Last month, I spent three days at the country’s largest conservative political conference, CPAC. More than 19,000 people attended the event at the Gaylord National Resort outside of DC, where they flocked to hear from virtually everyone who matters in the Trumpist firmament. Almost the entire Trump family was there—the president himself; Don Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle; Ivanka and Jared; and first daughter-in-law Lara Trump. Also, the vice president, half the White House coronavirus task force, and new White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows were on hand to toss political red meat into the crowd and bolster the president’s reelection campaign.
At one point, I was walking through the conference center with my husband, a Washington Post reporter, and surveying the sea of MAGA-hat wearing activists. I turned to him and said, “There’s going to be an outbreak here isn’t there?” The crowd was so large, with people from all over the world, including hard-hit countries like Korea and Italy, and many were senior citizens, a group particularly vulnerable to the illness. The virus was quickly spreading across the country, having already killed 3,000 people worldwide, and more than 100 were already infected in the US. It seemed inevitable that the true believers who attended CPAC would not escape it, no matter how often Trump and his team insisted it had been “contained.”
Administration officials at the event took the opportunity to aggressively downplay the risks of a global pandemic and hype what Pence called the “unprecedented actions” Trump had taken to contain the virus. “We are ready for anything,” he told the CPAC crowd. On Friday, February 28, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow sat on stage in the ballroom with Ivanka Trump to discuss the economy. The Dow had plunged 1,100 points the day before, after California had announced it was monitoring thousands of possible coronavirus cases in the state. Kudlow, spinning the news in a remarkably positive way, told attendees that this was an opportunity to think about “buying the dip,” and to take advantage of some stock deals. (A week after he offered up this hot tip, the Dow dove another 2,000 points.) Earlier that morning, Mick Mulvaney, the former White House chief of staff, accused the media of overhyping concerns about the virus, which he compared to the flu. “They think this will bring down the president,” he warned the gathered faithful, “that’s what this is all about.”
And owning the libs, trafficking in conspiracy theories, and underplaying the seriousness of what was spinning into a global health crisis of unknown proportions, was what CPAC was all about.
On this episode of the Mother Jones Podcast, staff writer Stephanie Mencimer calls in from her self-imposed quarantine to describe the evolution of right-wing coronavirus denial:
Saturday night, nine days after we’d left the conference, my husband looked up from his phone. “Did you see there was a case at CPAC?” he asked. I had not. Matt Schlapp, Chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, had sent out an email alerting attendees that the conference had indeed hosted someone who came down with coronavirus. At this point the virus had already killed 16 people in a Washington State nursing home. Italy had quarantined a good chunk of the country, and governors in the country’s most populous states had declared states of emergency. Schlapp urged calm and said organizers were working closely with government health officials on how to proceed. Most important of all, he assured people that President Trump was fine. “This attendee had no interaction with the President or the Vice President and never attended the events in the main hall,” he said.
The health of the president was not exactly foremost in my mind when I heard the news. I had far more practical concerns and not just “Do I have enough toilet paper?” The administration had frittered away so many precious weeks telling people this virus was no big deal that the national public health messages had not advanced much beyond “Wash your hands.” I’d already been washing my hands so much that my iPhone often wouldn’t recognize my dried-out thumb. But now that I might have been exposed, I needed more than a play list of 20-second songs and formulas for homemade hand sanitizer.
Yet we were mostly on our own, stuck figuring out what to do late on a Saturday night without any clear direction from credible public health sources in the government. The moment reminded me a little bit of what it was like to live in DC on 9/11, after the planes had hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. We were at once unharmed, freaked out, and weirdly paralyzed. It wasn’t clear if more jets were headed toward the Capitol or White House. With no one really in charge, everyone in the District of Columbia had to make a personal decision on how to respond. Huge numbers of people decided that they’d respond en masse by racing to the suburbs to retrieve their kids, causing traffic jams so bad that most of them couldn’t even leave their parking garages for hours.
Metaphorically speaking, after learning about the CPAC virus case, I didn’t want to cause a traffic jam. And I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for sickening a single person with a potentially fatal virus. Even so, despite our best intentions, my husband and I were caught flat-footed and made a few mistakes early on. In a minor panic at the news, the first thing I did was take inventory of all the people I might have contaminated, aside from my two children, were I infected. There was everyone in my office and at my gym, notably the packed spinning class I went to last Wednesday, before virus panic had set in. Also, I worried I might have exposed a big chunk of the local DC political establishment at a city council candidates’ forum I attended in my neighborhood. About 400 or so people were there. After the event, I had a long chat with Tom Sherwood, a legendary local newsman who moderated the forum. Now in his mid-70s, he was very diligently forgoing handshakes with people out of concern for his health. Even so, one of my first thoughts after learning about the CPAC case was, “Oh God, what if I killed Sherwood?”
