WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will resume in-person campaigning on Saturday after being sidelined by a case of COVID-19, but a debate next week against his presidential election opponent Joe Biden was canceled because Trump refused to participate.
Trump will address a crowd of supporters on Saturday from a White House balcony on a “law and order” theme, an administration official said on Friday. A source familiar with the situation said the crowd could be in the hundreds, and all were expected to wear masks.
Then the Republican president will travel on Monday to central Florida, a state crucial to his hopes of winning a second term in the Nov. 3 election.
He will stage his first campaign rally since his coronavirus diagnosis at an airport in the town of Sanford. The campaign did not disclose if it would be held in a hangar with doors open, as it has in the past, or entirely outside.
As the president prepared to return to the trail, the body that oversees presidential debates said the match-up between Trump and Biden, the Democratic candidate, scheduled for Oct. 15 had been formally canceled.
Trump refused to participate in what was supposed to be the second of three debates with Biden after the Commission on Presidential Debates switched it to a virtual contest in the wake of the president’s illness.
The final debate on Oct. 22 is still set to take place.
Questions remain about whether Trump, who announced on Oct. 2 he had the virus and spent three nights in a military hospital, is still contagious. Trump told Fox News he was likely to be tested for the virus on Friday.
The illness has kept him from holding public rallies and attending fundraisers at a critical juncture of the campaign. He trails Biden in opinion polls with just weeks to go before the election.
Attendees at the Florida rally will be given a temperature check, masks that they will be encouraged to wear and access to hand sanitizer, the campaign said.
Biden sharply criticized Trump’s decision to resume campaigning. “Good luck. I wouldn’t show up unless you have a mask and can distance,” he told reporters in Paradise, Nevada.
Trump and his administration have faced criticism for their handling of the pandemic, as well as for a lax approach to mask-wearing and social distancing in the White House and – in recent days – confusing messages about how ill the president has been.
At least 11 people who attended a White House event on Sept. 26 where Trump announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court have since tested positive.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, on Friday called it a “superspreader event.”
“It was in a situation where people were crowded together, were not wearing masks. So the data speak for themselves,” Fauci told CBS Radio.
Nine COVID-19 cases have also been linked to a Trump rally in Bemidji, Minnesota on Sept. 18, the state’s health department said on Friday, according to local media.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said the president was eager to resume campaigning but would do so safely. “He wants to talk to the American people, and he wants to be out there,” she told Fox News.
“There are medical tests underway that will ensure that when the president is back out he will not be able to transmit the virus,” McEnany added.
With Trump’s management of the pandemic dominating the campaign, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Americans steadily losing confidence in how he has managed the health crisis – with his net approval on the issue hitting a new low.
McEnany is one of a string of Trump aides, including his campaign manager, who have tested positive in the last week as the virus spread within the White House and Trump campaign.
Trump was scheduled to do an on-camera interview with Fox News on Friday night, his first since being diagnosed. Fittingly, given Trump is a former reality television star, Fox said in a press release that Dr. Marc Siegel “will conduct a medical evaluation and interview during the program.”
Biden has continued to campaign during Trump’s illness, spending the day in Las Vegas, Nevada.
At a drive-in rally where people attended in vehicles, Biden ripped Trump for careless behavior since being infected with the virus.
“His reckless personal conduct since his diagnosis, the destabilizing effect it’s having on our government is unconscionable. He didn’t take the necessary precautions to protect himself or others. And the longer Donald Trump is president, the more reckless he gets,” said Biden, who gave the entire speech wearing a surgical mask and his signature aviator sunglasses.
The attendees honked horns to sound their approval.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Michael Martina and Trevor Hunnicutt in Las Vegas.; Writing by John Whitesides and James Oliphant; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman