Inside an Extraordinary G.O.P. Event: ‘Pressing Flesh and Kissing Babies’ Again

CONWAY, S.C. — The first mention of the coronavirus pandemic was a joke.

A master of ceremonies was explaining to a crowd of more than 100 people why the keynote speakers — home-state Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott — were running a bit late.

“You have to understand, they haven’t got to do any politicking for a while,” said the M.C., Robert Rabon of the Horry County Republican Party. “They’re like a kid in a candy store — they’re going wild!”

And with that passing mention, South Carolina Republicans returned to the normal rhythm of the campaign trail, coronavirus all the same.

The outdoor gathering here on Thursday was a send-off event for Cleo Steele, a longtime Republican Party operative in Horry County, who is retiring to Ohio. Speakers shared the same microphone. Local and state political candidates greeted voters with handshakes and squeezed tight for pictures. Of all the people gathered outside the county Republican office — many of them senior citizens — fewer than a dozen wore masks.

“Social distancing guidelines are recommended,” the invitation had said. “Hand sanitizer and face masks will be available.” In reality, according to interviews with more than a dozen attendees, the event was an active rejection of behavior that the hyper-conservative crowd has come to associate with liberal enemies in recent months — wearing masks and gloves, staying six feet away from other people, avoiding physical touch.

To treat the coronavirus as something to be feared, they said, was a political act incongruous with their values.

Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

Dwayne “Duke” Buckner, who is challenging Mr. Graham in the Republican Senate primary next month and came to the event to meet voters, said he had recently stopped adhering to public health guidelines, which he described as overly burdensome.

“You can quote me on this,” Mr. Buckner said. “When the good Lord calls you home, a mask ain’t going to stop it.”

August Savello, 49, said he followed Dr. Steven Hotze, a Republican activist who has published videos such as “Coronavirus Mass Hysteria,” and preferred to do his own research rather than listening to state and federal public health officials like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.

Latest Updates: Coronavirus Outbreak in the U.S.

  • Trump says the U.S. will end its relationship with the W.H.O.
  • New York City aims to ease restrictions on June 8, as other cities have reopened despite new cases.
  • Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are among the other major cities easing restrictions.

“A virus is a virus is a virus, and there’s viruses around us all the time,” he said. “My father had it and he’s 79 years old. He said it was like a bad flu.”

That the event was held the same week that the pandemic’s death toll in the United States crossed 100,000 reflected the different realities of the virus along political, racial and geographic lines. In densely populated urban centers, more likely to be inhabited by Democrats and racial minorities, high infection rates have completely upended daily life and made social distancing largely nonnegotiable. Here in coastal Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach and is overwhelmingly Republican, news of relaxed restrictions on social gatherings was treated with relief.

Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times
Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

State data shows that Horry County has nearly 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus, below the state’s per capita average. Black South Carolinians, meanwhile, have contracted more than half of the state’s total cases, though they make up less than 30 percent of the state’s population. The crowd at the event was almost all white.

Michael LaPierre, a right-wing Senate candidate who came to the event with dozens of supporters who pestered Mr. Graham, said he had no reservations about extending handshakes and taking pictures, or as he put it, “pressing flesh and kissing babies.”

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Can I go to the park?

      Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

    • How do I take my temperature?

      Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


“We wipe our hands and take precautions,” said Mr. LaPierre, who is 70 and lives with his 99-year-old mother-in-law. “But I spent 28 months in Vietnam and crashed six times in a helicopter. I’m going to die when I’m going to die.”

During the program, Ms. Steele, seated in a wheelchair, was presented with commendations from Mr. Graham and Mr. Scott, as well as awards from local and state Republicans. Speakers posed for pictures with the honoree, hugging her close as they applauded her years of service. Aides to Mr. Graham and Mr. Scott wore masks. The senators did not.

Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

Behind the outdoor podium, a full-fledged marketplace of pro-Trump merchandise attracted a gaggle of customers. In the center sat a bronze bust of the president, which some rubbed for luck and posed with for pictures.

At the program’s conclusion, Mr. Rabon called up more than a dozen state and local candidates, who introduced themselves to the audience, shared a portion of their political platform, and returned to the crowd for meet-and-greets.

“Candidates — State House, State Senate, and the House — line up,” Mr. Rabon said. “Don’t take a long time.”

He coughed into the microphone, and passed it to the first speaker.

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