Hundreds of maskless revelers—including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem—packed President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach club on Friday night for Turning Point USA’s annual winter gala, flouting local COVID-19 guidelines.
Photos of the event—hosted by the right-wing student group that made headlines last month after refusing to cancel its “Student Action Summit”—showed dozens of maskless guests eating together and cheerfully embracing at the Friday night gala in a Mar-a-Lago ballroom.
Attendees paid a minimum of $2,000—and upwards of $100,000—to hear speeches by several Republican A-listers, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Other Trumpkins, like Corey Lewandowski and Roger Stone, were seen huddling up with guests and taking photos. Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe was also in attendance.
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) December 21, 2020
Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state legislator from Orlando, said the winter gala photos are not a surprise given that the Trump administration and Florida’s GOP leadership have no regard for COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Time and time again, we see Republican leaders make up their own rules,” Eskamani told The Daily Beast. “We are in a crisis in Florida. Not only do these photos show how completely disconnected the Republican Party is from reality, but it hurts our ability to get out of this pandemic.”
Gabe Nies, a Nashville real-estate agent who attended the event, told The Daily Beast that he was invited to the gala by a close friend and flew down from Tennessee for the night.
“I was really grateful for the opportunity to be there and among friends and people that I am with, so to speak,” Nies said, insisting he did not feel unsafe.
Nies, who admitted he had COVID-19 about a month ago, said that everyone wore masks walking into the event—then ditched them as soon as they sat down.
“It wasn’t like we were avoiding each other but it wasn’t like we were not careful either,” Nies said. “Were we crazy and afraid and terrified? No. Our lives are not going to be shut down. We go on moving forward and supporting causes we believe in.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all Americans use face coverings to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, especially in conjunction with social distancing and during indoor gatherings.
Photos posted online show at least a dozen packed tables at the Mar-a-Lago gala, making social distancing impossible. Other photos of the event show guests with their arms draped around each other as they pose for pictures in various areas of Trump’s club, including the swimming pool and near a white marble staircase.
“An amazing evening with an awesome patriot. Trump is still prez,” actress Sam Sorbo posted on Instagram, alongside a photo with McEnany.
The winter gala brazenly flouted Palm Beach County’s COVID-19 guidelines, which requires facial coverings “inside all businesses and establishments.” Photos of the gala only show waiters complying with the mask mandate. To date, 20,567 people have died and 1.2 million more have been infected with the virus in Florida.
Jill Roberts, an infectious disease professor at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast it is a “shame we continue to have these types of events” that can easily spread the coronavirus.
“Super-spreading as always can occur in events with a large number of people and put at risk not only the people attending but the essential workers who have no choice but to participate,” Roberts said, adding that the event was “high profile” and sent the “wrong message.”
“The event is social, and not essential. The risks that occurred here were entirely preventable, and do indeed pose risk to the surrounding communities, and moreover extended communities from which the essential workers are likely commuting. The event continues to deviate messaging between top government officials and public health, to the detriment of the most vulnerable,” the professor added.
The gala kicked off the four-day “Student Action Summit” for Turning Point USA, which Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak at on Tuesday.
“This event represents freedom,” Charlie Kirk, the group’s 27-year-old founder, said during his 15-minute speech on Saturday, where he blasted COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Palm Beach Post. “That you’re not going to lock us down and shut us up any longer.”
In order to attend the summit, guests had to sign a waiver agreeing to “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19,” according to Turning Point’s website. The group also controversially said last month they refused to implement a mask mandate at the gala or the four-day event.
“Each person has their own freedom and they need to exercise that responsibly...and that it is part of the spirit of this event,” TPUSA spokesman Andrew Kolvet previously told Business Insider.
At least a hundred young Republicans—chanting “let us in!”—were locked out of the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Saturday after Turning Point USA oversold tickets to the first day of its summit. Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker told the Palm Beach Post that the Republican student group “oversold their contract capacity by 500 to 600 people.”
The event, which reached its 2,000-person capacity, included keynote speeches from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr.—who also spoke to the barred crowd with a megaphone. Carlson and Sebastian Gorka were also seen outside addressing the group.
“The Convention Center is adhering to the contractual agreement with Turning Point with a 2,000 person capacity; this leaves 500-600 people unable to enter the Convention Center,” Baker said. A Turning Point spokesperson, however, has denied that the group oversold the event or violated its contract with the city.
“We had a plan—once the number hit capacity—to escort kids into other spaces,” Kolvet told the outlet. “Once they locked the foyer doors, the students were unable to get in to get their badges.”
The Florida Department of Health and Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast. A Palm Beach Sheriff’s spokesperson also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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