Last week, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber was unmasked when stumping for re-election on the Iron Range. He stood at the entrance of the U.S. Steel’s Minntac in Mountain Iron, sporting a beige Carhartt hat, red-checkered flannel jacket, and black gloves while holding a “We Support Mining” sign among a group of supporters cheering for him and President Donald J. Trump mere weeks ahead of Election Day.
“We’re doing a gate greet to these miners,” he said in a recorded video that circulated among miners after being posted on his Facebook campaign page last Wednesday morning. “They know that I have their backs and I’ll always have their backs. Mining is our past, our present and our future and we’re getting a great response outside of the gate at Minntac this morning.”
He continued, “I want to thank the miners for doing great work for mining the iron ore that makes 85 percent of this country’s steel. And again, made in America from the Iron Range.”
In recent weeks, Stauber, a Republican, has made indoor and outdoor appearances in swing cities across the mammoth Eighth Congressional District. His supporters have attended his get-togethers and rallies in hopes of placing him in office for another two years. Many of them choose not to wear masks at such events.
The Minnesota Department of Health has generally recommended that people wear masks and socially distance at outdoor events, but it is not mandated, and the state limits outside public gatherings to 250 people or fewer. MDH does mandate mask usage at public indoor venues.
Meantime, health officials in Minnesota have tied cases to people who attended presidential campaign rallies in recent weeks. State officials last week said 16 of the cases were connected to Trump’s outdoor event in Bemidji on Sept. 18 and three cases to his rally in Duluth on Sept. 30. Another three people have tested positive for the virus after attending Vice President Mike Pence’s rally at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sept. 24.
Health officials have also said that one person tested positive for the virus after attending Joe Biden’s Duluth appearance on Sept. 16. Updated numbers were not available as of press time Monday.
Stauber had joined the U.S. Representatives Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn when flying with Trump on Air Force One to and from the Duluth rally on Sept. 30. Roughly 3,000 people attended the event. The next day, the president and the first lady tested positive for the coronavirus. The trio of congressmen would test negative that Friday. Still, they boarded a Delta flight in Washington, D.C., contrary to the airline's policies and suggestions from health experts.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith also declined the suggested quarantine and traveled this week after a negative COVID-19 test. On Sunday, she announced on Twitter that a person attending a campaign event tested positive. The event was outdoors and required masks, she wrote, noting she would quarantine until a negative test was posted.
The Minnesota Health Department recommends a 14-day quarantine for people who come into contact with others who tested positive for the virus. The time frame does not change with a negative test since the virus has an incubation period between two days and two weeks and the possibility of a false negative.
Despite the recommendations, Stauber did not quarantine in that time frame. He said he tested negative on at least two separate occasions and has since made campaign stumps at various events in Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Pine City, Little Falls, Nisswa, McGregor, Virginia, Cambridge, Eveleth, Brainerd and International Falls, among other communities in his district.
Stauber told the Mesabi Tribune after the rally that he sought advice from the Office of Attending Physician of the House of Representatives who told him he was “a low risk of exposure” and that he “should continue my personal duties, including voting on the House Floor and travel.”
Smith wrote on Twitter that she was “never in close contact” with the infected person at her event, which was about a week before her test was administered. On Monday, the senator provided an update on Twitter, writing “My COVID test is negative. Headed back to Washington to keep working for Minnesotans.”
Stauber also combatted the notion that he broke any airline policies when flying Delta immediately after exposure. He told the newspaper that he spoke with the airlines and met their “protocols and safety measures, which is why the flight was allowed to take off with me on board.” According to Delta policies, “Customers who have knowingly been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 14 days may not travel.”
Earlier this month, he joined South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and a crew of Republicans for the Trump Women’s Tour that made a Sunday stop in Virginia. Along the way, the governor, congressman and others were unmasked at times and seen shaking hands and taking photos with their supporters.
Stauber’s recent public appearances come at a time when health officials in northern Minnesota have been reporting a spike in coronavirus cases, most of which resulting from community transmission. Several of his supporters have told the Mesabi Tribune that they believe that the coronavirus remains far from the Iron Range or relate that the severity of the coronavirus is akin to that of influenza. The St. Louis County and Minnesota health departments have consistently refuted such claims and continue to report that the number of cases continue to increase in the region.
Noem has been telling the media that the surge in cases in South Dakota is due to an increase in testing. Her words come as the state continues to flip-flop with North Dakota, Wisconsin and Montana in leading the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.
On Friday, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called the record day “eye popping” and noted it came on a record testing capacity of more than 44,000 tests. But, she added, the record case number is coming from community spread and not one single outbreak or event.
“It’s the result of steady, inexorable spread throughout the state,” she told reporters on a conference call. “It’s that community spread fueled in large part by asymptomatic spread of people who don’t know they have the virus.”
As for Quinn Nystrom, the district’s DFL congressional candidate endorsed by Biden, she has mostly stuck to teleconference appearances amid the coronavirus pandemic. Two weeks ago, on the same day that Noem visited the Iron Range, Nystrom wore a mask at an in-person event in Chisholm, where supporters were seen social distancing.
"Our first priority has to be protecting people's lives,'' Nystrom wrote in an email to the Mesabi Tribune last Thursday. "People will keep dying and the economy will continue to stall as long as this virus is raging unchecked across our country.”
Her campaign manager, Sam Rivers, added, "We are taking every precaution to make the events we do safe. All events are held outside and participants are required to sign waivers attesting to not having any symptoms of COVID and that they have not been exposed to anyone with the virus. Every participant has their temperature checked, then they’re required to wear a mask for the entire outdoor event and stay socially distant."
Stauber previously said that he was “disappointed with the very public and clearly partisan shaming that is being carried out by some of my fellow Members of Congress from Minnesota, who quickly jumped to conclusions and did not take the time to review the facts of the situation.” He continued, “Going forward, I would simply ask that these Members refrain from spreading fear and stigmatizing people during a public health crisis.”
Other Republicans have quarantined when exposed to someone with the coronavirus. Included was U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis, who announced last week that he tested negative for COVID-19 after coming into contact with a person who had been infected with the virus. He was in quarantine for more than one week.
Jerry Burnes contributed to this report.