Nobody wears masks, the mayor is infected and Covid cases are soaring - why does this pro-Trump town still support him?

Within MacClenny, it was hard to find a bad word for the president’s handing of the pandemic

Andrew Buncombe
in Macclenny, Florida
Thursday 29 October 2020 17:44
Residents of Macclenny, Florida discuss Trump, lockdown and the election

Four years ago Donald Trump won Florida’s Baker County with a thumping 80-20 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

It appears he is set to do so again. Across the county, and especially in the town of Macclenny, there are Trump-Pence signs pasted on walls, stuck in people’s lawns, or else plastered onto their vehicles. Such is the strength of GOP support, signs for an apparently respected Democrat running for reelection to her position as clerk to the court, made no mention of her party affiliation.

Indeed, to a visitor, it felt there were far more campaign signs in Baker County than there were face masks, even though Florida remains a Covid hot spot. In motels, bars, restaurants, and fuel stations, few people seemed to be wearing them, and many appeared unperturbed when asked about the risk of becoming infected.

One rather striking exception was Macclenny’s Republican mayor, Mark Bryant, who teaches art at Baker County High School and revealed to The Independent he had tested positive last week and was now in quarantine.

Indeed, when he answered the door to his house, he looked pale and wan, so much so he did not want his photograph taken. Several days earlier, he said, he had felt even worse.

“I teach at the local high school - I don’t how I got it, I would say from a student probably,” said Mr Bryant, who said he voted for Mr Trump in 2016 and would do so again. He said the school authorities had been made aware of what had happened, though he had previously spoken of what happened to him.

Mayor Mark Bryant is now in quarantine at home

Asked why so few people in his town seemed to be wearing masks, and the insistence of some that Covid was not a risk, he snorted with derision. “I’ve a lot of friends and family members who’ve had it. It’s everywhere.”

Mr Bryant said he had taken precautions at the school, stayed six feet away from staff and students and made people wear masks. “I was one of those who took precautions,” he said.

Yet plenty of people in Florida have not done so. When The Independent  flew from Seattle to Jacksonville, via Atlanta, not a single person was not wearing a mask; after leaving Jacksonville International Airport, not a single person was seen with a mask, until entering the CVS pharmacy in Macclenny, where staff not only wore face masks, but posted a sign on the door urging customers to also do so.

Right now, the so-called Sunshine State, which every four years is a must-win battleground in the presidential race, has the third most infections in the US, after California and Texas. More than 760,000 have caught the disease and at least 16,100 people have died.

Last month, in a move many believed was done to please Mr Trump, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, announced he was lifting almost all restrictions  - so-called Phase 3 - on hotels, bars and restaurants, even as health experts warned cases were still rising. He also prevented individuals town and cities imposing stricter measures of their own unless they could prove a pressing need to do so. “There will not be limitations,” he said.

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In large parts of Florida, where tourism represents a major part of the economy that has meant bars, hotels and restaurants are returning to full capacity. The decision by the governor has been widely criticised, with experts warning that in addition to large cities, smaller communities will also feel the impact.

One of them is Baker County, which, according to data collated by the New York Times is ranked fifth for the number of infections in the state per capita. The most recent data shows the county, population around 30,000 people, has had 1,697 infections and 17 deaths.

Officials at Baker County health department forwarded inquiries to the state health department.

In a statement, it said: “The Florida Department of Health works to protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida through integrated state, county and community efforts. The Department of Health and our 67 County Health Departments operate as an integrated public health system. This integration allows the Department to respond to potential public health threats using a coordinated and standardised approach, directing resources and personnel where they are most needed.”

Some have suggested the numbers are unfairly spiked by the presence in the county of at least prison facility. Yet, some people in the town admit they have had direct experience of the illness.

Stephanie Weddell, 44, who was not wearing a mask as she shopped at a Dollar General, said her daughter and grandson had been infected.

“And my daughter-in-law’s mother is in coma from it,” said Ms Weddell, who said she worked at a rival discount store. “She’s really bad. We’re praying for her.”

Asked why, given what had befallen her family, she was not wearing a mask, she said she did do so at work.

At the Travelodge Suites motel, Sheetal Patel was wearing a mask and said she and others were doing everything to stay safe and keep customers safe.

Within MacClenny, it was hard to find a bad word for the president’s handing of the pandemic, even as the death toll in the nation raced past 220,000 and the number of infections hit 8.2m.

Pat Parsells, 72, who had a small nursery of campaign signs planted on her lawn, said the Mr Trump had done as well as he could, given the difficulties he faced.

“Is he perfect - Hell no. Show me a man who is,” said Ms Parsells, who was not wearing a mask, but said she did wear one when she needed to, in crowded settings.  “I like the fact he speaks his mind. I voted for him because he is not a politician."

There lots of campaign signs in pro-Trump MacClenny

Larry Crews, 65, had built his own pro-Trump sign. He said he always carried a mask and wore one whenever he went out. He said he used to drive trucks, until he became sick.

“I voted for him in 2016,” he said. “The best thing he did was bring jobs back.”

At Bootsies Bar and Grill a sign warned that patrons were entering a “Red Neck area. You may encounter - American flags, armed cities, the Lord’s Prayer and country music.

Yet as an open-mic night got underway one night this week, it was clear one thing not to be encountered in the dark, smoky bar were face masks.

Promotor Tommy Skinner repeated the president’s false claim that a study had shown 85 per cent wearing face masks caught the virus. He said “fake news was trying to undermine the president”.

He added: “Trump has done nothing but good for this country.”

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