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‘Everything feels so unsettled now.’ Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis shakes up the election

DURHAM, N.C. — Voters in North Carolina expressed surprise and concern Friday that President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, but reactions quickly fell along partisan lines as Democrats and Republicans took stock of a development that has threatened to reshape the final weeks of the presidential election.

Republicans in this critical battleground state said they were confident the president would be able to recover quickly after he announced early Friday morning that he and his wife, first lady Melania Trump, had tested positive for the virus. The White House said later in the day that Trump had mild symptoms but was able to continue carrying out his duties as president, then that “out of an abundance of caution,” Trump would be working out of the presidential offices at Walter Reed hospital for “the next few days.”

“I expect him to come bouncing back quickly,” said Allison Powers, the chair of the Republican Party for Union County, a conservative area outside of Charlotte. “He’s got the best doctors in the world. He’s got an amazing constitution.”

Democrats said they were not surprised the president had become ill, given that Trump rarely wears a mask and has not enforced social distancing health guidelines at numerous large gatherings at the White House and on the campaign trail.

“I just feel like he’s done everything he could possibly do to take his chances at catching the virus,” said Evelyn Turek, a retired flight attendant who lives in Charlotte. 

READ MORE: What happens when U.S. presidents get sick? History offers clues

It remained unclear Friday how or when the president became infected. The White House said Hope Hicks, a senior adviser to the president, had earlier tested positive, but other officials who are in close contact with Trump, including Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, did not. However, medical experts say tests taken in the first few days after exposure are not very reliable, as the incubation period can take 10 to 14 days. 

The president has appeared without a mask at several large events in recent days, including a ceremony Saturday at the White House to announce his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and a campaign rally Wednesday in Duluth, Minnesota.

At the rally Trump defended his administration’s response to the pandemic, and he has argued often in the run-up to the election that the virus is under control. 

Trump also made that case Tuesday at the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden, where he mocked the Democratic nominee for always wearing a mask in public. 

“I thought it was pretty ironic that he made fun of Joe Biden at the debate and three days later tested positive,” said Laurie Westog, a consultant and Democrat who lives in Charlotte. She added that Trump’s positive test made it harder for him to argue that the pandemic has turned a corner. 

“Right now we’re having a conversation with masks on. The virus is not behind us,” Westog said.

Many Democratic voters here followed the lead set by Biden, who on Friday morning wished Trump a “speedy recovery” on Twitter. Biden, who has taken a markedly more cautious approach to holding campaign events since the start of the pandemic, said later in the day that he had been tested twice Friday, and results were negative.

But some Democrats said they found it hard to put aside feelings of anger with a president who repeatedly downplayed a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans, with a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino Americans. 

“My empathy goes to a certain point with an individual who clearly doesn’t empathize with people who are struggling a lot more than he ever has,” said David Dixon, the chair of the Democratic Party in Durham County.

There was also a debate among Democrats and Republicans about how Trump’s positive test would impact the election in North Carolina and nationally.

“In this election, people know who they’re going to vote for. There’s nothing that can happen to change this race. [Trump’s positive test] is just another day of craziness,” Turek said.

WATCH: What Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis means for the campaign and the upcoming election

On Friday the Trump campaign announced that it was suspending the president’s in-person events and would move most campaign activities online. Powers said it was unclear what effect that would have for Trump supporters who were excited to see him campaign in person, both in North Carolina and other battleground states.

“Seeing Air Force One land, there’s some excitement around that. Zoom meetings are just not the same as in person,” Powers said.

Mark Champagne, a maintenance mechanic who lives in deep red Union County, defended Trump’s response to the pandemic and said the news that he had tested positive did not prove the president should have taken more personal precautions to avoid getting infected.

“Look at how many people he’s around in the course of a day,” said Champagne, who is planning to vote for Trump. He added that he himself did not like wearing masks and only wore them to go into stores. “I haven’t gotten sick and I’ve been all over the place.”

For others, the news was another reminder of the unpredictability of 2020.

“Everything feels so unsettled right now,” said Mary Clair Thompson, a Democrat who lives in Durham. “It just feels like this is going to add to the chaos.”

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