No masks, no problem: Trump’s diagnosis doesn’t change much on Georgia campaign trail

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

In the same suburban Atlanta ballroom where President Donald Trump rallied cheering supporters a week ago, hundreds of conservative activists gathered Friday for a solemn prayer that the Republican recover from a coronavirus diagnosis he revealed earlier that morning.

Hardly anyone in the crowd, clustered in rows of chairs filling most of a Cobb Galleria Centre ballroom, was wearing masks.

A few hours later, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler addressed about 80 of her allies in a packed Cumming restaurant after she said China should be held “accountable” for originating the disease. Some in this audience, too, were mask-free.

Georgia leaders from across the political spectrum urged Trump a speedy recovery from a diagnosis that complicates an already volatile election. But for top Georgia Republican candidates, the revelation didn’t change much about the campaign trail.

Several GOP candidates said they still won’t require attendees to wear face coverings, limit the size of gatherings or require social distancing. That has some public health experts seething.

“I’ve seen firsthand the deadly effects of COVID, and the best way to treat it is to prevent it. And that means it should be mandatory to require masks and social distancing,” said Dr. Will Epps, an Atlanta anesthesiologist.

“It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It affects us all equally, and after today’s announcement, if you’re not wearing a mask or maintaining social distance, you’re being careless and irresponsible.”

About the only change in the GOP approach on Friday was a disclosure by Loeffler and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, in town Friday to boost Loeffler’s campaign, that they both took rapid-result coronavirus tests before the afternoon event. Both came back negative.

Trump’s diagnosis refocused attention in the tight race for president in Georgia on his uneven handling of the pandemic — and offered a stark reminder of how differently campaigns in the state are approaching the disease.

Democrats halted in-person campaigning in Georgia as the pandemic worsened in March, and many still haven’t returned. The state party has turned to online events and virtual town halls to reach voters, and top contenders only started holding face-to-face events in the past month.

Democrat Raphael Warnock, one of Loeffler’s top opponents, has taken to drive-by visits in parking lots throughout the state. Jon Ossoff, who is challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue, held his first in-person event since June over the past weekend — a socially distanced handout of yard signs in metro Atlanta.

By contrast, Republicans have crisscrossed Georgia since June, regularly holding rallies and events that defy Gov. Brian Kemp’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. Kemp hasn’t objected — he’s spoken at several of those large-scale events, even though he’s the one who instituted the ban.

Despite Trump’s diagnosis, it’s only scaling up as November nears. Loeffler is about to announce a third statewide tour, while rival Republican Doug Collins keeps a busy schedule of events that include stops in North Georgia over the weekend.

“I want to keep people safe, but I also want to keep people free. I don’t think we can mandate masks. I think we need to follow the guidelines,” Loeffler said. “I encourage people to follow the guidelines. But we have to protect the freedoms that we have in this country as well.”

Trump has mocked precautions such as wearing a mask. Kemp has regularly urged Georgians to wear masks, but he, too, hasn’t been willing to mandate it. Opponents say wearing masks infringes on their freedom. Supporters say not wearing one helps spread the virus.

At the Faith and Freedom Coalition conservative conference early Friday, only a small number of the hundreds of attendees wore masks as they listened to speakers, mingled in the conference center’s hallways and perused tables full of religious literature.

“(Trump’s) supporters are going to support him and pray for him and be positive,” said Dianne Putnam, a local activist who fished a pro-Trump face covering out of her purse as she spoke with a reporter. “And it will probably make them take the virus more seriously.”

At Loeffler’s campaign stop, college professor Fang Zhou stood near the back of the upscale restaurant sporting a tight surgical mask. He’s a constant presence at Republican events in the state, and he said he’s not particularly uncomfortable by the sight of unmasked attendees in the room.

“I always wear a mask. I try to follow the guidelines, and I feel good about the precautions they’re taking,” he said. “Besides, it’s the only way I can come hear the candidate in person.”