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Critics Call Out Uneven Mask Enforcement At Cleveland Debate

Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump arrive before President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. [Olivier Douliery / Pool via AP]
Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump arrive before President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland.

Updated: 6:05 p.m., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020

Everyone in the hall at Tuesday’s presidential debate tested negative for the coronavirus before entering the event, according to a statement from the Cleveland Clinic, which co-sponsored the debate with Case Western Reserve University and helped develop and enforce COVID-19 safety protocols.

President Donald Trump tweeted early Friday morning that he and the first lady tested positive for COVID-19. Later Friday, according to a number of national media outlets, including NPR, the president was to be transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further evaluation.

“Individuals traveling with both candidates, including the candidates themselves, had been tested and tested negative by their respective campaigns,” the Clinic's Friday statement read.

That indicates the testing was done by the campaign, not the Cleveland Clinic. Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News said in an interview on Fox that the Trumps arrived hours before the debate, which was too late for the Clinic to do the testing members of the media and other attendees underwent days before.

"There was an honor system when it came to the people that came into the hall from the two campaigns," Wallace said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, both tested negative Friday, his campaign said.

Questions remain about who may have been exposed to the Trumps while they were in Cleveland, just two days before they tested positive. 

The Clinic confirmed some guests removed their masks once they were seated to watch the debate, after reports surfaced that Trump’s family members did not wear masks. 

In a tweet Friday morning, Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) shared a picture of Trump family members seated without masks.

Sykes told ideastream she is concerned that the rule for audience members to wear masks was not universally enforced.

“We were under the impression, were given directions, that everyone inside had to wear a mask,” Sykes said. “For there to be people inside without masks, it was interesting that their rules applied to some and not others.”

In a press briefing Friday, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish criticized audience members who removed their masks. 

“It’s a rule: you wear a mask. It’s not that hard. Put a mask on,” he said. “I think it was extremely disrespectful for people to come into a place like that and not wear a mask, and I don’t think it’s real smart, either.” 

Sykes said she is currently in quarantine and plans to be tested for the coronavirus in the next few days.

“I would have never expected that I would have been exposed to the coronavirus because of the President of the United States of America,” Sykes said. “That person is supposed to be protecting all of us from the coronavirus, yet he wasn’t able to protect himself from the coronavirus.”

Gurnee Green, owner of Chemistry 11 boutique in Cleveland Heights, was an invited debate guest of the Biden campaign, sitting in the front row. Now she’s worried, after the president and first lady’s positive tests.

“I don’t know whom else in his family has been tested positive or has even been tested,” Green said. “I know that they had to walk past me which was very, very close. It was not six feet distance of them walking past me in order to get to their seats.”

Green wore her mask throughout the debate but still worries because if she was exposed, it could impact her family and her store employees.

“It puts me at danger,” Green said. “I have my mother. I have a small child. I have another child with Type 1 diabetes. And also with me being inside the store, it puts an exposure and a risk.”

She said Cleveland Clinic has not yet reached out to address her concerns, but she plans to be retested.

University Hospitals infectious disease specialist Dr. Amy Edwards said she’s concerned about people who may have come into contact with members of the Trump campaign in Cleveland.  Campaign officials could have been exposed to the president or his senior adviser, Hope Hicks, who also tested positive for the virus Thursday, she said.

“I think a lot of people were kind of keeping their distance from the president on purpose, right, so as not to try to spread it around,” Edwards said. “But if you think about people hanging out with his entourage, I don’t know how many people met with Ms. Hicks or would have been around her, so I think that’s something that needs to be thought about as well.”  

The president spent a few hours at the InterContinental Hotel before the debate. According to a hotel spokesman, no one traveling with the president stayed overnight there.

“This group was in a dedicated space within the hotel and had limited to no interaction with hotel colleagues or other guests,” he added. “We are following guidance from relevant health authorities to minimize any further risks, and the hotel is open and continuing to serve guests.”

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted (R-Ohio) is being tested for the virus. His office said Husted attended the debate, but wore his mask during the entire event and was not in contact with the president or his family.

Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) office said in a statement the senator was in contact with the president at a Monday White House event. Portman canceled his Friday events and was tested for the virus. A spokeswoman said later Friday the senator tested negative.

Rep. Jim Jordan, who attended the debate, also tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday,  according to a news release. Jordan will not be quarantining himself because a physician advised him he was “not in close contact with any COVID-19 positive people during a risk time period,” the statement reads.

Clinic officials said they believe debate guests were at low risk for exposure, but are contacting attendees to answer questions. 

MetroHealth’s Dr. David Margolius said unless attendees were in close contact with the president and his campaign staff, they should not be too worried. 

“When contact tracing is done, what we’re looking for is folks who are face-to-face, within 6 feet, for greater than 15 minutes,” Margolius said. “I’m assuming there’s very few people who meet that criteria outside of the administration and the president’s family.” 

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is not currently involved in contact tracing efforts related to the debate, said Health Commissioner Terry Allan. 

“Certainly, this is going to be a multi-level response,” Allan said. “We have not been engaged in this stage, but if they need us, we’re here.” 

Cleveland officials are aware of 11 COVID-19 cases stemming from pre-planning and setup for Tuesday’s the debate, according to a statement. 

So far, none of the cases are Cleveland residents, they said. 

 The city’s health department will handle contact tracing for Cleveland residents who test positive for the virus as a result of the debate, officials said. 

ideastream reporters Taylor Haggerty and Matt Richmond contributed to this report.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158