People had been coming in and out of my falling-down old house for a week before we got news. There’s the dog walker and the long list of service professionals: the termite guy; the dudes who put in a new water heater; the repair man who came to fix rat damage to our dishwasher. I suddenly felt like Typhoid Mary, potentially infecting swaths of the community with a deadly virus. Were they all now at risk, too? Should I tell them? I really didn’t know, and lacking any clear public health information from the federal or local government it took me far too long to figure out whether they were. (After a long look at the CDC website, I decided they were not.)
Meanwhile, as soon as the CPAC news broke, my phone started to ping, with editors and co-workers asking how I felt. Did I have any symptoms? (I didn’t.) Maybe, they suggested, I should stay away from the office for the next week, out of an abundance of caution, the operative catch-phrase of the crisis. That seemed prudent. Our office is a tiny open-plan space squashed full of nearly two dozen people, many with young children. We’ve been making each other sick in this hot zone for years before the coronavirus appeared on the horizon. My husband also was explicitly told to self-quarantine.
But we were still left with massive confusion about how to really do a quarantine right; we tried to realistically assess our risk factors even as we potentially became risk factors ourselves. Google and the DC Department of Health were of little help. Millions of press releases told us to wash our hands and stay home if we were sick. There was little advice about what to do if you’re not sick but you think you might have been exposed, which in the lexicon of public health means it’s all prevention but not mitigation. I longed for a coronavirus equivalent of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, where a nice woman in the Midwest would pick up the phone after a brief hold time, and calmly but authoritatively answer all of my stupid, naive, yet potentially life-or-death questions.
Here are a few: Should we be wearing masks even at home and go into full seclusion—no trips to the grocery store, no dog walking—or just avoid the office and crowded places? And for how long? If I walk the dog, should I have a mask on? Where would I even buy one at this point now that there’s been a run on them?
And what about our kids? Should they go to school? And what about all those Girl Scout cookies in our living room? If we don’t distribute them to the other kids to sell, the troop will be on the hook for hundreds of dollars, and who wants to be responsible for bankrupting the Girl Scout troop? Can you get coronavirus by touching a box of Thin Mints? At 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, there was no obvious place to call to find out and googling became a seemingly endless variation on the theme of hand washing.
Oddly the most reassuring information I found came from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R), whose state hosted CPAC. Officials from his administration said early on that conference attendees should stay calm and take their temperature twice a day and monitor their symptoms. If you spiked a fever over 100.4 degrees, call a doctor, they said, which seemed sensible and also offered us something proactive to do—if only we had a thermometer. (Could we break our quarantine to go get one?)
A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine also concluded that on average, symptoms develop in five days, and most people will have symptoms within 11 days. By that measure, we were almost in the clear by the time we even discovered we might have been exposed. By then, though, I was working from home and I had already gotten busy canceling things. It might not have been medically necessary at that point but ethically it was imperative.
I was supposed to speak on Monday at a big conference in DC. Once I disclosed my situation, the organizers promptly booted me from the panel. I canceled the dog walker. I canceled my shift serving breakfast to homeless women in my neighborhood. I’ve been working with them for more than 20 years, which is one reason I was already a dedicated hand washer—TB and other infectious diseases tend to be rampant among homeless people. I definitely did not want to be responsible for exposing those poor women to one more assault on their immune systems, however small that risk might be. Still, life beckoned. The day after the CPAC news broke was a beautiful Sunday, so my husband and I drove to an outdoor court and played 45 minutes of tennis with each other. Is that a violation? Probably. We also kept walking the dog, mask-free.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we are not very good at the self-quarantine. We’re not alone on this front. The city’s first coronavirus case was a pastor of a Georgetown church who’d served communion at Sunday services for more than 500 people while he was sick. Most of his congregation is now self-quarantined. But one of the churchgoers admitted to the Washington Post recently that he’d gone golfing this weekend. He was keeping a club’s length away from all the other players just to be safe. I couldn’t really blame him. After a long winter, the nice weather is simply too tempting, and when you don’t have any symptoms of the illness or an official command from a public health official, the risk just seems too low to justify total seclusion.
After getting the initial notice from CPAC, I had emailed my doctor to ask her what we should do now that we might have been exposed. She got back to me first thing Monday morning. (I fully realize that this sort of relationship with a physician is in itself a luxury most people don’t have.) She was fuming about the city’s response to the virus, explaining that it was virtually impossible to get anyone tested. She had a patient with symptoms who’d recently been in Seattle, where there’s been a big outbreak, and she tried every possible way to get the patient tested and failed.
