WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden’s chartered airplanes and SUVs are meticulously sprayed with disinfectant and scrubbed. The microphones, lecterns and folders he uses are wiped down in the moments before his arrival. News reporters covering the campaign have their temperature taken. People he meets are scanned in advance with thermometer wands and guests at his events are cordoned off in precise locations mapped out with a tape measure.
The former vice president is seldom without a mask when in public or around anyone other than his wife, Jill Biden. Access to their home is limited to only a few staffers — and when they’re inside, each wears a mask, including Biden. The level of discipline is such that at times when someone stops to take a drink of water, that person will turn their head away from the others to reduce the chances of scattering droplets, according to campaign aides.
With more than 6 million people infected and nearly 200,000 dead from the coronavirus, the former vice president is taking no chances with his safety. He operates in a sanitizer-saturated bubble within the traditional presidential campaign bubble, an environment designed and obsessively cultivated by staff in an attempt to protect him from a possible encounter with the virus.
The rationale behind the painstaking attention to safety is both personal and political. For months, aides have privately acknowledged being concerned about his health. At 77, Biden is more susceptible to the virus that causes Covid-19 and his age alone puts him at higher risk of serious complications from the illness.
Yet the campaign is also committed to modeling responsible behavior — to avoid undermining their blunt Covid-19 messaging and sharpen the contrast with Donald Trump, who, at the big, nonsocially distanced events the president has resumed holding around the country, delights in deriding Biden for frequently wearing a mask.
Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said the campaign’s reasoning for being so cautious is simple: “We don’t want any more Americans to contract the virus.”
“What we consistently hear from people is that they’re frustrated by how Trump has engaged over the summer — that he doesn’t follow public health guidelines while they’re not going to funerals and are sharing in the sacrifice for six, seven months now,” Bedingfield said. “They're frustrated when they see Donald Trump behaving irresponsibly at a political event.”
As his public schedule has intensified, late last month the campaign announced Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris would be tested for the coronavirus regularly, and any positive tests for the virus would be publicized. The tests are now happening weekly, and extend to staffers and security who keep in close proximity to them. Trump said in July he takes a test every two to three days on average.
Biden’s campaign is also closely adhering to occupancy guidelines in each state. To get a picture of the lengths they are taking, in addition to drawing on firsthand observations from the road, POLITICO interviewed close to 20 campaign aides and advisers, Democratic officials and event participants.
Biden's crowds are generally kept in the low dozens. Members of the media are segregated in individual white circles sketched on the ground. Staffers arrive early to venues to measure distances and place sticky notes marking locations where masked guests are instructed to hold their position to ensure at least 6 feet of separation.
An event with union auto workers last week in Warren. Mich. — where outdoor gatherings are capped at 100 people — revealed the full measure of the efforts. Attendees were asked to stay home if they were feeling Covid-19 symptoms. United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble planned to greet Biden but went into precautionary quarantine late Tuesday after a family member had symptoms and was tested.
Before the event began, Biden’s trip director asked the audience to stay still so she could complete an accurate headcount — one that included Secret Service, staff, media and a production crew. An announcement implored the crowd to “please remain in your circles and keep your mask on for the duration of the event.”
Campaign eyes are always trained on the bubble. When Biden inadvertently wanders too close to others, staff pounces with warnings: “Six feet! Six feet!" aides called out in unison at a recent news conference in Wilmington.
“Keep back!” Biden was instructed by staff while in midsentence during a meeting in Wisconsin.
At AFL-CIO headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., during a meeting where guests wore black masks emblazoned with the motto “Union yes,” fist bumps replaced the traditional handshakes. On Friday at the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan, Biden walked over and extended an elbow to Vice President Mike Pence, and images of their "elbow bump" made the front-pages of several newspapers the next day.
“There was a ton of effort into how to do it in a Covid-safe way,” said the Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., referring to the flurry of exchanges between the Biden campaign and attendees before a recent meeting. “They actually had a measuring tape and they were measuring where people could be and using dots to mark the places.”
Those allowed inside Grace Lutheran were asked to remove the mask they were wearing and handed more protective N-95 masks. They were escorted, one at a time, to assigned seats, which were spaced at least 6 feet apart from one another.
“It was very deliberative and careful,” said Lori Hawkins, Democratic chair in Kenosha.“It was good to see that they’re really walking the talk and keeping [Biden] safe and keeping everyone else safe.”
Barker said his church venue could have easily fit another 75 people, but that it might have made for bizarre optics. “They wanted to get people 6 feet apart, but also have people relatively toward the front,” he said.
