MIAMI — Less than 24 hours before the dawn of Election Day, President Donald Trump touched down Sunday night in Miami-Dade County — the coronavirus epicenter of his must-win home state — and blew the lid off COVID-19 precautions.
In a hospitality-driven county bottled-up by for months by social distancing measures and mask mandates, where more than 3,600 have died in the pandemic, Trump gathered thousands shoulder-to-shoulder to cheer on his embattled reelection campaign at the Miami-Opa locka Executive airport.
He blew past a midnight curfew put in place by a mayor he’s endorsed. And he hammered a crucial tenet of his closing message: His belief that American economy is surging despite the pandemic caused by “the plague from China,” and that a “safe vaccine” is on its way soon.
“We’re creating an economic powerhouse unrivaled in the world,” Trump told thousands of cheering supporters, many of whom went without masks
He again mocked lockdowns and insisted the end of the pandemic is in sight. “It’s rounding the turn,” he said.
Trump, in a fight for his political life against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, touched down in Miami just past 11:30 p.m. after a marathon day that began in Michigan and included stops in Iowa, North Carolina and Georgia. On Monday, he’ll return to North Carolina and Michigan, and will also travel to Wisconsin.
The president continues to trail in most battleground polls, and has been forced to campaign in states he won easily in 2016, such as Georgia. But none of what happens outside Florida will matter if Trump doesn’t win the nation’s biggest battleground, where two polls released Saturday indicated that the race is narrow but conflicted on whether Trump or Biden holds the lead.
Miami-Dade County — which Trump lost by about 290,000 votes in 2016 — is key to his reelection campaign this year. Conservative Cuban Americans, who were lukewarm on his candidacy four years ago, have now consolidated around Trump and have voted in big numbers, leading Republicans to hope that Trump can cut his 2016 losses in half in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county.
But the county is also still reeling from the pandemic, and easing out of a prolonged period of business and social restrictions that have divided people along partisan lines. Republicans and Democrats have taken increasingly disparate views of the current threat of COVID-19. And Trump, who contracted the virus last month, has downplayed its severity since the beginning, warning people not to let it “dominate” their lives.
Trump’s very appearance ran afoul of the county’s “New Normal” rules, put in place by a county mayor running for Congress with the president’s blessing. Earlier Sunday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez had announced that he would not lift a midnight curfew that has led Miami-Dade police to issue $500 fines to violating restaurants, but would be “flexible” if people were forced to drive home late.
When Gimenez climbed a stage to warm up the crowd waiting on Trump’s arrival, the masses quickly began to boo the architect of the county’s coronavirus restrictions. They chanted: “Vote him out!”
Through Sunday afternoon, COVID cases statewide had killed 16,789 people, according to the Florida Department of Health. In Miami-Dade County, the state reports that 3,662 people have been killed by COVID-19. A Stanford University study published Friday used a statistical model to estimate that 18 Trump rallies this year, including one in Jacksonville, led to 30,000 cases of COVID-19.
“President Trump will hold another one of his potential super-spreader rallies in Florida tonight, putting his supporters and Floridians they come into contact with in danger,” Biden’s campaign said in a statement. “This rally isn’t for Floridians; it’s to fuel his own ego, with no regard for the issues working Floridians face every day.”
But the crowd at Trump’s rally was largely unconcerned with the pandemic.
“I haven’t been worried about COVID for about the last year,” said Christine Cooper, a public school teacher who said she had already voted for Trump as she walked briskly to the security entrance of Trump’s Make America Great Again rally. “I think we probably all got it at one time or another and all survived. I’m pretty certain that I got it.”
Unrestrained, thousands flooded the Opa-locka airport draped in Trump flags and carrying Trump-Pence campaign signs. Children waited in line to buy Kona ices from a food truck. People danced to a Colombian vallenato band played on a stage with a giant American flag as a backdrop. Most the audience did not appear to be wearing masks.
Trump again downplayed the severity of the threat.
“I just left two states now that are locked down, they’re not happy about it…. you turn on the news all you hear is ‘COVID COVID COVID.’ Come November Fourth you’re not going to hear much about it,” Trump said Sunday night.
When “Fire Fauci” chants broke out, referring to the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, with whom he has clashed, Trump responded: “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait ‘til a little bit after the election.”
Trump later added: “The Biden lockdown would cripple Florida. My plan would lift Florida to record highs.”
Also on Sunday, Trump repeated many of his usual campaign themes: that Biden and Democrats want to take away the right to own firearms, increase taxes, plunge the economy into a depression and “indoctrinate your children with anti-American lies.”
And he delivered an often-repeated message that has resonated with many in South Florida’s Latin-American community: that Biden wants to make it “Communist Cuba or socialist Venezuela.”
Trump’s visit was tailored to Election Day faithful, though few in the audience cheered when county mayoral candidate and Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo asked who had not yet voted. When polls opened Sunday, the final day of early voting in Florida, 69 percent of Republicans in Florida’s most populous county had already cast their ballots, a rate 7.5 percentage points greater than Democrats.
Early voting ended Sunday night at 7 p.m. in Florida, with somewhere around nine million votes already cast — a new state record that nearly matched the number of all ballots cast in 2016. Going into Sunday, 96,000 more Democrats had cast ballots than Republicans, and Biden’s campaign was looking for a jolt from late-breaking Hispanic and Black voters.
But Trump is now looking for a big turnout on Tuesday. He will trail Biden in votes when polling places open, though projections of that deficit vary.
“We’re going to have a big victory. I don’t know if you know what’s happening,’ Trump said Sunday as the crowd interrupted him with chants of “we love you!”
“I don’t know if you know what’s happening, but they’re very worried, the Democrats, about Florida. They’re very concerned. The vote’s not there for them.”
Trump is hoping for a big showing by voters who waited until the last possible moment in an election season of mail voting and early voting that has unfolded for more than a month.
Those last-minute voters included Tomas Lopez, a 48-year-old Miami-Dade County truck driver who cast his ballot Sunday at Miami Lakes Regional Library. He and his whole family recently recovered from the virus. He was not bothered by Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
“We were positive for COVID. It wasn’t too bad. High fever. Cough. But not too bad at all,” he said. “Trump is not guilty for coronavirus.”
At Sunday night’s rally, Lourdes Dominguez, 48, a private schoolteacher in Miami-Dade, wore a mask. Her cousin, Carlos Simancas, stood next to her without a mask.
“If you’re afraid, if you’re sick, stay at home. I have my mask on because I don’t want to get others sick, but it’s my decision,” Dominguez said. “He’s not wearing it because that’s his decision.”
Said Dominguez: “My son caught COVID in his college campus. He had a fever, one day, two days, and then it passed. He told me, ‘Mom, here everyone’s caught it. And that’s it, it’s over. Pa’lante.’”
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