Political rallies in the coronavirus era? Ohio health officials aren’t worried

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee's Panther Arena. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

A presidential primary and a novel coronavirus are raging concurrently in the United States, but public health officials said Thursday they’re not concerned about the possible spread of the virus through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of campaign rallies.

While Gov. Mike DeWine and Public Health Director Dr. Amy Acton issued a formal order to mostly prohibit spectators at the Arnold Sports and Fitness Expo Thursday morning, they agreed in interviews the sports event carried unique risks that don’t hold true for large-scale public rallies.

“We are [12] days away from the Ohio primary, we do not see any danger in political rallies, we don’t see any danger in regard to voting, we would not anticipate that would be in any way impacted,” DeWine said.

Acton concurred, saying the most prudent steps forward would be for people to wash their hands, cover their coughs and stay home when feeling ill.

The state has not confirmed any cases of the COVID-19 disease in Ohio, per state data Thursday afternoon. However, state officials say the virus is likely to appear in the state at some point.

Three people are under investigation, meaning they are awaiting lab results and have exhibited symptoms of respiratory illness and recently traveled to China or been in contact with a person known to have COVID-19.

According to federal data from Thursday, health officials have reported 99 cases of the disease spread over 13 states. Ten people have died. The New York Times, drawing on additional data from local health agencies and hospitals, reports there are at least 226 cases in the U.S. and 14 deaths as of Friday morning. 

Ohio’s primary is scheduled for March 17, and as the presidential field has winnowed to two candidates in a tight race, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are likely to arrive in the Buckeye State to jockey for Ohio’s delegates. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is in the race as well, but her chances of winning the primary are minuscule.

Neither the Biden nor Sanders campaign responded to inquiries about whether the organizations are undertaking any preventative health measures in planning events.

State Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said there are no confirmed presidential rallies before the primary. However, some are likely to pop up with either surrogates or the candidates themselves.

He said if the epidemic turns up in Ohio, he trusts DeWine, a Republican, to make a sound decision regarding the rallies as they relate to public health. He said DeWine’s decision to curtail the Arnold earns him some credibility.

“I would say they’re going to play it straight,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see a partisan approach by them … They clearly showed there [at the Arnold] that at the risk of both economics and potentially people being upset — and that maybe is political — they’re trying to get it right.”

DeWine said the threat the state recognized at the Arnold is different from that of a political rally, Columbus Blue Jackets game, or the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament in Cleveland for several reasons. 

For instance, the Arnold draws participants from 80 countries, it lasts for several days, and the non-assigned seating all made for a higher risk of transmission of a viral disease.

DeWine said he’ll be looking to local health departments for assessments regarding future events. But on a bleaker note, he said the virus is likely coming to Ohio and will be here a while, and Ohioans shouldn’t let this stop them from living life altogether.

Speaking at a COVID preparedness summit in Columbus, several local health officials said they’re not worried about campaign rallies at the moment, but emphasized situations develop quickly when it comes to infectious diseases.

Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner Terry Allan said public health assessments are all about context: are there cases in Ohio when any events are being planned? Are there instances of community transmissions in neighboring areas?

He said government officials and health experts would need to consider these and other factors.

“I would expect to see candidates moving just about anywhere and everywhere, so we’ve got to think about that context, we need to model behavior, and I’d expect candidates would be doing the same thing,” he said.

Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman said he would like to see open lines of communication between campaigns and public health officials in whatever communities they stop in.

However, he said it’s too early to say whether the rallies could pose any public health threat.

“We would do whatever we can to make sure we keep the community safe and the candidate safe when they come to our community,” he said. “So we would take necessary steps at that time.”

This story was updated Friday morning with additional coronavirus case data.