Freeland — There were masks. There were temperature checks. There were also thousands of people gathered for President Donald Trump’s first campaign rally in Michigan since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The Republican incumbent, who won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. at an airport hangar in Freeland, which is near the cities of Saginaw and Midland.
The event symbolizes the president’s recognition that the country needs to reopen its economy and needs to do it in a “healthy and safe way,” said Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan native who is chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
“That’s the reality for most Americans and most Michiganders that we can’t bunker down in our basement forever. We all have to go back to work,” McDaniel said, criticizing Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, who held smaller events on the campaign trail in recent weeks.
An estimated 4,200 people were in attendance for Trump’s event in Freeland at about 5 p.m., said Philip Shaver, chief of Tittabawassee Township Fire Department.
On Wednesday, Biden was in Michigan where he spoke to a small group outside a United Auto Workers hall in Warren and participated in backyard conversation with four union members.
Hundreds of people were in a lengthy line outside the airport hangar In Freeland at about 3 p.m., four hours before the president’s speech was scheduled to begin. As they gathered, they went through temperature screenings and were told by campaign volunteers that masks would be required.
Dawn Beattie of Eastpointe distributed hand sanitizer, telling attendees, “Compliments of the Don,” referring to the businessman who’s now president.
The event, which is mainly taking place outside an airport hangar, occurs as Michigan limits outdoor public gatherings to 100 people to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, there are exemptions for First Amendment-protected events.
Democrats have been critical of Trump’s planned rally in Michigan. Earlier in the week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the idea of the president “descending” on the state to gather people who may or may not be wearing masks “distressing to say the least.” But Whitmer’s office has said the governor doesn’t make “individual enforcement decisions” when it comes to her executive orders.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, also slammed the president over the rally on Thursday morning.
“He’s willing to put his supporters at risk if it helps him get re-elected,” Kildee said.
As of Thursday, Michigan had confirmed 109,519 cases of COVID-19 and 6,569 deaths linked to the virus. The state considers 80,678 Michiganians “recovered.”
Michigan is crucial for both Biden and Trump in Nov. 3’s election. In 2016, Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to carry Michigan since 1988.
Biden led the Republican incumbent 47% to 42% in a poll of 600 likely Michigan voters released by The Detroit News and WDIV on Tuesday. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.
Trump won Saginaw County, where Freeland is located, by 1 percentage point in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Two years later, Whitmer beat Republican Bill Schuette by about 8 points in Saginaw County on her way to becoming governor.
Trade policy is expected to be a focus of Trump’s upcoming campaign in the state and his speech in Freeland. In January, he signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a replacement for North American Free Trade Agreement. Under the new deal, automakers will have to produce cars with 75% of parts originating from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment, up from NAFTA’s 62.5% level.
On Wednesday, Biden unveiled his own plan to financially penalize companies that move jobs overseas and provide a tax credit for those who invest within the the country’s borders. And Biden told a group of union workers in Detroit that Trump was allowing the country to go to “hell in a hand basket economically.”
“We’re not doing a thing about it,” Biden said of Trump’s administration.
Biden’s campaign has also criticized Trump for failing to deliver on promises to increase auto manufacturing jobs. In Michigan, the number of auto manufacturing jobs has been lower each month of this year than it was in December 2016, before Trump took office, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that recently went into effect was essentially a full employment act for the auto industry, said Peter Navarro, Trump’s director of trade and manufacturing policy. Trump will come out “swinging” Thursday in Michigan, Navarro said.
“Joe Biden is a plagiarist,”the trade policy adviser added, arguing that the former vice president’s new plan for penalizing companies that move jobs overseas mirrors plans advanced by Trump.
Don Schark, 50, was one of the hundreds in the crowd outside the airport hangar on Thursday afternoon to see Trump. He is from the Saginaw area and works in the skilled trades. He said about 80% of the people in his line of work support the president’s re-election and he criticized past presidents’ stances toward China.
“We’re exporting our jobs to a country that doesn’t believe in what you do for a living, freedom of speech,” Schark told a reporter. “They don’t believe in journalism They don’t believe in anything that we believe in.
“This is like the first candidate in 20 years that actually mentions this stuff.”
Trump last made a stop in Michigan on May 21, when he visited Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville Components Plant. His son, Donald Trump Jr., will participate Tuesday in an event in Harrison Township.