By Jeff Mason
HENDERSON, Nev. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump held a Nevada campaign rally at an indoor venue on Sunday despite public health professionals’ warnings against large indoor gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Republican, Trump railed against his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, suggesting that he was somehow soft on crime and, without evidence, that he was taking drugs.
“Biden wants to appease domestic terrorists and my plan is to arrest domestic terrorists,” Trump said to an enthusiastic crowd. “If Biden wins, the mob wins.”
The president sought to back up his drug accusation by citing what he considered Biden’s poor performance in debates with rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I called for a drug test because, you know what? I want a drug test, because we don’t want to have a situation like we could have with this guy,” Trump said.
Asked to respond to Trump’s drug remarks, the Biden campaign had no comment and instead criticized the president’s leadership amid the unrest in cities over racial injustice.
People in the Nevada crowd were seated close together and many did not wear masks.
Nevada’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, fired off a series of tweets describing the large, indoor gathering as high risk and calling Trump’s decision to hold it “reckless and selfish.”
“The President appears to have forgotten that this country is still in the middle of a global pandemic,” Sisolak tweeted.
Biden as criticized Trump for holding campaign events that put people at risk of contracting the coronavirus, which has killed more than 194,000 people in the United States.
Trump played down the virus in its early stages and has alternately embraced and disregarded advice from public health experts, who encourage mask-wearing and maintaining social distance to prevent its spread.
The president’s campaign portrayed the rally at a large warehouse in Henderson as an opportunity for supporters to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
“If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino, or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States,” spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.
Healthcare experts say chances of infection are greater at indoor events than at outdoor ones.
Participants at the rally were to have temperatures taken before entry and be given a mask they would be encouraged to wear, the campaign said.
“I think we’re relatively safe here. I brought a mask but I haven’t felt the need to wear it,” said Ronda Livingston, 64. “I’m not worried about it.”
Trump, who is trailing Biden in national opinion polls and in Nevada, has stepped up the frequency of his rallies in recent weeks, but has held most of them at outdoor venues or in large open airplane hangars to help minimize risk.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Peter Cooney and Howard Goller)