Beto O’Rourke’s COVID diagnosis signals that campaign rallies could be risky

SHERMAN – On a warm April day in Grayson County, more than 250 people jammed into a brewery for a town hall meeting with Beto O’Rourke.

Afterward, the Democratic nominee for governor held a press gaggle in between two long sessions of posing for selfies with random folks from the crowd. The scene harked back to politics circa 2018, when Democrats and Republicans staged large and intimate rallies to connect with voters.

But four days later, O’Rourke tested positive for COVID-19, a reminder that politics – and pre-pandemic life – are still a way away from what they were like before the coronavirus took hold.

Beto O’Rourke speaks to a crowd on Thursday, April 21, 2022 at 903 Brewers in Sherman, Texas. Beto O’Rourke spoke about numerous issues including Texas energy, workers, education, abortion and healthcare before the floor was open to the crowd for a question and answer. (Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

O’Rourke’s positive diagnosis, which could have been the result of numerous encounters he had in previous days, signaled that political campaigning and those connected to it are taking risks. Several big-name politicians have recently contracted the virus, including Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

O’Rourke’s rival, incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, had COVID last August. The governor has held large events this year, including a February get-out-the vote rally at a Duncanville diner.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks to the press following a Get Out The Vote event at Ben ...
Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks to the press following a Get Out The Vote event at Ben Franklin Apothecary’s on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Duncanville, TX.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

There’s no such thing as a 100% safe environment, even as the pandemic has eased to the point where in-person activity is expected, not discouraged.

“Everyone has to be very mindful because we do have people who have compromised immune systems,” said Lillian Salerno, a North Texas-based Democratic strategist.

Salerno said she recently talked to a candidate about staging a campaign event in the coming months. Having it outdoors would be safer for people who are immunocompromised and will not attend large indoor events. But being outdoors in the Texas summer is also a concern.

“That’s hard in Texas with 100-degree temperatures, so we literally had that conversation about whether or not we could hold this event outside,” she said.

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With summer approaching, pent-up Texans appear eager to road trip around the 270,000 square miles of the largest state south of Alaska. The state’s travel industry, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, bounced back strong last year, according to data from tourism agency Travel Texas. Travel spending in the state recovered last year to 92% of pre-pandemic levels – checking in at $ 76 billion. This year’s speed bump could be inflation.

Americans from all walks of life are trying to do things they enjoyed before the ravages of COVID-19. People are again traveling by air, land and sea, staying in hotels, going to movies and concerts, and eating at their favorite restaurants.

Much of this activity is being done without masks, with mandates in the rearview mirror.

Politicians are also trying to return to normalcy, or at least master a new normal. They are engaging voters face-to-face. Rallies, block walking and other voter contact events are again common.

Most Republican candidates never stopped campaigning in person, even as the pandemic raged. Many of them found a way to safely meet voters, which made a difference in races such as US Rep. Beth Van Duyne’s 2020 contest against Democrat Candace Valenzuela.

The Irving Republican won a close race for the District 24 seat in Congress in which every vote was critical. Valenzuela did little in-person campaigning, and her volunteers generally did not knock on doors to engage with voters.

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Two years later, a lesson has been learned. Pandemic or not, candidates have to come face-to-face with as many voters as possible before the critical Nov. 8 midterm elections, with control of Congress hanging in balance.

“There’s no planet where the Democrats aren’t going to be knocking doors,” Salerno said. “We just can’t afford not to be out there every day.”

And with candidates from both parties on the trail, it’s inevitable that some people are going to get sick.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who was outspoken on taking measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, said it’s safe for most people to attend campaign rallies.

“If you’re up to date on your shots, it’s safe to do,” he said, adding that he’ll be out there as well.

“I’ll be at rallies and talking to voters,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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