Updated September 14, 2020 - 7:04 pm
President Donald Trump’s massive Sunday evening rally in Henderson has already led to a fine against its host, but Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and public health experts warned Monday that far deeper impacts may be on the way.
The city of Henderson fined Xtreme Manufacturing, owned by businessman and Trump ally Don Ahern, $3,000 for six observed violations of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order limiting public gatherings to no more than 50 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it announced Monday.
Ahern and the Trump campaign argued Monday that the rally was an expression of First Amendment rights to assemble and free speech. Local and national Trump advisers quipped that Sisolak and state Democrats have had no such problems with casinos and protests that draw similarly large numbers of people.
But Democrats and health officials stressed that an in-person gathering of more than 100 times the state limit and 500 times White House guidelines for Clark County could lead to massive spread of the virus — just as statewide numbers had finally made a downward turn.
The Trump campaign estimated that 5,000 people attended the Sunday rally, with dozens more gathered to watch from outside Xtreme after it reached capacity.
Doors opened at 4 p.m. and the event ended at about 8:30 p.m.
Masks were suggested and even handed out by the campaign, but many in the crowd did not consistently wear a face covering during a rally. Temperature checks and hand sanitizer were given out at entrances.
Social distancing was enforced on charter buses hired to cart attendees to the event but not during the rally itself, which filled the manufacturing business with people, including some standing along the back wall.
An outdoor rally in Minden drew even more supporters on Saturday.
Brian Labus, an assistant professor at UNLV’s School of Public Health and member of the governor’s medical advisory board, said the concerns over public spread of the virus revolve around density.
“The closer you pack people together, the more likely you are to get disease transmission,” Labus said. “When you have a lot of people in a tight space, and one is contagious, then you could have a super spread of the virus.”
He said images of the president’s Nevada rallies showed many attendees not wearing masks or maintaining a distance of six feet from one another. Masks can limit the spread of disease-spreading particles ejected into the air, while the distancing can help make sure those particles hit the ground instead of another person.
Indoor events like the one in Henderson also concentrate the density of people and limit airflow, Labus said. The amount of time spent in this environment — several hours, for many attendees — also increases the risk of infection.
“You put that all together, and there’s a greater risk of transmission,” he said.
Amy Stone, a virologist and assistant professor of microbiology at Touro University Nevada, said that the spread of droplets is increased in situations where people are talking, cheering or yelling. Anyone engaged in those activities is typically breathing in deeper, so they are also more likely to be breathing in droplets from others.
“If I’m in a crowd where I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with people, I’m going to breathe in what they breathed out, and they’re going to breathe in what I breathed out,” Stone said.
She echoed Labus’ comments on social distancing, adding that some 90 percent of droplets expelled by someone talking and breathing normally will hit the ground before that 6-foot mark.
Stone also noted that crowds also increase the likelihood of accidental touching, which raises the risk of virus surface transfer.
“Someone may brush up against you or you may touch a chair then adjust your eyeglasses, and now your face has been contaminated,” she said.
Event guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that the highest risk of COVID-19 spread during gatherings occur at “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.”
It’s unknown how many of the 5,000 attendees at Trump’s rally were local, but it is not uncommon for such rallies to draw visitors from California and other neighboring states.
Caleb Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, called reports from the rally “unfortunate” during a Monday call with news media. He noted the state has recently seen a promising downswing in infection rates but now expects to see a growth over the next few weeks.
Cage also said the state had heard, but could not confirm, reports spreading on social media that someone at one of Trump’s Nevada rallies had tested positive for COVID-19.
Julia Peek, a deputy administrator with the state’s public health department, said Nevada will be able to collect data on event attendees through contact tracing efforts.
Trump’s last indoor rally, a June gathering in Tulsa, was reportedly linked to a spike in COVID-19 cases by local health officials.
Trump, Sisolak spar
In an interview with the Review-Journal on Sunday, Trump said that he did not believe he was subject to the governor’s 50-person gathering limit. He also accused Sisolak of blocking “six different sites” for his Nevada rallies, which the governor has denied.
When asked if he was concerned about catching coronavirus at the rally, Trump said: “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away, and so I’m not at all concerned.”
Sisolak leapt on that answer during a Monday interview with MSNBC.
“This is typical Donald Trump,” the governor said. “He’s only concerned about himself, and not the 3 million citizens/residents that we have that I’m concerned about on a daily basis.”
Said the governor: “He’s not concerned about all the folks who were there and who are going to go home. And their kids are going to go to school… He’s only concerned about his own health, not the health of anyone else in the state of Nevada.”
Ahern, Republicans respond
In addition to Monday’s fine from the city of Henderson, Ahern was recently fined $11,000 by the Nevada Occupational Safety & Health Administration for hosting an in-person Trump campaign event in August at his eponymous hotel that drew about 500 people.
Ahern is now suing the state over its COVID regulations.
A spokeswoman for OSHA said Monday she could not comment on any possible state investigation or fine stemming from Sunday’s event.
During a brief news conference on Monday, Ahern stood fast to his decisions to host the events.
“I believe that it is my patriotic duty to do what is right for our country, and what is right is supporting President Donald J. Trump,” he said. “The decisions we make and the actions we take are always with specific goals. My goal was to continue the great American traditions of the right to assemble and to free speech.”
Ahern said his events were no different than the thousands of people allowed to assemble in casinos, resort pools and protests in the streets. He added that he understood cities and other agencies had a job to do in levying the fines against him.
He declined to take questions, saying he would likely hold another news conference on Thursday.
In statements sent to the Review-Journal, both the state Republican party and Trump campaign mirrored some of Ahern’s criticisms.
“We’re still waiting for Governor Sisolak’s Twitter tantrum over the tens of thousands of people crowding the Las Vegas Strip,” Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald said. “The governor should spend less time playing politics with Republicans’ First Amendment rights and more time figuring out why he has failed so many Nevadans still waiting for their unemployment checks.”
“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,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s director of communications.
Over the last few days, Republicans have repeatedly referred to their events as peaceful protests, even handing out signs to attendees of the Sunday rally that read “peaceful protester.”
Labus, the public health professor and Sisolak advisory board member, drew several distinctions between Trump’s Sunday rally and the examples cited by Ahern and Republicans.
Large protests in recent months, such as those organized by Black Lives Matter and No Mask Nevada, have been held outdoors with generally more distancing and, in the case of Black Lives Matter, more mask usage, Labus said.
He said the protests are in violation of state directives, but it’s difficult to police spontaneous public gatherings.
Businesses like Xtreme are required to follow state rules to maintain state licenses. Violations can be addressed more simply by those licensing agencies, he said.
“We’re always concerned any time even two people get together,” Labus said. “That’s why we have these social distancing requirements. Casinos have to have entire plans approved by the state to discuss the risks. They are putting dividers at seats on card tables and requiring masks and temperature checks at entrances.”
“You have to have a plan,” he continued, “and that plan can’t simply be let’s just ignore all the rules.”