Following Trump's lead, New Jersey GOP leader avoids masks on campaign trail



New Jersey political events, put off for months by the pandemic, began gearing up again in late summer.


Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt has been making the campaign rounds — sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors but, at least according to photos posted on his Facebook page, consistently maskless.

Some of the photos, which were taken in September, show Steinhardt shaking hands with other maskless attendees. One shows Steinhardt and a group of Republican women posing close together for a photo, all maskless. In some of the photos Steinhardt interacts or stands near older people who are also not wearing masks.

Steinhardt’s Facebook page was brought to POLITICO’s attention by a Twitter user as news broke that President Trump and other top Republicans in his orbit had tested positive for coronavirus.

Steinhardt is a likely candidate for governor in next year, and has aligned himself closely with Trump. A super PAC expected to boost a prospective Steinhardt gubernatorial campaign includes Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien as an adviser.

“Chairman Steinhardt gets tested regularly; at least once or twice a month, including most recently Friday. Every event, inside or out, follows guidelines in terms of numbers of attendees,” Steinhardt spokesperson Harrison Neely said in a statement. “Every interaction in a picture is voluntary, meaning someone extended a hand, elbow or fist. The NJGOP follows all CDC guidelines, and yes, sometimes people briefly remove their masks to pose for photos.”

The most recent photos show Steinhardt at an Asian-American Republican Alliance event last week in Fords in support of Republican Senate candidate Rik Mehta. While the crowd was sparse and in a large ballroom, many of the attendees in the photos appear to be maskless. In another photo posted on Sept. 30, Steinhardt stands shoulder-to-shoulder with state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), who’s running for Congress, as well as other Republicans.

Steinhardt and others may have worn masks when they were not posing for the photos. But several other pictures that appear more candid show Steinhardt speaking and shaking hands with Republicans while not wearing a mask. Sometimes, groups of people behind Steinhardt can be seen in close proximity — and in one case even hugging.

One senior citizen who posed maskless at the Fords event with Steinhardt last week was state Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex), who as an 85-year-old smoker acknowledged he is in a high-risk group.

“While [mask wearing is] what’s recommended, I think people are going to make their own decisions as to what they’re going to do,” Thompson said in a phone interview

Thompson wasn’t sure if he would change his own behavior going forward. “I think some people will change but it’s not going to be 100 percent,’ he said.

An executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy in July requires mask-wearing in indoor spaces, except in restaurants once customers are seated to eat. They’re also required at outdoor gatherings when people are unable to follow social-distancing protocols.

New Jersey political events, put off for months by the pandemic, began gearing up again in late summer. POLITICO heard from some who attended Democratic legislative fundraisers earlier in the summer that they were uncomfortable about lax social distancing protocols, but POLITICO saw no pictures of the events and could not confirm the stories with other attendees.

Asked if he knew of any Democrats appearing a maskless events, Neely, the GOP spokesperson, shared a photo of Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones — who’s in line to succeed current state Democratic Chair John Currie next year — standing maskless next to Democratic House candidate Stephanie Schmid.

Jones said he was wearing a mask but took it off briefly for the photo.

Schmid also said she had her mask off only briefly. Another photo shows an event in which Schmid was speaking in a tent where attendees, though spaced apart, were not wearing mask. However, the attendees were eating at the time and the tent was open on two sides, Schmid said.

Saily Avelenda, executive director of the Democratic State Committee, said her party has had few in-person events, and that all of them were socially distanced with masks required.

“I personally am just amazed by the lack of care for the people around us. The fact that this has been proven — being in a room, closed in with no mask on — it’s proven to be a bad thing and people keep doing it,” Avelenda said. "It absolutely makes my blood boil that the Republican Party doesn’t understand the science and doesn’t put peoples’ lives before the politics.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-10-07 03:09:30 -0700