Five months, 4 million cases and nearly 144,000 deaths after the coronavirus was first detected on U.S. soil, US President Donald Trump seems to finally be taking some of the most basic steps to show that the pandemic is serious.
He was shown wearing a mask in public. He rebooted the White House’s coronavirus briefings as a brief, more informative affair than the hour-plus rant sessions of the past. And on Thursday, he canceled the Jacksonville, Florida, portion of the Republican National Convention ― a mass public gathering exactly of the type that public officials have warned against ― saying his convention speech would happen “in a different form.”
“The timing for this event is not right,” Trump said. “To have a big convention, it’s not the right time. It’s really something that, for me, I have to protect the American people.”
The acknowledgments that the virus isn’t going away, that wearing a mask is vital to protect oneself and the public, and that huge gatherings are dangerous are a good thing. And they appear to be happening throughout the country, as more state lawmakers strengthen their protection measures and corporations mandate masks. But the months Trump spent insisting COVID-19 would disappear, politicizing masks and criticizing lockdowns already did their damage. And Trump’s continued push to reopen schools, along with Congress’s failure to quickly pass new unemployment insurance or other economic relief, indicate Trump and other lawmakers haven’t fully learned their lesson.
Across the country, elected officials have begun to take bigger steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) finally mandated masks this week, as did Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D). Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) also signed a statewide mandate to wear masks indoors, but he did not include his initial plan to penalize anyone who refused to do so. Corporations are taking note, too: McDonald’s and Walmart announced this week that they would require customers to wear face coverings.
And while this is better than nothing, experts have expressed concern that Trump waited so long to take proactive steps. Barely one month ago, on June 20, the Trump campaign hosted a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, despite pleas from local officials to cancel or postpone it. In the weeks after, public health officials blamed the rally for a spike in cases in the area.
“The past two days we’ve had almost 500 cases, and we know we had several large events a little over two weeks ago, which is about right,” said Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, who had pleaded with Trump to cancel the rally, on July 8.
Though Trump ignored those pleas in June, he appears to be listening now.
Two days before Trump announced the cancellation of the Jacksonville convention, Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams hosted a press conference in which he explained his Florida county was simply not prepared to handle it.
“I cannot say with confidence the event or the community will not be at risk,” Williams said. “I can’t predict the future, [but] as it stands today, we can’t support the plan moving forward as is. I don’t have what I need to keep this event and our community safe.”
Williams wasn’t the only one in the area concerned about safety ― Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry (R) mandated masks in the city at the end of June, much to the ire of his fellow party members (he was even sued for doing so). And Republicans in Congress said in large numbers that they wouldn’t attend the convention events in Florida.
Trump ended up relenting and canceled the event.
But it’s been five months since states began ordering citizens to shelter in place amid the pandemic, and as far back as April, public health officials have said that Trump needed to act faster to encourage Americans to take the virus more seriously.
Now it’s late July, and there’s still significant room for improvement.
“It was good to have the president address the pandemic and the crisis that we are all in,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said Wednesday on CNN. “I like the fact he acknowledged the importance of wearing masks and that he acknowledged things will get worse. Unfortunately, there was also a certain amount of misinformation about how great America is doing.”
“Great” is not the adjective to describe lines of citizens applying for unemployment, hundreds of thousands of people worried about paying rent, a COVID-19 test kit backlog and a disconcertingly high number of deaths.
And as cases creep up in several states, such as California, public officials are having to consider another shutdown.
“It’s clear that we have lost control of the coronavirus fight, and you don’t have to look very far to see it in the numbers,” said California state Sen. Steve Glazer on Thursday.
“This crisis is on the verge of spiraling out of control.”