Big cities are moving to shut down large public gatherings to protect against coronavirus, but President Donald Trump is scheduled to depart Washington on Thursday for a three-day visit to Las Vegas, where he will deliver remarks to an estimated crowd of 1,500 at the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Conference organizers and the city’s elected officials said the event is a go even though about one-quarter of those who signed up for the conference have dropped out. High-profile speakers, including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, remain on the agenda. And Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are speaking at a preconference dinner with prominent Jewish Republicans on Thursday evening.
Only one speaker, who was coming from Israel, has dropped out due to travel restrictions imposed in that country, RJC Director Matt Brooks said. There have been five confirmed cases of the virus in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.
“I’m excited our president is traveling around and living his best presidential life the way he is supposed to – he’s meeting folks and not letting fear take over,” said Michele Fiore, a Las Vegas City Council member and mayor pro tem who plans to attend the conference. “We really believe it’s safe enough . . . We are encouraging all our conventions and meetings to go on no matter how many thousands of people.”
For Trump, the decision to participate squares with his efforts to project confidence and maintain a business-as-usual routine in hopes of reassuring the public, even as other administration officials have warned that the virus will continue to spread and recommended that the public adopt social distancing practices. Washington and San Francisco have called on organizations to limit events to fewer than 1,000 people. Seattle, where the most confirmed cases in the United States have been found, has shut down public schools for two weeks.
But Trump’s 2020 campaign on Tuesday announced it will hold a “Catholics for Trump” kickoff event in Milwaukee on March 19, a facility that can hold more than 3,000. The move came on the same day that Democratic presidential candidates Joseph Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., canceled their campaign rallies over coronavirus concerns.
Asked if he thought it was safe to hold such an event, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said: “It’s hard to answer that question right now until we literally have test kits deployed, the lab technicians trained and we get a better sense of exactly what’s happening. It may not be. It may be OK. We do need more information.”
Still, Johnson said he plans to attend the campaign event if it happens. A spokeswoman for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.
Public health experts have called on more extreme measures to slow the virus, but for Trump the decision is laced with concerns over not wanting to instill greater fears in the public. On top of that, with financial markets plummeting more than 20 percent from their all-time highs, the president is under pressure from tourism and travel industry executives fearful that widespread cancellations will wreak further damage to the economy.
“Some of the international conferences have been canceled, but we’re still going forward with the number of conventions,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., whose district includes Las Vegas. She pointed to the NFL draft, which is scheduled for late April. “We’re trying to be smart but not be panicked.”
The risks of large-scale events came into sharp relief last week, when an attendee at the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month at National Harbor was later diagnosed with coronavirus. Trump spoke at the event, and several Republican lawmakers who were there put themselves into self-quarantine, although none has been found to test positive.
Trump had interacted with two of those lawmakers, shaking hands with Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia in Atlanta last week and riding with Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida on Air Force One on Monday. Trump has said he has not been tested for the virus because doctors have said it is not necessary.
In a coronavirus meeting at the White House with banking executives Wednesday, Trump noted that China and South Korea had made headway in slowing the number of new cases and projected a hopeful note that the United States will be “getting back involved in that part of the world.” But he also noted that several European nations, including Italy and France, have seen a rapid increase and are “in tough shape.”
The RJC is a small but politically powerful organization representing conservative Jewish Republicans, a constituency Trump has courted. He also addressed the group last year.
Neither the White House nor the casino and hotel industry in Las Vegas has put any pressure on the RJC to go ahead with the conference, Brooks said.
On Thursday, Brooks tartly denied an assertion on Twitter from conservative writer and pundit William Kristol that RJC backer Sheldon Adelson, a powerful hotel magnate and prominent GOP donor, wants the event to go on.
“Falsehoods and fabrications,” Brooks wrote.
Kristol had called the decision to hold the event “totally irresponsible” and suggested the RJC was “scared to cross” Adelson.
” I assume Trump’s proposed bailout will include money for Sheldon’s hotels,” Kristol wrote.
Brooks said on Twitter that he has “not had a single conversation with Sheldon or ANYONE from the Venetian about whether we should cancel. This has never been a factor in our decision.”
The meeting will be held at the Venetian hotel, in one of the largest auditoriums on the Las Vegas Strip. The RJC organizers said they plan to pass out individual supplies of hand sanitizer and ask each participant to refrain from handshakes, hugs and kisses. The organization is also urging attendees to use good judgment and not attend if the event or the associated travel would put them at risk, Brooks said.
Brooks tweeted a photo Wednesday of hand sanitizer bottled with an “RJC” logo on the label.
“Just wash your hands more – 20 seconds, lots of soap. On a personal level, up your vitamin C, immune boosters,” said Fiore, the Las Vegas council member who is a Republican. She suggested those who show symptoms of illness would take precautions at the conference, but experts have said those infected might not show symptoms for days but can be highly contagious. They also have suggested people stay at least six feet apart because the virus can be contracted via airborne particles.
“We’ve had many scares in the past – many illnesses and viruses,” Fiore said. “We cannot let fear take over. We need to live our lives.”
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said she expects the White House to continue to assess the risks as Trump seeks to maintain his public schedule.
“He comes in front of a lot of people,” she said. “I think it’s important that he stay safe and healthy.”