The president, who has resisted wearing a mask in public and played a starring role in politicizing the debate surrounding the use of masks, has taken to mocking the rigor of his challenger’s approach. And he’s flouted outdoor state mandates on attendance limits in numerous states in recent weeks, including Michigan and North Carolina.
“Have you ever seen the gyms with the circles? That’s his crowd," Trump said gleefully in Winston-Salem, N.C., contrasting Biden’s low-key events with his own high-energy jamborees. In Latrobe, Pa., Trump asked his crowd: “Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?"
"It gives him a feeling of security," Trump said of Biden. "If I were a psychiatrist — right? I'd say, this guy's got some big issues." Aides have joined in the jeering, teasing Biden for Labor Day pictures of him solemnly masked with a handful of union workers perched in picnic chairs.
On Sunday night, Trump defied state regulations in Nevada — and his own federal health guidelines — by hosting his first indoor campaign event before a packed crowd since June.
At Trump's recent speeches — his campaign no longer refers to as rallies — many in the audience openly disregard local regulations by huddling close together without masks. But Trump believes he has an advantage to press with voters who are leery of government overreach and tired after months of keeping their distance.
Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director, said Biden’s “above-ground excursions” are proof the president has momentum in the race.
“President Trump has always had a huge edge on enthusiasm, and draws big, boisterous crowds,” he said, “while Biden could hold a campaign event in a broom closet.”
On Thursday, Biden seemed to return the taunts, releasing an Instagram Reel of him standing silently and sliding a large black mask over his face.
Trump's disastrous rally in Tulsa, Okla., in late June, which saw lower-than-anticipated turnout and “likely contributed” to spreading the virus, helped Biden justify his slow summer ramp-up. But now that the former vice president has reemerged on the campaign trail — stumping three out of five days last week and four of five the previous week— the differences are coming into starker relief.
Nowhere was it more obvious than at the August party conventions. At the Democratic convention, any person who entered the Chase Center in Wilmington in the days where Biden was speaking had to submit to Covid tests and receive negative results for two consecutive days. The testing regimen extended even to people delivering food and custodial workers.
News reporters covering Biden and Harris also arrived days in advance to take consecutive tests and were asked to “self-isolate” in their hotel rooms. Their "crowds" were limited to a couple dozen reporters and some Secret Service, all of whom were masked.
Trump’s renomination speech, meanwhile, was delivered to a large, mostly maskless crowd on the South Lawn of the White House.
Polls show a majority of Americans across party lines say that wearing a mask helps limit the spread of coronavirus. But those same polls also show a partisan divide over the issue. Republicans (32 percent) remain far more likely than Democrats (3 percent) and independents (17 percent) to say masks don’t help to limit the spread, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Health tracking poll on Thursday.
While Biden’s increasing public appearances will test the campaign's ability to keep him at a safe distance, Democrats are not eager to see Biden try to match what they view as his opponent’s rashness.
“The worst thing he could possibly have happen is to try to do what Trump is doing and then a bunch of people get sick,” said Joel Rutherford, chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of Macomb County in Michigan. “Trump is a showman. He’s all about the optics of things, not the safety. He doesn’t care about social distancing; he’s not concerned about masks. He just wants to look impressive on TV — and that means focusing on the more people he can get out [to his events].”
Still, Biden’s precautions have at times drawn criticism — and chafed some in his party. Media access to Biden’s events during his travel has been restricted to a small pool of reporters, who then shares quotes and observations with the campaign press corps. Critics say this has allowed the Biden campaign to control its message and candidate in ways that would be more difficult with a large group of media following him.
Terrance Warthen, former co-chair of Our Wisconsin Revolution, said Biden took it too far when he cited Covid-19 concerns in moving his nominating speech to Wilmington, instead of Milwaukee, where the national convention was originally scheduled to take place. Warthen said Biden should have given the speech and could have even taken a safe bus trip and waved out the window, to at least pay respects to the city and state.
“He could have had a very safe, and isolated trip,” Warthen said. “That would have been a cherry on top of a decent remote convention. He has the resources to do it, it’s the middle of a presidential race … Is he taking Wisconsin for granted?”
In Kenosha, there was private grousing from attendees who said they expected to pose for individual pictures with Biden. And on Labor Day, a Milwaukee TV reporter told Harris that locals were disappointed Wilmington was treated to a post-convention fireworks show, rather than their city.
Harris responded that it was a decision “no one was excited to make” and emphasized that her own Labor Day gatherings were small and vigilant: “all of us wearing our masks, indoors, being at least 6 feet apart, not having as big of a group as we would have liked,” she said.
Added Harris: “This is what we have to do in a Covid world.”