While President Donald Trump hopes to portray an American comeback with a big fireworks display at Mount Rushmore and a July Fourth celebration on the South Lawn of the White House complete with military flyovers, the festivities are being held despite risks posed by the resurgence of the coronavirus.
The president’s plan to address a crowd of thousands at Mount Rushmore on Friday, where the state’s Republican governor says social distancing will not be enforced, comes against the backdrop of the U.S. hitting a new single-day record of 50,000 new cases reported on Wednesday.
The new record-setting case count was on the same day that the president repeated that he thought the virus will "just disappear" eventually, even though public health officials have made clear it will not simply go away.
"I think we're going to be very good with the coronavirus," he said Wednesday in an interview with the Fox Business network. "I think that at some point that's going to sort of just disappear, I hope."
After months of declining to wear a mask in public and mocking those who did, including the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden -- Trump seemed to change his tune on Wednesday.
"I'm all for masks," he said, adding he "would have no problem wearing one in public."
But Trump has still yet to wear one in public. His comments came after a sudden, recent shift in recent days in which Republican lawmakers and governors have begun strongly encouraging mask wearing -- including urging the president to don one to set an example for Americans.
Fauci warns of 'even greater outbreak'
Trump has continued putting a positive spin on the pandemic even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned of "an even greater outbreak."
On Tuesday, Fauci told Congress that he would not be surprised if the number of new COVID-19 cases surpassed 100,000 per day and warned that surges in some areas were putting the entire country at risk.
"What we’ve seen over the last several days is a spike in cases that are well beyond the worst spikes that we’ve seen," he said Thursday in an interview with BBC Radio 4. "That is not good news. We’ve got to get that under control, or we risk an even greater outbreak in the United States."
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the United States' limited closures and social distancing measures fell far behind the near totality of European nations' lockdowns.
"That allowed the perpetuation of the outbreak that we never did get under very good control," he said. "And now all you have to do is take a look at the news at night and you see people congregating at bars without masks, congregating in different types of groups that are well beyond the recommended number of people. What happens when you do that and you don't wear a mask? You get the kind of outbreaks we're seeing."
Vice president visits hotspots
Two days after visiting another hotspot, Arizona, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Tampa Thursday as Florida grabbed with a record-setting pace of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations over the last few weeks.
Before departing, Pence told CNBC that he and Trump support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's decision to reinstate certain restrictions, like ordering bars to stop serving alcohol.
The vice president planned to meet with DeSantis, a Republican whose response Trump has praised, about Florida's worsening situation. Six weeks earlier, the two shared a photo op lunch inside a restaurant -- sans masks -- and DeSantis chided reporters for warning about the threat of the virus to his state.
"You got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York," DeSantis said then. “'Wait two weeks, Florida is going to be next, just like Italy. Wait two weeks.' Well, hell, we’re eight weeks away from that, and it hasn’t happened."
Trump pushes forward with Fourth of July celebrations
But even as parts of the country are seeing a setback in efforts to bring the virus under control, that hasn’t stopped the president from moving ahead with plans to celebrate the Independence Day.
Friday’s much-anticipated fireworks display at Mt Rushmore is the first of its kind in a decade, breaking a ban on such displays at the iconic location due to concerns about wildfires.
But in teasing forward to the display that he has long pushed for as president, the president seemed unaware of the environmental risks.
“They've been wanting to do that for years, fireworks,” Trump said Thursday. “They used to do it many years ago. And for some reason, they were unable or unallowed to do it.”
But on top of the environmental concerns, is the risk to the thousands who are expected to attend. Public health experts have raised alarm about such a large-scale event amid the pandemic.
Rather than follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend social distancing, the state’s Republican governor has said that those with health concerns can simply not participate.
"We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we'll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one. But we won't be social distancing. We’re asking them to come, be ready to celebrate, to enjoy the freedoms and the liberties that we have in this country,” Gov. Kristi Noem said in an interview with Fox News on Monday.
Questioned about health concerns related to the event, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere referred questions to the South Dakota governor’s office, as it is not a White House organized event, but said in a written statement that “the President takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously.”
“The President looks forward to taking part in the Independence Day festivities, hosted by Governor Noem, and celebrating the greatest country the world has ever known capped off with a magnificent fireworks display above the great faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln,” Deere said.
The president will return to the White House for a scaled-down July Fourth celebration on the White House South Lawn. While the president had previously expressed his intention to hold a large-scale event on the National Mall with military displays as he did last year, the White House said this year’s celebration was modified because of coronavirus concerns.
"It will have a different look than 2019 to ensure the health and safety of those attending," spokesperson Deere said in a statement. "The American people have shown tremendous courage and spirit, particularly our amazing frontline workers, in the fight against this global pandemic just as our forefathers did in the fight to secure our independence, and both deserve celebration on America’s birthday this year.”
While the president traditionally plays host to military families at the Independence Day event, this year the White House has also extended an invitation to front line workers and their families, to include law enforcement, doctors, nurses, and others.
Deere said that the event will include measures to promote social distancing and said the White House will also provide facial covering to attendees.