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‘This was entirely predictable’: Trump’s coronavirus status angers and sparks alarm

President Trump as he returns from a fundraiser at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club
President Trump as he returned from a fundraiser at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club on Thursday.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

It’s been a banner year for chaos.

A global health pandemic. A faltering economy. Social upheaval. Record-breaking heat waves and wildfires.

And now, in the latest destabilizing twist, a commander in chief who has fallen victim to one of the most serious health threats faced by a sitting U.S. president in modern history.

“If you didn’t think 2020 couldn’t get any more crazy, here we are,” said Nick Dokoozlian, a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder who is pursuing his studies remotely from his native Modesto because of the pandemic.

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Dokoozlian had just finished watching Thursday Night Football and had turned his attention to baseball when an alert popped up on his phone that President Trump and the first lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Shocked, he immediately called his mother to share the news.

“This just reinforces that we need to continue to wear masks and be vigilant at all times,” he said. “In California, things are starting to open back up a little bit, but we still need to be cautious. This can really hit anyone.”

Dokoozlian, 21, who is a state captain for the organization Gen Z GOP, said that he prays the president and First Lady Melania Trump — and all others affected — recover from the virus.

“I’m really hoping people don’t start to point fingers right now,” he said. “You can question the president’s handling of coronavirus, but we need to rally behind him and everyone else infected.”

About 300 miles south in Los Angeles, much of the public reaction was less charitable. Many people pointed out that before contracting the virus, Trump repeatedly downplayed its severity and mocked precautions to slow its spread.

Suzie Salinas, 54, of Bell recalled that just days ago, during the presidential debate, Trump poked fun at Democratic candidate Joe Biden for wearing masks frequently.

“That’s what he gets for making fun of people,” said Salinas, who was wearing a mask and carrying a fresh box of disinfecting wipes as she exited a Target in East Los Angeles.

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She said she’s disappointed that while Latinos in East and Southeast L.A. have been hit hard despite doing their best to stay healthy, the country’s leader didn’t set an example.

“We’re following [the rules], how come he can’t. He’s not special. He’s a human being like everybody else. We bleed the same color.

“You don’t see him going to buy Clorox wipes.”

Jonathan Diaz, a 23-year-old Army veteran, shared similar sentiments.

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“I’m not saying I’m happy he got it,” Diaz said. “I’m sure now he sees this is not a joke.”

The East L.A. resident has taken the virus seriously since returning from a deployment in South Korea a couple of months ago. One of his family members at one point was hospitalized with COVID-19 and declared dead — but miraculously recovered.

But Diaz watched the president dismiss the virus repeatedly and didn’t see him wear a mask during news conferences and other appearances.

“It’s kind of ironic,” he said. “You could tell he didn’t believe in it and he was careless on his part.”

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Maricela González goes to sleep early and wakes up early to arrive at her spot on César Chávez Avenue at 5 a.m.

Her TV doesn’t work, and her son has the family’s only cellphone. So she didn’t hear the news that the president was sick with COVID-19 until Friday morning at her selling post, full of children’s clothing, religious figurines and other trinkets.

She wasn’t particularly surprised. She just sighed tiredly: “Things are happening that I’ve never seen in my life.”

An undocumented immigrant, González cannot vote. If she had the choice, the president’s diagnosis might push her to give up street vending, because she comes in contact with so many people and it’s risky. But it’s her only way to make a living, she said.

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“I have a lot of problems in my life, but I have faith in God,” she said. “For us, the poor, all we have is to have faith in God.”

As for other, more privileged residents, she prays that they will use their power and go out to vote in November.

“And don’t vote for Trump,” she said with a laugh.

Caesar Benitez, 61, was selling aguas frescas on Whittier Boulevard on Friday morning when a friend told him the news. He said he hopes the president recovers and comes out of the sickness a changed man — but he doubts that will happen.

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“I don’t wish bad things for anyone,” Benitez said. “I can say that I hope this will help him be more conscious of the reality people are living and that he puts himself in their shoes.”

He said he thinks Trump has been childish in his handling of the pandemic and has sought to minimize the threat, going as far as suggesting fewer tests would improve the situation. “It’s like trying to cover the sun with a single finger,” Benitez said.

Some healthcare professionals and aid workers said they were not surprised that the president contracted the virus because he has eschewed masks and social distancing while traveling extensively for his campaign.

“I wish I could say that I am shocked,” said Dr. Jamie Taylor, an intensive care doctor who played a major role opening the Los Angeles Surge Hospital at the former St. Vincent Medical center during the early days of the pandemic. “But of course, this was entirely predictable, and it is infuriating.”