Over the weekend, there were local news reports about a woman who’d recently flown through Seoul, South Korea, where the virus has been rampant, and had come down with symptoms. Despite a request from her DC emergency room doctor, she still could not get tested. Clearly, this meant that my husband and I should not even try to find tests, especially since we were showing no symptoms at all. That was another reason the doctor said it was okay to send the kids to school, which by then we’d sheepishly already done while flying blind. (They wanted to go! They needed to go!) Fortunately, we’d gambled correctly, as the CDC guidelines refer to them as “contacts of contacts” who don’t need to self-quarantine so long as their contacts aren’t showing symptoms.
Turns out that unless you’ve had direct and extended contact with someone known to have the disease, you’re probably fine. The CDC defines close contact as coming within six feet of someone with the illness for an extended period, or having direct contact with “infectious secretions,” i.e., being coughed on. Unless the sick man at CPAC sneezed on the escalator handrail at the Gaylord, I’m probably at pretty low risk for infection. I’m pretty sure I was never anywhere near the guy. (His name is now circulating online.)
Other people were not so lucky. Several of them are high-level elected officials like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who quarantined himself for the week, as did Mark Meadows, Trump’s new chief of staff. Just a week ago, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was pooh-poohing concerns about the epidemic by wearing a gas mask on the House floor. Then someone in his district died from the virus; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared a state of emergency; and Gaetz, having been exposed at CPAC, spent part of this week sleeping in his car at Walmart while he waited for his coronavirus test result to come back. (It was negative.)
I never met the New Jersey doctor at the heart of the CPAC scare. I was, however, at an event with at least two people who were in contact with him, namely Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Raheem Kassam, a British far-right activist who is a co-host of Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room and author of No Go Zones: How Sharia Law Is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You. During the convention, we were all in a small room at an offsite hotel for the kick-off of Republicans for National Renewal, a new group of far-right activists pushing the Republican Party to embrace national populism. Apparently Gosar spent 15 or 20 minutes chatting with the infected man Thursday afternoon, according to Politico. That would have been just before he showed up at the populist event. Gosar is now self-quarantined. Joining Gosar and Kassam at the event was Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. An inveterate glad-hander, Eduardo shook everyone’s hand as he worked the room, including mine. Does all that handshaking raise my risk of exposure? Or his? Maybe, but this is where widespread testing would help, both for me personally and for anyone who had gone to CPAC, including Trump.
The same night as the CPAC virus announcement, both Jair and Eduardo Bolsonaro were dining with the president at Mar-a-Lago, and Gaetz flew on Air Force One with Trump after CPAC. Because he’s a member of Congress, Gaetz got a quick test. The rest of us are mostly out of luck. If we lived in Korea, where they’re testing 10,000 people a day, we could have gone to the drive-thru testing center and gotten some quick and definitive answers that would have given us direction on managing at least this chapter in the rest of our lives. But this is DC, where the only well-oiled machine of city government is parking enforcement.
DC is a city of more than 700,000 people, a figure that swells to over a million during the work week as commuters from Virginia and Maryland stream in. More than 20 million tourists come here every year. It’s home to three major medical schools, big research universities, and large medical centers, including one affiliated with the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. Yet by Sunday night, the DC Department of Public Health reported that all of 18 people had been tested for the coronavirus. By Monday the number was up to a whopping 23, and it hit 39 by Tuesday.
Those numbers don’t surprise me. The DC public health lab has long been a disaster. In 2017, it utterly screwed up Zika virus tests from 300 pregnant women. For six months, the city lab told people there was little to no Zika here, when in fact workers were improperly using an over-diluted solution to perform the tests. At least nine pregnant women were told their tests were negative when they had evidence of exposure to the mosquito-borne disease. It’s been clear from early on that if we’re not seeing COVID-19 in DC, it’s probably because no one is really looking for it very hard.
CPAC attendees who didn’t get the gold-plated treatment afforded to Gaetz and other administration officials are finding out the hard way that President Trump was lying or delusional when he insisted on Friday that anyone who wanted a test could get one. Ashley StClair was a “brand ambassador” for the conservative student group Turning Point USA before getting dumped in October after she appeared in photos online with white nationalists. She attended CPAC and tweeted Monday: “After finding out about certain CPAC guests being exposed to COVID-19, I decided to inquire about testing. I have no symptoms but better safe than sorry. No hospitals in my town have kits. I’ve been on hold with Colorado DoH for over an hour. We aren’t ready for this.”
