Trump and Biden quarrel over mask mandates and state shutdowns in first presidential debate

By: - September 29, 2020 7:00 pm

President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The two men vying to become the next president offered a stark contrast to voters on face mask requirements and on how soon state economies should reopen amid the pandemic, just two of many areas where they squabbled during Tuesday’s contentious and often chaotic first debate.

The exchange between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden touched on some of the major disputes that have erupted during the pandemic, with Trump decrying state shutdowns of businesses and Biden criticizing the lack of a White House plan on containing the COVID-19 outbreak.

Trump said he wears a face mask when “needed” and mocked Biden’s use of one; defended his recent rallies as safe because the large, tightly packed events have taken place outside; and blasted Democratic-led states that have taken a more cautious approach to allowing businesses to reopen and social gatherings to resume.

“If you look at Pennsylvania, if you look at certain states that have been shut down, they have Democratic governors,” Trump said. “One of the reasons they shut down is because they want to keep it shut down until after the election.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has defended his administration’s actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which included ordering non-essential businesses to shut down this spring. That order was lifted using a color-coded, county-by-county basis.

When case counts began to rise again in July, Wolf’s administration limited public gatherings to 25 people for indoor events and 250 for outdoor events.

A U.S. District Court judge in Pittsburgh struck down the most significant portions of Wolf’s response earlier this month, calling it “well-intentioned” but unconstitutional. Republicans in the state Legislature also have criticized Wolf’s response, arguing that he overstepped his authority and seeking to roll back restrictions on school districts and sporting events.

Trump argued during Tuesday’s debate that “people will be hurt” if restrictions continue, preventing businesses from fully resuming their operations.

Biden shot back that resuming business operations and other aspects of normal life requires a plan for supporting companies with enough protective gear and other support, and faulting Trump for not providing adequate funds or planning for reopening.

“He is insisting that we go forward and open, when you have almost half the states in America with a significant increase in COVID cases and COVID deaths. And he wants to open it up more,” Biden said. “Why aren’t schools open? Because it costs a lot of money to open them safely.”

Biden also criticized Trump’s decision to hold large rallies that are virtually unchanged from the massive events he held prior to the pandemic. The former vice president described those events as “totally irresponsible.”

Trump defended the rallies as safe because recent events have been outside, though he held earlier rallies inside, including one in Tulsa in June. He also said he’s holding big events because he is able to draw a large crowd.

As for mask-wearing, Trump pulled out a black face mask and says he does wear one “when needed.”

He then made fun of Biden’s regular use of a face mask—”the biggest mask I’ve ever seen”— and disputed Biden’s citation of an academic model projecting that 100,000 lives could be saved if 95% of Americans wear masks in the coming months.

“They’ve also said the opposite,” Trump said.

“No serious person has said the opposite,” Biden replied.

More than 200,000 Americans have died and more than 7 million have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March.

The debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic was the first of three in advance of the Nov. 3 election. The next debate is between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and will be Oct. 7.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.