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Democrats cry foul on mask-optional GOP campaign events

Republicans said they've issued masks and guidance on COVID-19 mitigation but can't force people to use them.

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A Trump supporter has her photograph taken with Trump 2020 senior adviser Katrina Pierson during Tuesday’s "Women for Trump" bus tour stop in Hermantown. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota Democrats on Wednesday, Sept. 2, cried foul on their political opponents, saying Republicans weren't doing enough to heed coronavirus prevention measures on the campaign trail, alleging political motives at the potential expense of public health.

The two parties have put forth different campaigning realities: one continuing in-person door-knocking, campaign headquarters celebrations and bus tours around the state, while the other rallies voters in Zoom calls, phone banking campaigns and occasional socially distant park events.

Across the country, Republicans have frequently opted against wearing face masks in public settings, social distancing or moving news conferences or other events to more virtual platforms. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates have shifted to virtual news conferences and meetings, citing concerns about in-person events spurring COVID-19 transmission.

On Wednesday, Minnesota Democrats pushed back against their Republican peers, saying GOP candidates continued in-person events with minimal precautions in an effort to gain an advantage at the polls. And those decisions could have dangerous consequences for candidates and attendees who could become infected with COVID-19.

Republicans, meanwhile, said they'd offered guidance to attendees who came to support candidates but couldn't stand in the way of voters' individual decisions in gathering close together or removing face coverings.

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COVID-19 response measures for months have stirred partisan divisions with Republican lawmakers in the state Capitol and all the way up to the White House. In each setting, elected officials have pushed back on public health guidance and executive actions.

In Minnesota, executive orders limit capacity at indoor offices and require attendees to wear face masks or coverings unless they fall under certain exemptions. Public speaking is an accepted exemption for removing a face covering, but that doesn't cover attendees listening to speakers.

In a virtual news conference, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders and public health officials on Wednesday highlighted several GOP events that had taken place in recent months in an indoor setting with few facemasks or social distancing precautions. They put up a presentation titled "unmasked and dangerous" and raised concerns about Republican officials from local leaders up to President Donald Trump stumping on the campaign trail without taking mitigation measures recommended by doctors.

"There really are no legitimate differences of public opinion when it comes to public health," Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt said. "These are political leaders, they get briefed, they're political candidates that get briefed so I'm left to ask why would they do it? Is it a political statement? Is it a statement that says we have some lack of fear or some special power? And I can tell you that I know people, sadly, who have felt that way ... several of whom are no longer with us."

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin took it a step further, saying Republicans were using the in-person events to get a leg-up on Democratic candidates and staffers who'd moved to more virtual gatherings out of concerns about spreading the virus.

"We all do this to save lives, we all make this sacrifice because it's our patriotic duty to our fellow Americans to keep them safe," Martin said. "Unfortunately, my counterpart Jennifer Carnahan, Minnesota Republicans and the Trump campaign are not willing to share the responsibility to halt the spread of COVID-19 ... Minnesota Republicans are making it harder to get back to that normal life that we all want to get back to."

Jennifer Carnahan, chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, in a separate virtual news conference said masks were provided at party events and attendees received guidance about wearing the masks and social distancing. But she said the decisions were ultimately up to individuals.

“We provide masks at every event that we hold and that we participate in and again we print all the CDC guidelines and recommendations and certainly encourage that but we’re not law enforcement," Carnahan said. "If someone chooses to take off their mask for a period of time, that’s up to them. We’re practicing the safe protocols that are put in place."

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Carnahan said she had thrice tested negative for the illness and wore a face mask to the grocery store and in other settings unless she was public speaking, an exemption under state law.

It's not immediately clear how many COVID-19 cases have stemmed from political events as contact tracing information is often kept private. Minnesota Department of Health officials said they didn't have a clear count of how many of the state's reported cases, if any, had been transmitted in those settings.

"That's not been something that has been flagged for us as a potential source of exposure, but that's not to say that it couldn't," Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health Director of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology, said.

Health officials said candidates and voters interested in attending campaign events should opt for outdoor settings where possible, wear masks and social distance. And they said older adults, those with health issues and those with symptoms of COVID-19 should not attend in-person events.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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