The first to arrive at Mike Pence’s rally in The Villages, Florida, took their places on the socially distanced chairs. When the seats filled up, the rally-goers – who had turned out in huge numbers to see the Vice President – crammed in together.
The supporters kept coming and coming on Saturday afternoon, and before long it was standing room only.
One older woman joked to her similarly aged friend: “there goes social distancing.” The few who were wearing masks were pulling them down to speak to each other and take licks of their ice cream.
The mask-optional campaign event in America’s largest retirement village – home to some 120,000 over 55s – risked becoming a “superspreader” event among the country’s most vulnerable.
The Trump campaign had anticipated the possibility, forcing attendees to sign a waiver of liability should they later contract the virus.
Were any of them worried about the virus? “No,” replied one woman through a mask, who was lurking near the exit. “It’s just really hot and we’ve been waiting for two hours already.”
At least six elderly women had to be led out of the packed pen at Brownwood Paddock Square by medics and local organisers – some of whom not wearing masks – after becoming faint in the hot Florida sun.
As people kept arriving, at least one attendee was concerned enough to ask an on-duty Secret Service officer if there was an upper limit for the number of attendees. “You’d think so, but no,” he replied.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s director of communications, later tweeted that 3,000 showed up.
Some health experts said as the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, Mr Pence should have taken greater care in protecting older attendees in The Villages.
“Three thousand elderly people not distancing and three-quarters without masks. That’s a bad combination, even if it was outdoors,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist with the Federation of American Scientists, told The Telegraph. “And the hypocrisy of Pence being the head of Covid task force.”
Guy Cecil, the leader of the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, tweeted: “The leader of America’s response to Covid-19 is holding a super spreader event in a senior community. Shameful.”
Cases are on the rise in The Villages. One in every 66 residents have contracted the novel coronavirus, according to state Department of Health data.
The vice president made little mention of the coronavirus in his 45-minute speech, focusing instead on his performance in Wednesday night’s debate with Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party’s vice president nominee.
“It’s great to be back in the Sunshine State, it’s great to be back in Trump country,” Mr Pence said as he took to the stage.
“It was a debate between two visions,” he told the crowd. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want higher taxes, open borders and socialised medicines,” he said to jeers from the audience, many of whom were over 55 and rely on Medicare. “They want to abolish fossil fuels, they want taxpayer-funded abortions. They want to defund the police and pack the courts,” he said to even louder boos.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, late last month decided to fully reopen the Sunshine State, even as its cases rose to more than 3,000 a day. Nearly half of the some 15,000 who have died from the virus were older citizens.
“There’ s absolutely no social distancing,” said Mark Halsband, 70, who was sat on one of the coveted few chairs. “Everyone’s just pushed them together.
“I’m not worried about me,” said retired casino owner Mr Halsband, who was wearing a plastic face shield but no mask. “I’m worried about other people here, particularly the overweight. The only people who get the virus are unhealthy people, particularly the obese, so I just don’t hang around with people like that.”
Florida, the nation’s largest bellwether state, is a must-win for Donald Trump, who is slumping in the polls.
The Villages, a reliably Conservative stronghold which crosses three different counties, including Sumter, has the highest turnout in the entire state.
The president has been haemorrhaging support among older voters, including here in central Florida. A poll taken after Mr Trump’s diagnosis shows Mr Biden leading by 21 per cent among over 65s, the biggest lead by a Democrat in 25 years.
They have been put off by the president’s handling of the pandemic, which affects these voters more acutely than others. They were particularly alarmed by his performances at daily task force briefings in the spring because his remarks showed an uneven handling of the crisis and inspired little confidence.
Despite the ongoing public health concerns, the Trump campaign is undergoing a blitz of in-person campaign events in Florida. Donald Trump Jr traveled across the state on Friday with stops from the Panhandle to Tampa.
Mr Pence held a rally with Latinos before his event in The Villages. Trump Jr. returns to Tampa on Sunday, followed by Second Lady Karen Pence on Monday. President Trump will himself be in Orlando the same day for his first campaign appearance since coming down with the virus.
“If Trump doesn’t win Sumter County at least two-to-one, he’s not winning Florida, or a second term,” predicted Dave Wasserman, House Editor for The Cook Political Report, where he is responsible for analysing US House Races.” In 2016, it went 68 per cent to Trump.
“If we see Sumter’s mail-in and early results at 7pm that come in something like 62 per cent -37 per cent for Trump with more than 75,000 ballots counted, I’d personally consider that to be game over for the president.”