U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. | Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images
The two men vying to become the next president offered a stark contrast to voters on face mask requirements and on how soon state economies should reopen amid the pandemic, just two of many areas where they squabbled during Tuesday’s contentious and often chaotic first debate.
The exchange between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden touched on some of the major disputes that have erupted during the pandemic, with Trump decrying state shutdowns of businesses and Biden criticizing the lack of a White House plan on containing the COVID-19 outbreak.
Trump said he wears a face mask when “needed” and mocked Biden’s use of one; defended his recent rallies as safe because the large, tightly packed events have taken place outside; and blasted Democratic-led states that have taken a more cautious approach to allowing businesses to reopen and social gatherings to resume.
“If you look at Pennsylvania, if you look at certain states that have been shut down, they have Democratic governors,” Trump said. “One of the reasons they shut down is because they want to keep it shut down until after the election.”
In the spring, Trump blasted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who’s also a Democrat, for her COVID-19 stay-home order, which has since been lifted. Trump tweeted out, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and gave his support to right-wing protesters at the state Capitol.
At the debate Tuesday, Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and other far-right groups. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Whitmer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week called for a congressional investigation into Trump’s pandemic response.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has defended his administration’s actions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which included ordering non-essential businesses to shut down this spring. That order was lifted using a color-coded, county-by-county basis.
When case counts began to rise again in July, Wolf’s administration limited public gatherings to 25 people for indoor events and 250 for outdoor events.
A U.S. District Court judge in Pittsburgh struck down the most significant portions of Wolf’s response earlier this month, calling it “well-intentioned” but unconstitutional. Republicans in the state Legislature also have criticized Wolf’s response, arguing that he overstepped his authority and seeking to roll back restrictions on school districts and sporting events.
Trump argued during Tuesday’s debate that “people will be hurt” if restrictions continue, preventing businesses from fully resuming their operations.
Biden shot back that resuming business operations and other aspects of normal life requires a plan for supporting companies with enough protective gear and other support, and faulting Trump for not providing adequate funds or planning for reopening.
“He is insisting that we go forward and open, when you have almost half the states in America with a significant increase in COVID cases and COVID deaths. And he wants to open it up more,” Biden said. “Why aren’t schools open? Because it costs a lot of money to open them safely.”
Biden also criticized Trump’s decision to hold large rallies that are virtually unchanged from the massive events he held prior to the pandemic. The former vice president described those events as “totally irresponsible.”
Trump defended the rallies as safe because recent events have been outside, though he held earlier rallies inside, including one in Tulsa in June. He also said he’s holding big events because he is able to draw a large crowd.
As for mask-wearing, Trump pulled out a black face mask and says he does wear one “when needed.”
He then made fun of Biden’s regular use of a face mask—”the biggest mask I’ve ever seen”— and disputed Biden’s citation of an academic model projecting that 100,000 lives could be saved if 95% of Americans wear masks in the coming months.
“They’ve also said the opposite,” Trump said.
“No serious person has said the opposite,” Biden replied.
More than 200,000 Americans have died and more than 7 million have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March.
The debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic was the first of three in advance of the Nov. 3 election. The next debate is between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and will be Oct. 7.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.
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