as Diamond and Silk); and Alveda King (fourth from right) are escorted into a ballroom at Cobb Galleria Centre before the start of a Blacks for Trump campaign rally in Atlanta, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Black Voices for Trump event came week before positive test disclosure

Minutes before President Donald Trump took the stage at the Cobb Galleria Centre to address supporters last Friday, organizers played a series of videos.

One segment began with a beaming image of Herman Cain ― the Atlanta businessman, radio host and one-time presidential candidate who died July 30 from complications of the coronavirus after attending an indoor Trump rally in Tulsa a month earlier.

The tribute prompted roars of approval from the event’s more than 300 attendees. It also took on new meaning after Trump announced early Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when and where Trump caught the virus.

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - President Donald Trump speaks during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - President Donald Trump speaks during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

But the Black Voices for Trump event on Sept. 25 near Vinings underscores the riskiness of the crowded indoor campaign events the president and other Republican officials have held in recent months, often flouting public health guidelines that urge against large gatherings. At the events, like the one at the Galleria, many attendees have chosen not to wear masks or maintain six feet of distance.

State and local public health officials said they have not been notified of any coronavirus outbreaks or new cases associated with the Cobb event.

Still, Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said gatherings with hundreds of largely mask-free attendees sitting shoulder-to-shoulder amid shouting and cheering can easily become a super-spreader event.

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - President Trump supporters cheer during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - President Trump supporters cheer during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“We know that there’s essentially a hierarchy of risk," he said. “We know that outdoor, socially distanced is the safest. Indoor, not socially distanced, without a mask is the highest risk.”

Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders ban gatherings of 50 or more people unless social distancing can be observed. But there are many loopholes, and the Republican explicitly allowed conventions to resume on July 1.

The Galleria began holding events in mid-July and has implemented sweeping safety and sanitation policy changes, said Karen Caro, marketing manager for the venue. She said she doesn’t expect those protocols need to be revisited.

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A President Trump supporter shouts in agreement to remarks made by the President during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A President Trump supporter shouts in agreement to remarks made by the President during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

As attendees filtered into the 25,000-square-foot ballroom for the Black Voices for Trump event, they passed a table stocked with black "Trump-Pence: 2020″ masks. Upstairs, volunteers handed out T-shirts and hats.

More people in the crowd opted to wear the T-shirts and hats than the masks, which were encouraged, but not mandatory. Many guests sat shoulder-to-shoulder beneath the raised stage, where Trump unveiled his “Platinum Plan” to provide $500 billion in access to capital, create 3 million new jobs and bridge historic disparities in health care and education for African Americans.

Negative COVID-19 test results were not required for entry, and it was unclear how many guests had their temperatures checked when they arrived. Members of the media were not tested, and outside the venue, dozens of protesters and counter-protesters neglected to socially distance.

A row of top Republican officials, including Kemp and his wife Marty; Congressmen Doug Collins, Drew Ferguson and Barry Loudermilk; and Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler all sat side-by-side, some with masks and others without, and then posed for selfies with attendees.

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - U.S. Republican Senator Doug Collins (left) takes a photo with a supporter during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - U.S. Republican Senator Doug Collins (left) takes a photo with a supporter during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

All the officials confirmed they have tested negative for COVID-19 in the days since. Caro said she wasn’t aware of any COVID-19 cases among the Galleria’s employees, and none were in direct contact with the president.

Political consultant Janelle King, who addressed the crowd last week, said she was “surprised" that Trump tested positive "because of all the precautions he takes when dealing with the public.”

King has shared a stage with the president twice during the pandemic, and both times she was tested beforehand and asked to keep her distance from people after receiving her results. She said she didn’t meet with Trump at the event and to her knowledge, no one did.

Alveda King, a high-profile Black supporter of the president, attended Trump’s rally last week. King, who cares for her elderly mother, said she wears a mask regularly and has recently tested negative for COVID-19. She expects to take another test soon.

“I am very concerned that people don’t wear masks. I do wear the masks out of courtesy and respect,” said Alveda King, who wore a mask during most of the event, but walked in with Diamond & Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) without one. “But I am not surprised that the president and first lady have COVID. He is a man of the people and never feared going among the people."

09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A President Trump supporter listens to individuals speak during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
09/25/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - A President Trump supporter listens to individuals speak during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta, Friday, September 25, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Heiman, of GSU, said that if Trump is tested daily, as the White House has suggested, “it’s highly unlikely" that he contracted it at the Cobb County event. But Trump’s diagnosis, he added, underscores the “critical importance of clear, consistent messaging" from political and public health leaders.

“In many cases, we’ve seen just the opposite — a considerable inconsistency, lack of clarity and lack of meaningful accountability,” he said. "I think the result of that is people get sick.”

--Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Tia Mitchell and Ada Wood contributed to this article.