After finding out about certain CPAC guests being exposed to COVID-19, I decided to inquire about testing
I have no symptoms but better safe than sorry
No hospitals in my town have kits
I’ve been on hold with Colorado DoH for over an hour
We aren’t ready for this.
— Ashley StClair 🇺🇸 (@stclairashley) March 9, 2020
Kassam, the War Room host, was among the first to sound the alarm that a number of public officials had been in close quarters with the sick CPAC man. He said on Twitter that he has had flu symptoms for days after the event. On Monday, he tweeted about his attempts to get a virus test in DC. “FYI I have now made 15-20 calls to local CDC, DoH, national CDC, and Dr’s offices/urgent care/hospitals,” he wrote. “No one can tell me where/how I get tested, and I’m just stuck in a circle.” Eventually by Tuesday, he had managed to get into the ER, where he said he’d been tested for the flu and strep, both of which came back negative, and was finally tested for COVID-19. He was sent home to self-quarantine during the 72 hours it would take to get his results back.
FYI I have now made 15-20 calls to local CDC, DoH, national CDC, and Dr’s offices/urgent care/hospitals.
No one can tell me where/how I get tested, and I’m just stuck in a circle.
My case is more tricky apparently as I do not have a doctor in D.C.
— Raheem Kassam (@RaheemKassam) March 9, 2020
Without quick and widespread testing, the CPAC debacle shows that public health officials don’t have all that many tools to contain the virus. My experience suggests that an over-reliance on the self-quarantine, especially without more public guidance on what that should really involve may not do much to slow the spread of the disease. After all, by the time anyone knows they’ve been infected, they’ve already contaminated everyone they know and others. Hunkering down with our bottled water and canned food more than a week after an exposure is far too little, too late. And as I’ve learned quickly, the self-quarantine is as flimsy as some of Trump’s border walls—vulnerable to the lure of a nice sunny day, a dog who needs walking, or the demands of children whose Girl Scout cookies need selling.
Now four days in and counting, we’re starting to get the hang of the self-quarantine, though it’s not fun. We still have to work, but without office snacks or water-cooler gossip. I’m starting to wish I’d gotten a Peleton for Christmas. And a word of warning: If you are counting on getting your groceries delivered while you’re quarantined, think again. We’ve been getting our groceries delivered every week for years, but Monday night, our driver never showed up. When I called to find out where our stuff was, the woman on the phone said, “It’s so crazy! People are ordering 30 cases of water at a time, Pedialyte by the gallon.” Every time slot for the next several days was totally sold out. She finally squeezed us in but warned that because I’d told her I was self-quarantining, the driver would have to just drop the food on the stoop and flee.
Along with the logistical challenges, self-quarantine has also brought the inevitable dark thoughts and latent paranoia that every sneeze or cough isn’t just the product of exploding spring tree pollen but the first signs of the coming plague. I have visions of Brueghelian pandemonium in which an overwhelmed DC government finally discovers a good use for its abandoned Redskins stadium and sets up makeshift hazmat tents in its massive parking lot. I see myself gasping my last breath inside our coronavirus-version of the Katrina Superdrome.
While we’ve been adjusting to our new reality, the Trump administration finally seems to be doing the same. The president has offered up some lukewarm measures to prop up the economy, and more test kits are apparently on the way. But he’s still not taking one of the most obvious steps to halt the spread of the virus that was highlighted by the problems with the CPAC case. The real lesson from CPAC is that the conference should never have happened at all.
By the time CPAC had started, other countries had already banned large gatherings of more than 5,000 people. The day after it ended, the French even closed the Louvre. But canceling the conference could hardly have been an option for a group of people who were publicly calling concerns over the virus a liberal conspiracy to bring down Trump. Besides, people had paid big money to get a chance to hobnob with Republican elites. The sick man from New Jersey paid nearly $6,000 for a gold-level VIP ticket, a privilege that put him up close and personal with all those government officials now in self-quarantine.
Now there are more than 19,000 conventioneers out there potentially demanding virus tests they might not need, and many others who may indeed be sick and spreading the illness to others all across the country, leaving public health officials scrambling to track them all down. Aside from shutting down large events, including campaign rallies, the only real hope for the public until a vaccine arrives is widespread testing. It would help people take self-quarantine more seriously while liberating those who don’t need it. A quick test also would provide the answers we need to everything else—such as, yes, you’re now safe to walk the dog. But thanks to many of the stars who held forth at CPAC, that’s not going to happen any time soon.