WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - They came. They cheered. They left a little early.
From the opening chords of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" to the final beats of "Y.M.C.A." President Donald Trump's trademark rallies are back as he enters thefinal stretch of his reelection bid. But despite his campaign's desire to project a sense of normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic, the new rallies are undeniably different.
Facing a narrow path to victory in November, the Trump campaign has been eager to put the president on stage - holding rallies in four battleground states since he was formally nominated for a second term at the GOP convention last month - and to draw a contrast with Democratic nominee Joe Biden's socially distant style of campaigning.
In addition to North Carolina, Trump has held rallies in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire in recent weeks. He will campaign this weekend in Nevada and Arizona, holding "comeback events" near Carson City and Las Vegas.
But COVID-19 has forced changes, many of which are imperceptible on television, and the events are renewing debate over the wisdom of gathering large groups during the pandemic, including from some of the administration's health advisers. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN this week he was "puzzled and rather disheartened" by the lack of face coverings at Trump events.
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"Going to these rallies is an act of defiance. Holding them is an act of defiance," said Republican political strategist Doug Heye. "I think there's a very reasonable question of whether lives are being put in jeopardy just to do a political event."
The new Trump rallies are almost always held outside and frequently at airports where the president can, as he explained during a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, last week, "get off the plane... make a speech" and "get the hell out of here." Masks are distributed, though rarely worn. Temperature checks are conducted, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have questioned their effectiveness.
By bringing the rallies back, Trump is hoping to send a signal that the nation is moving past the worst days of the virus, despite hundreds of deaths in the nation each day.Whether voters accept that message will be key to his chances in the Nov. 3 election.
But while the new iteration of rallies is familiar, there are notable differences.
At the Winston-Salem rally Tuesday, participants were required to pile into shuttle buses to move from Smith Reynolds Airport, where Trump spoke, to offsite parking lots. The more cumbersome process prompted some attendees to abandon a section of seats so they could beat exiting crowds ten minutes before Trump finished - leaving a rare section of seats empty that had been full when the program got under way.
Most attendees stuck it out, but the departures were nevertheless an unusual sight.
"I don't know how many people are here, but there's a lot," Trump told the crowd in North Carolina, where polls show Biden with a single-digit lead. "It's beyond what we had in terms of enthusiasm - beyond what we had four years ago."
From Tulsa to Reno
Trump's first return to the rally stage - his June 20 event in Tulsa, Oklahoma - drew fire after public health officials there said it "more than likely" contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases weeks later. The campaign has acknowledged at least eight advance team staff members involved with that event had tested positive for the virus.
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended the rally at Tulsa's BOK Center, tested positive for the virus nine days later. He died on July 30.
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Trump backed off indoor, arena-style rallies in the weeks that followed. It wasn't until his Aug. 27 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, which he delivered from the South Lawn of the White House, that he spoke at an event that had the feel of a rally. A day later, he traveled to New Hampshire for a "general admission" event that was largely indistinguishable from the airport rallies he held before the pandemic.
Laura Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, said officials aren't aware of any coronavirus cases from the event.
But that doesn't mean there haven't been concerns raised behind the scenes.
The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority this week advised the Trump campaign that a rally planned for Saturday "may not proceed" because it would violate state and local COVID restrictions. Campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh blamed the move on politics and aides announced a series of other events this weekend.
Similar logistical considerations took place ahead of Trump's rally in Winston-Salem. The Trump campaign initially planned to hold the event in a hangar but as crowd estimates grew, it was moved to a fully outdoor space on the tarmac, an official with knowledge of the planning said on condition of anonymity to relay internal discussions.
Trump joked Tuesday that aides tried to limit the crowd size but "they didn't do too good a job." He has described his rallies as a "peaceful protest," and the campaign distributed signs at the events printed with those words - a reference to Black Lives Matters demonstrations that took place in some cities this year.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has drawn Trump's ire in the past, signed an order in March capping outdoor gatherings to 50 people. An extension of that order, signed this month, exempts religious ceremonies, weddings and other activities "constituting the exercise" of First Amendment rights.
"We had those conversations," said Joshua Swift, Forsyth County's health director. "I would just say that obviously, outside, there's a low risk but there still is a risk."
'All these people'
Within a camera frame, Trump's rallies don't look very different today than they did four years ago: Huge crowds roaring at the president's attacks on Democrats, a sea of red MAGA caps, signs distributed by aides waving overhead, large overflow crowds standing shoulder-to-shoulder and most people not wearing masks.
