On Tuesday, President Donald Trump arrived in Winston-Salem N.C. via Air Force One to host a campaign rally at the Smith Reynolds Airport, located only three miles from Wake Forest’s campus. At least 1,000 people attended the event, which directly violated the guidelines outlined in North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order moving the state into Phase 2.5 of reopening.
This event, similar to Trump’s June 19 rally in Tulsa, Okla. and his RNC nomination speech on Aug. 27, has added to the controversy regarding the president’s flouting of COVID-19 regulations and pandemic safety.
“I don’t know how many people [are] here, but there’s a lot. We said let’s keep it down. They didn’t do too good a job, but that’s good. That’s good,” Trump said in the first two minutes of his speech. “Now these crowds, I tell you it’s beyond what we had in terms of enthusiasm, beyond what we had four years ago in 2016, and that was a record enthusiasm and we are breaking that record by a lot.”
While the Trump-Pence committee did notify attendees that they “will be temperature checked and security screened,” there was no clear mention of masks or social distancing in the guest instructions email sent the morning of the event.
The official event parking location was at Wake Forest’s very own Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial (LJVM) Coliseum, where “shuttles [were] available to transport [attendees] to and from the event” as was mentioned in the same guest instructions email. Vice President of University Advancement Mark Petersen explained to the Old Gold & Black that the Trump campaign paid a “standard fee” to use the parking lot, and that the transportation to and from the event was not provided by Wake Forest, nor was the university involved with staffing or monitoring.
“The Campaign was allowed to use the lot for parking and was required to comply with laws and orders relative to COVID-19,” Petersen said. “Wake Forest has allowed the use of its facilities for political candidates across the years and does not endorse or contribute to any candidate. A Hillary Clinton event was held at the Joel Coliseum in 2016. Joe Biden and John McCain campaign events used Wake Forest facilities in 2008.”
This event not only violated the guidelines set out in Phase 2.5 of opening in North Carolina, which outlines a maximum of 50 people outdoors (socially distant and wearing masks), but also went against Wake Forest’s public health guidelines. The university expects students to continue functioning under the Phase 2 level of reopening with a maximum of 25 people outdoors (socially distant and wearing masks) until further notice.
The LJVM Coliseum lot was the official parking location for attendees of the rally. There were multiple stalls selling Trump merchandise (Elizabeth Maline/Old Gold & Black)
“When I drove by the [LJVM Coliseum], I saw … tailgating and [people] sitting around without masks. The parking there was publicized on the roads near campus, as well as shuttles to the event,” said senior Samantha Wexler. “I feel like it is hypocritical to help enable this event to take place and make it easier for students and community members to attend. Meanwhile, we are under such intense regulations and peer pressure to wear a mask, social distance, etc. People came in from all over North Carolina and local states for this, no one is wearing a mask and there were over 1,000 people there.”
The Old Gold & Black obtained an email to a student from Justin Van Nice, the assistant athletic director of external events and facility operations who oversees the management of the LJVM Coliseum, in regards to Wake Forest’s role in providing parking for the event.
“As someone who was on-site all day, to my best knowledge, we made clear and conscious efforts to ensure tailgating did not happen. We had random police checks, staff walking up and down the parking lots at multiple points throughout the day to ensure this did not occur,” Van Nice said in the email.
Old Gold & Black Online Managing Editor Elizabeth Maline was present in the parking lot minutes before attendees returned to the Coliseum after the event, and observed groups of supporters who remained gathered in the parking lot and were not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Because of the clear violation of Wake Forest’s COVID-19 policies that would occur if a student attended, College Republicans President Lisa Highet and College Democrats President Samatha Horowitz, both seniors, joined together and agreed to email their organization members and encourage them to not attend the rally. These emails were the personal decisions of both College Democrats and College Republicans in an effort to comply with COVID-19 policies and to reduce the spread of the virus in the Winston-Salem community.
“It’s exciting to be involved but we don’t want to be sent home,” Horowitz said. “We thought it was important to send something out to discourage people from going to events or counter-events because it could really jeopardize the rest of our semester here.”
Highet echoed these thoughts in agreement with Horowitz.
“The majority of my email is talking about our obligation as students to the university. Even though College Republicans is a club, we still belong to Wake and want to abide by Wake’s guidelines to keep our community safe. We want to stay here for the remainder of the semester,” Highet said.
Both presidents were confident in their members’ ability to abide by Wake Forest’s code of conduct.
In addition to the main crowd, there was also an overflow section for attendees (Photo courtesy of Riley Herriman)
“One thing I love about Wake Forest is that College Republicans and College Democrats have a really great relationship with each other,” Highet said. “I think it was so awesome that [Horowitz] and I were both able to come out with similar messages to our members.”
Regardless of affiliation to a political club on campus, some students were generally disappointed in Wake Forest’s association with the event from a COVID-19 perspective, given the university’s strict policies that the students and faculty members are required to follow on an everyday basis.
The Office of the Dean of Students did not reply to the Old Gold & Black’s request for a statement regarding whether or not attending the event was against the public health addendum to the code of conduct. However, the Undergraduate Student Conduct Code Public Health Emergency Addendum states that: “students must comply with limitations established by the university on the number of individuals permitted to gather in indoor and outdoor spaces. These prohibitions on mass gatherings apply to social events and activities held on and off campus.”
In the email obtained by the Old Gold & Black, Van Nice expressed the university’s desire to bring diverse programming to campus and looked toward the potential of hosting other campaign events for both political parties during this election cycle.
“In true Pro Humanitate fashion, we believe in providing a variety of diverse options for the Wake Forest and Winston-Salem community at the LJVM Coliseum. Being an election year in a battleground state, we fully expect to receive more requests from both of the major political parties and hope to reach a similar agreement with the Biden campaign too, if asked or needed,” Van Nice said in the email.
However, COVID-19 has drastically altered the traditional definition of political campaigning. Though Trump has held multiple large in-person campaign events during the past few months, the Biden campaign has no plan to hold in-person events of the same size or scale as the Trump campaign. The Chicago Tribune reported on Aug. 31 that the Biden team is expecting to hold smaller events, in which attendees would adhere to strict social distancing guidelines and be required to wear masks.
Austin Cook, the Communications Director at the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that it is possible that former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris will make a campaign appearance in the Winston-Salem area in the coming months. However, he stressed that they will only hold an event that adheres to guidelines put forth by the state, so as not to put anyone at risk for contracting the virus.
Trump addressed the reopening of North Carolina multiple times, noting that the Republican candidate for governor, Dan Forest, would open the state. Forest has hosted multiple in person events during the pandemic (Photo courtesy of Riley Herriman)
“They want to be doing this in as safe a way as possible,” Cook said. “The guidance in most of these battleground states has been not to do public events because it generally has not been a very safe thing to do over the last couple of months.”
Throughout the speech, Trump told the crowd that North Carolina “should be open,” despite the fact that the prevalence of COVID-19 has prohibited the state from proceeding past Phase 2.5 of reopening.