The striking contrast between the Democratic and Republican conventions

Different COVID-19 procedures have presented vastly different images to viewers.

August 27, 2020, 6:58 PM

After testing every staff member, reporter and individual near the former vice president for two days in a row and asking members of the crowd to stay in or near their socially distanced cars Joe Biden and his wife still wore masks as they watched fireworks together, away from the cheering audience after his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Delaware last week.

Asked if the precautions taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus were excessive, the senior staff of the Democratic National Convention Committee responded that the health and safety of the staff, candidates and everyone involved was the most important part of the four days of programming. Moreover they wanted to set an example.

“Vice President Biden recognized what President Trump does not seem to,” Joe Solmonese, CEO of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, told ABC News over the phone this week. “That the American people look to him to set an example and if the public health advice is that everybody ought to wear a mask, Joe Biden recognizes the strength of his reach and the degree to which people look to him to lead.”

In terms of their approach to coronavirus safety, Democrats and Republicans have largely followed different standards, resulting in strikingly different images over the course of their two conventions. On the third night of the Republican National Convention, for instance, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stepped down from the stage at the Fort McHenry National Monument and greeted the crowd of a few hundred supporters. While they did not shake hands, they also did not wear masks. Pence could be seen giving a fist-bump to at least one member of the crowd.

Chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, said she was not “up to speed on all the precautions” taken at Fort McHenry. McDaniel said she was tested for the virus Tuesday before attending the first lady’s address at the White House and again ahead of the president’s speech at the White House Thursday. Delegates who traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina for some of the party meetings were tested before they left and after they landed in the state.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence greet the crowd after Pence's acceptance speech during an event of the 2020 Republican National Convention held at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Aug. 26, 2020.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence greet the crowd after Pence's acceptance speech during an event of the 2020 Republican National Convention held at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Aug. 26, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“So, this is the thing, the White House and the RNC and the president is pushing forward,” McDaniel told ABC News Thursday on the Powerhouse Politics podcast. “We have to take the precautions we need to. Wear a mask. Social distance. Take those precautions, but at the same time we can balance that with being together and continuing to move forward with our lives.”

When asked about safety protocols for the major speeches and events, the Republican convention team did not offer any specific details about their standards or procedures, except to say that masks were encouraged but not required for event attendees.

The president’s campaign staff told reporters that they worked with a medical firm, Patronus medical, to ensure consistent screenings and the “safety and well-being of individuals at convention venues.”

Republicans did choose to limit most of their speeches with audiences to safer, outdoors spaces, and the White House has routinely tested people who may be within close, in door, proximity to the president, when he is on official business. The Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Marc Short, told MSNBC Thursday that personnel backstage with Pence for his Fort McHenry event received tests and that some temperature checks were done.

Democrats did not have any speakers address any in-person audiences and instead presented an all virtual, all-remote convention to the country, but some speakers appeared with other people. Still, their teams put in place strict workflows that included extensive testing and required face coverings for the staff and volunteers working behind the scenes. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Democrats ran all of their television-style control rooms and meeting space, they tested a few hundred staff regularly and also required masks on site. Security personnel checking credentials were required to wear both masks and face shields.

PHOTO: Former vice-presiden Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden wave to supporters watching remotely after he accepted the Democratic Party nomination for president during the Democratic National Convention, in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 20, 2020.
Former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden wave to supporters watching remotely after he accepted the Democratic Party nomination for president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 20, 2020.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Senior staff for the Democratic convention told ABC they tested all of their staff working at satellite locations as well. For example, staff teams that prepped the site in Philadelphia where President Barack Obama spoke and those who also worked on location in Delaware were all also tested through the committee’s systems.

Specifically, samples were flown daily to Milwaukee, where Democrats had built a relationship with a local lab. According to senior Democratic staff, it took months to identify to a lab in Milwaukee that had both spare processing capacity and the resources to expand their intake. Democrats said it was important to them to find a lab that could process and handle their samples without slowing down or impacting their ability to also processing tests for others in the community.

The final conventions were, in many ways, a culmination of diverging views and campaigning norms that had been on display for the two parties for months. Both Biden and Harris have participated in events and fundraisers almost exclusively digitally, online from afar. Since his campaign staff removed to working remotely in mid-March, Biden, in fact, has participated in only 15 in-person, public events-- a fact that Trump and conservatives chide him for.

The president’s team, in contrast, has held events weekly, with packed rooms and little attention to masks or social distancing. Last week, on the eve of the Republican convention, the president and his party defied a standing order from the Virginia governor prohibiting in-person, indoor gatherings. At their “2020 Council for National Policy Meeting” in Arlington, Virginia, approximately 250 people packed a room, mostly without masks. The White House reiterated that people near the president are routinely tested, but declined to comment on whether that meant that everyone in the room had in fact been tested.

When pressed about the appearance of these campaign events, McDaniel argued that many people in attendance at some recent campaign events have in fact worn masks, though pictures clearly show that has not been the case.

“I mean these are the types of things that we should be doing and people know,” she responded Thursday, but went on to argue against some of the Democrats’ moves too. “I think the Democrats aren’t following the science when they keep saying we have to shut everything down. We have put precautions in place.... The RNC has done it in our workplace where we are able to work. Create a living, and also be healthy and safe,” McDaniel said.

For months, both parties had hoped to hold larger scale, in-person events. Frustrated by local rules limiting crowd-sizes, President Trump asked his staff to look for alternative locations where he might still be permitted to hold a major rally during the pandemic. For a few weeks, this summer it seemed Florida might give a green light, but then cases and deaths spiked there too.

Democrats drafted a wide-range of contingencies to possibly, safely accommodate different potential crowd sizes. Their goal had been to conduct daily tests for all attendees in Milwaukee with results linked to credentials.

Democrats have argued that while theoretically in-person events could be done safely during a pandemic, with daily testing and protective gear as a backup, the reality is access to fast and affordable testing is still too limited for most Americans.

“We showed that with testing you can bring people together safely,” Andrew Binns, chief operating officer at 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee, told ABC News. “In the future anyone can throw money at any event and make it safe, but we are still looking at a national failing from this administration. It is failure that we still do not to have a testing system that works for the country.... It is not true that anyone who wants a test can get a test.”

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