But there are subtle differences: Trump's recent rallies are held outdoors, or in airport hangars with wide open doors. Most of the audience sits at ground level, which means that if the campaign wants to show people behind the president - as it did in Winston-Salem - a riser is placed behind the podium. The seated crowd appears to be smaller than when Trump filled indoor sports arenas but the outside venues mean overflow crowds can be positioned within view, blurring the distinction with ticketed supporters.
In other cases, Air Force One is parked behind the president.
Campaign officials declined to answer whether they are limiting crowd sizes. An official at the Winston-Salem airport told the Winston-Salem Journal that his best guess on crowd size was between 7,000 to 9,000. The campaign distributed masks, conducted temperature checks and has warned supporters signing up for rallies that they assume a risk of getting sick.
"Events look different during a pandemic, but we have adapted to continue harnessing the unmatched organic enthusiasm of the president's supporters and build on the momentum to carry him to victory in November," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager. "President Trump and his campaign have always valued connecting directly with the American people and we've been able to do so in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of every event attendee."
Public health officials continue to caution that large gatherings of people - even those held outdoors - are a risk.
"Rallies and public gatherings of any kind increase risk of transmission," said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. "The virus is quite apolitical in that regard. I still wouldn't attend a rally on either side of the political spectrum."
Several supporters said they were willing to take that risk.
"A little bit," Pat Nifong, 66, responded when asked if she was worried about being in such a large group. The Winston-Salem woman said she was "happy to be here" but that her concerns about the virus were why she was standing "six feet away from everybody."
Carl Horstkamp, a 50-year-old Winston-Salem man who was attending his first rally, said he thought state government had reacted to the virus too aggressively and that he appreciated a chance to get outside and "see all these people - your fellow citizens."
"I feel that outside is a safe place. We've got a nice breeze," Horstkamp said. "This is the best spot to hold it in this area."
Message for Biden
By holding the rallies at all, Trump is highlighting a contrast with Biden, who has run a campaign that relies far more on virtual and socially distanced events. Both Trump and his supporters have called attention to the differences frequently.
"What do you think Joe Biden is doing tonight?" North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest quizzed the crowd during his warm up remarks in Winston-Salem on Tuesday. "Probably doing a Zoom call."
Biden campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo responded by slamming what he described as Trump's "contempt for experts and willful disregard of science," and said the president was "continuing to put his own supporters in harm's way because it helps him politically."
Seven in 10 Americans say they see Biden as caring to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, while less than half say the same of Trump, according to a survey from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project.
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Biden has, in fact, appeared in Michigan, Wisconsin and twice in Pennsylvania in the past 10 days, but his campaign has taken precautions, such as using a small, 16-seat aircraft, deploying hand sanitizers and maintaining social distancing. At times, that has created images Trump aides have used to suggest a lack of enthusiasm for Biden.
During his Labor Day visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Biden met with four union members in the backyard of a supporter. The only "audience," besides the small group of reporters who traveled with him on a separate plane, were a few next-door neighbors peering into the yard as Secret Service agents in face masks guarded the perimeter.
Instead of marching in Philadelphia's annual Labor Day parade as he has in years past, Biden participated in a virtual call with union members from the AFL-CIO state headquarters in Harrisburg. Rather than walking over to the more than 50 supporters who gathered across the street from the hall, he waved from an upper-story window.
"Every place I go I've got to set an example," Biden said during a virtual fundraiser Thursday.
Reaching for a face mask, he added:"That's why, everywhere I go, I wear this mask, and, everywhere I go, I keep my social distance."
That argument stands in sharp contrast to images from Trump's rallies. On the riser behind his podium in Winston-Salem, some supporters wore masks while others did not. Away from the risers, the share of people covering their faces was even smaller.
Health experts say that is a troubling cue for the public.
Collins, the NIH director, told CNN that aliens arriving on Earth from another planet would scratch their heads trying to figure out why some people used a face covering to slow the spread of a virus and other did not.
"You would scratch your head and think, 'This is just not a planet that has much promise for the future, if something that is so straightforward can somehow get twisted into decision-making that really makes no sense,'" Collins continued.
Trump has been resistant to wearing a mask in public and endorsed the practice as "patriotic" in July only after he stressed repeatedly that masks were merely a recommendation. His campaign now sells Make America Great Again coverings.
"I'm very concerned about the mixed message that people are getting," said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. "It is part of human nature that if we are hearing mixed messages, we will choose the one that fits into our belief system, or is more convenient."
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: What Trump's rallies look like in era of COVID-19