If you looked at the South Lawn of the White House Thursday night, you might have thought that the coronavirus pandemic was over.
A crowd estimated at up to 1,500 gathered for President Donald Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for another term — most without masks and with no social distancing.
There were a number of GOP House members and senators in attendance and some, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were spotted wearing masks.
Other members of Congress and members of the Trump administration were not, including Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who apparently removed his mask during the event.
Tillis put out a statement bordering on an apology.
"I've stressed the importance of mask wearing throughout this pandemic and have tried to lead by example on this issue, but last night I fell short of my own standard," he said. He then noted he was willing to "accept responsibility for his actions." and launched an unrelated attack on his Democratic opponent this November.
The group photographed without face coverings also includes White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. While people in close proximity to the president are generally tested, they would still be at risk of contracting the virus from the unmasked crowd.
The scene sent a different message from the one espoused this week by the most powerful Republican not physically present.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared at the White House Thursday on a big screen in a recorded video from Louisville, Ky., but he did not attend.
McConnell spent the day of the Trump acceptance speech in rural eastern Kentucky, continuing his tour of the commonwealth to thank health care workers and promote the use of masks — and practicing what he preached.
Earlier in the week, McConnell promoted the use of masks made from hemp, and on Thursday the majority leader was at eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, visiting a facility that’s been manufacturing face shields.
“Everybody has felt the need to get in and do something constructive,” McConnell said of distillers making hand sanitizer and other manufacturers making COVID-19 response products.
“It will end when we get a vaccine, and that’s why everywhere I go, every appearance I make, I emphasize wearing a mask and trying to [practice] socially distancing,” McConnell said. “It is the only thing each of us can do to try to prevent the spread until we get a vaccine.”
McConnell has repeatedly highlighted that the Senate has largely remained in session (until leaving for August recess) by paying attention to health and safety protocols.
The reality is that masks are far more common on Capitol Hill than among Trump administration personnel, and it’s certainly not perfect. There have been more than 100 cases of COVID-19 among people on Capitol Hill, but so far that has been manageable.
A few members of the president’s cabinet were spotted in a review of photos and video footage from the South Lawn wearing masks, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, as well as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who is McConnell’s wife.
The official proceedings of the Republican National Convention took place on Monday in Charlotte, N.C., with Trump stopping to give a speech to accept the nomination to the much smaller number of delegates physically present. In normal times, his Thursday night speech would have been in a large arena or stadium in North Carolina.
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina., reported that among 792 tests provided in conjunction with the official RNC proceedings, there were four positives, and all of those indivuiduals were directed to isolate.
Reports indicated that everyone present at the White House Thursday was not proactively tested for COVID-19.
“We are delivering life-saving therapies and we will produce a vaccine before the end of the year or maybe even sooner,” Trump said to applause Thursday in his speech. “We will defeat the virus and the pandemic and emerge stronger than ever before.”
Back in Kentucky, McConnell was more cautious about the timeline, expressing hope that there would be a vaccine before the end of the year but noting the scale of the production and distribution challenges.
“Even once they find one or more vaccines that work, getting people vaccinated is going to be a herculean task as well,” the majority leader said. “So, I know that’s somewhat depressing news, but we’re not going to shut the economy down again.”
After finishing remarks and taking press questions, McConnell offered to stay for a few photographs.
“Anybody interested in a funny picture with a mask on? Come on up,” McConnell said.