RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A crowed political rally hosted by President Donald Trump put people’s health at risk but was legal under state pandemic rules that exempt certain gatherings where people exercise free speech, a spokeswoman for North Carolina’s governor said Wednesday.
Trump spoke at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem on Tuesday. Thousands of supporters crammed together without the 6 feet (1.8 meters) of social distancing the White House itself has recommended. An executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper earlier this month mandated masks in public and limited mass outdoor gatherings to 50 people.
Asked whether the Trump rally violated Cooper’s order, spokeswoman Dory MacMillan cited an exemption in the order that allows for “activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
However, MacMillan added, “When elected leaders violate the White House Coronavirus guidelines surrounding masks and social distancing, especially with large maskless crowds that sit and stand closely together for hours, they put people’s health at risk. By using the First Amendment exemption for mass gatherings … in this way, they’re making it much harder for North Carolina to get our children back in school and people back to work safely.”
MacMillan added that the Trump campaign did not give state officials a heads-up about the gathering.
Airport director Mark Davidson told the Winston-Salem Journal somewhere between 7,000 to 9,000 people attended the event, though Trump claimed in his speech to have drawn a crowd of 15,000.
The state’s Department of Health and Human Services did not say whether it would take any actions against the Trump campaign, but urged Trump supporters to get a coronavirus test.
“Holding large events without face coverings and without social distancing can put people’s health at risk,” the department said in a statement. “People who have attended a mass gathering are encouraged to get tested for COVID-19.”
Cooper and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen met in North Carolina on Wednesday with Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House’s task force, the governor’s office said Wednesday evening. Cooper and Birx joined each other on a call with the task force, where the governor “spoke about the need for our elected leaders and candidates to lead by example on the campaign trail this fall by holding events with face coverings and social distancing.”
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.