LAS VEGAS/WILMINGTON (Reuters) – With less than a week of voting left, President Donald Trump pushed ahead on Wednesday with mass rallies despite a U.S. surge in COVID-19 cases and mounting criticism that he is prioritizing his re-election above the health of his supporters.
The pandemic that has upended life across the United States this year, killing more than 227,000 people, is roaring back in the days leading up to the Nov. 3 contest when Republican Trump faces Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Biden holds a comfortable lead in national polls, which also show a public increasingly dismayed by Trump’s handling of the largest public health crisis in U.S. living memory. Polls in battleground states that will likely decide the election are tighter than the national surveys.
After a briefing from public health officials on Wednesday, the former vice president slammed what he called the Trump administration’s disregard for safety and failure to develop a plan to contain COVID-19. Polls show Americans trust Biden more than Trump to contain the virus.
“The longer he’s in charge the more reckless he gets,” Biden told reporters, before casting his own vote in Wilmington, Delaware.
Biden criticized his rival over reports that hundreds of Trump supporters were stuck in the cold for up to three hours after a rally in Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night, waiting for campaign shuttle buses to take them back to their cars.
“It’s an image that captured President Trump’s whole approach to this crisis … He gets his photo-op and then he gets out,” he said.
The Trump campaign said the problems were due to the unexpectedly large crowds.
Trump’s running mate, Vice President Mike Pence, will campaign on Wednesday in Wisconsin, where a record number of coronavirus cases has prompted the Democratic governor to urge people to stay at home.
Wisconsin broke one-day state records in cases and deaths on Tuesday. State officials have asked residents to quarantine voluntarily, wear masks and cancel social gatherings with more than five people. Each of Trump’s rallies in recent days have drawn several thousand people.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat it – we are facing an urgent crisis and there is an imminent risk to you, your family members, your friends, your neighbors, and the people you care about,” Governor Tony Evers said. “Stay home, Wisconsin.”
Epidemiologists say rallies posed grave public health risks during the pandemic because people shout and chant, aiding the spread of the virus.
“Rallies are perfect places for so-called super-spreader events,” said Barun Mathema, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York, adding that the risk increases when attendees do not wear masks, which is the case for many of the people attending Trump events.
Officials in Michigan and Minnesota told Reuters they identified people who attended Trump campaign events in their states and later tested positive for COVID-19, though it was not clear if they were first exposed to the virus at the rallies or elsewhere.
Minnesota public health officials have attributed three COVID-19 outbreaks and more than 20 cases to Trump rallies held in the state in September, according to media reports.
The Trump campaign is taking all necessary precautions at the event in Wisconsin, campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN.
Asked whether holding a big rally raised safety concerns given that aides to Pence have tested positive and Wisconsin hospitals are near capacity, Gidley said: “No, it doesn’t … The vice president has the best doctors in the world around him. They’ve obviously contact traced and come to the conclusion it’s fine for him to be out on the campaign trail.”
Reuters/Ipsos polling from Oct. 20-26 shows Biden with a solid lead over Trump, 53%-44%, in Wisconsin, which as a battleground state could help decide the election.
After racing across Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska on Tuesday and staying overnight in Las Vegas, Trump was due to hold airport rallies in Bullhead City, Arizona, and Goodyear, outside Phoenix, Arizona’s biggest city.
He was due to move on to Florida and North Carolina on Thursday, then return to the Midwest on Friday in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
In all, Trump plans to visit 10 states in the last week of the campaign and will host 11 rallies in the final 48 hours, a campaign official said.
A pro-Biden group, Priorities USA Action, said its recent polling in six battleground states found that when people were told Trump was holding large rallies without mask-wearing requirements, most disapproved.
“He is actually hurting himself by traveling around the country holding these rallies,” said Guy Cecil, who leads the group, a top Democratic super PAC.
Trump on Wednesday accused the media of pushing the coronavirus story to hurt him.
“Covid, Covid, Covid is the unified chant of the Fake News Lamestream Media. They will talk about nothing else until November 4th, when the Election will be (hopefully!) over,” the president wrote on Twitter.
More than 74 million people have cast early in-person and mail ballots, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. That is a record-setting pace and more than 53% of the total 2016 turnout.
The huge volume of mail ballots – more than 48 million have already been cast – could take days or weeks to tally, experts say, meaning a winner might not be declared the night of Nov. 3, when polls close.
Only eight of the 50 states expect to have as many as 98% of ballots counted and publicly reported by midday on the day after the election, according to a New York Times survey of election officials.
Reporting by Jeff Mason in Las Vegas, Eric Scheyder in Wilmington, Delaware, Doina Chiacu and Jason Lange in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell.