MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — A week before the presidential candidates are set to meet in their first televised debate, President Donald Trump riffed on Vice President Joe Biden’s insistence on wearing a face mask — and Biden’s face itself.
“I wonder in the debate, when him and I get on stage, is he going to walk in with a mask?” Trump joked. “I’ll be honest, he feels good about the mask, and that’s okay, whatever makes you feel good. I mean honestly, what the hell did he spend all that money on the plastic surgery if he’s going to cover it up with a mask?”
Trump’s visit to the Pittsburgh area came the same day the number of reported deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. surpassed 200,000.
University of Washington epidemiologists, whose models have been widely cited since the start of the pandemic, now project the total death count will reach 378,000 by the beginning of January. The same model estimates that if the country universally wore face masks starting now, it would prevent some 100,000 deaths in the same time frame.
Trump, once again, declared success against the deadly virus that experts believe will soon start to spread more easily as colder temperatures push people inside.
“Visits to the emergency room are down, visits to the hospital are down,” the president said, also pointing to the country’s case mortality rate as a measure of his success. The U.S.’s 2.9 percent case mortality rate is lower than some European countries, but higher than many across the world, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Most Trump fans in a packed crowd outside an airplane hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport Tuesday night did not wear masks. In the president’s TV camera shot, supporters wore masks saying “MAGA.”
In a press conference earlier Tuesday morning from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the Trump rally could cause a “super-spreader event” in the area.
“We have people in our colleges, and our schools and our workplaces, who have been responsible,” Fitzgerald said. “And now we have our president, who is going to come tonight, encouraging people to not wear their masks, making fun of people who do wear their masks, going against his own [public health officials],” he said.
In a statement ahead of Air Force One’s arrival in Pittsburgh, Biden said Pittsburgh’s economy has only worsened the last four years.
“Pittsburgh now faces an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent and has lost 3,000 manufacturing jobs since Trump took office,” Biden said in a statement before Trump took the podium Tuesday night. “Yet President Trump still has no plan to get us out of this crisis.”
Biden holds a 3.9 percent lead in Pennsylvania, according to the state’s polling average at RealClearPolitics.
As of Monday, there were 528,000 registered Democrats in Allegheny County compared to 258,000 Republicans. While that’s a two-to-one advantage for Democrats, there are some hopeful signs for Republican enthusiasm. More new voters have registered as Republicans since the state’s June primary in the county — about 6,400 — than the 4,700 or so new Democrats.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday morning he expects a much bigger turnout than 2016, especially for Biden. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a higher level of enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate,” he said. “I’ll be honest, it’s never come close to this.”
One new question over that enthusiasm at the moment is if the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will motivate or change the calculus of any voters. Darin Kelly, president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, said in the press conference from Pennsylvania Democrats that the loss of Ginsburg could help mobilize trades union members.
The appointment of a new justice “will have a direct effect of what we look at as very important worker protections that can be stripped and gutted, and can leave us pretty much defenseless for generations,” Kelly said. “So, absolutely this will help mobilize the workers throughout this region.”
The Trump campaign reserved bleacher seats for members of the Boilermakers Local 154, a Pittsburgh-based local that endorsed the president earlier this month.
“I’m for [Trump] because he’s backing coal, he’s backing energy, he’s backing progress for union boilermakers,” said Brad Kohler, health & welfare trustee for Local 154. Kohler said he did not vote for Trump in 2016, but was convinced after seeing the president at a rally in Latrobe earlier this month.
“A lot of our union members will say that Trump is not for the union,” Kohler said. “Me, I would rather have all the work here and fight to keep the union.”
Correspondent Tom Lisi covers western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @TommyLisi.