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Throughout the crisis, the president has not followed CDC guidelines, which ripples down to front-line healthcare workers who risk their lives every day to combat this virus. “Not to mention the countless number of people who have been affected by the conditions of the pandemic,” Taylor said.

Rev. Nelson Rabell, a Lutheran minister in the San Joaquin Valley town of Lodi who has both been aiding undocumented farmworkers affected by the virus and supporting Black Lives Matter, said Friday that he will “pray to God fervently” that the president and first lady get well soon. But he also believes that Trump “created the culture of not wearing a mask within the White House and across the country, and [has been] promoting false science and pseudoscience.”

“Sadly, this is what you get,” Rabell said. “I hope this is a teaching moment for the whole country to take this seriously.”

Rabell said the effect of Trump’s views can be seen on the streets of his town, which he describes as “not a progressive city.” Tensions have been growing in recent weeks between Trump supporters and those advocating for police reform in Lodi, leading to confrontations. At the same time, Rabell said, the economic impact of the coronavirus continues to devastate Latino essential workers in the area, who have been infected at high rates and some of whom are facing eviction as the virus continues to affect jobs.

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“Many of them are just desperate at this point,” Rabell said.

Fresh from a “perfect surf afternoon” in Huntington Beach, Greg Mitre, carrying his longboard, said Trump deserved the diagnosis. “He’s playing with fire, rolling the dice, and eventually, he got it. If he’s going to be holding rallies and having people all around him, it’s expected. The leader of our great country has been absolutely irresponsible.”

Mitre, a retired dockworker from San Pedro, is waiting to hear if members of the president’s Cabinet and those who often traveled with him on Air Force One and Marine One will soon test positive for the novel coronavirus.

“I think it was pretty obvious that people who are wearing the mask, exercising caution, exercising social distance, will not come down with the disease,” added Mitre, 63. “Maybe some good will come of it and that the rest of the nation will start to realize that they better be careful and start wearing masks.”

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There were also those skeptical that the president tested positive.

At Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue overlooking the beach, several people said reports of Trump’s illness were a hoax.

Lisa Koritsoglou, 48, of Santa Monica, said a lot of people on her social media feeds “think it’s a campaign ploy. They don’t believe he’s contracted it.”

“He always lies to us,” said Rosemary Dukelow, 64, of Roseville, Calif. “His doctors always lie to us.”

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Dukelow is a longtime volunteer for the Democratic Party in conservative Placer County. In recent weeks, she has helped people get yard signs for Biden and said several have been defaced or stolen.

“There are a lot of good reasons for him to lie to us about this,” she said. “He would get out the debates, he might get a sympathy vote, he could hide out in his bedroom for a while and have a miracle recovery and say it’s hydroxychloroquine.”

Landon Wolf, chairman of the Placer County Young Republicans, said it’s a shame how divided people are, even over the virus.

“Everything is very tribal,” he said. “With seemingly so much chaos going on, you come back to your tribe. Even if your guy isn’t the greatest guy in the world, he’s your guy, and both sides feel that way right now.”

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The battle over the acknowledgement and respect of the coronavirus’ destructive power has been playing out in the life of 33-year-old Mar Vista resident Kurtis Sundblom since mid-March.

In his Westside community, masks are abundant, social distancing is respected and the COVID-19 threat is real.

But Sundblom grew up in the Inland Empire, and two weeks ago he visited family and dined along Redland’s trendy State Street, lined with eateries, bars and ice cream shops.

“There were so many people walking down the street without masks and stopping and talking to each other,” he said.

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When Sundblom learned of the president and first lady’s diagnosis on Friday morning, he said, his thoughts drifted toward the lack of concern he’s seen from too many individuals.

“When I first saw the news, I thought about the disregard so many people have toward one another and the lack of respect in a public space,” Sundblom said. “If you don’t want to believe in wearing a mask, that’s fine, but at what point do you recognize your responsibility to protect others in society?”

Still, some supporters of the president expressed little concern Friday, framing the virus as a minor illness, overblown by media and critics, as the president has done for months.

Jules Adger, a retiree who lives in Brea, believes that by Oct. 9 or 10, the president will be back to good health and that there’s no need to use masks “because more harm will come to you by breathing back your own oxygen.”

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He said he has faith that the first lady, along with her husband, “will snap out of it.”

“His timing was perfect because he’s going to show the nation that he will recover so quickly — just in time for the election,” Adger said as he walked with his dog, Gizmo, along the colorful pier in Huntington Beach.

“Oh no, he has the flu,” Jim Edmonds, the owner of a bouncy house business in Northern California that has been decimated by state restrictions, said sarcastically. “Remember, 20 million people were supposed to die in the first two weeks,” he exaggerated.

The global death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed 1 million on Monday.

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Times staff writers Anita Chabria, Gale Holland and Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.


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