Joe Biden said wearing a mask is an act of “patriotism”, as the Democratic presidential nominee used his first formal press conference in nearly three months to denounce Donald Trump for exacerbating the coronavirus crisis and stoking divisions across the US.
Mr Biden on Tuesday warned that the president’s haphazard response to the pandemic has contributed to the recent spike in cases in some states, which has forced delays to reopening plans across the country.
While Mr Trump’s top health officials and politicians from both parties have called for Americans to wear masks in public places to help contain the disease, the president has not done so himself, leading some critics to accuse him of politicising the issue and stoking some Americans’ resistance to face coverings.
“We’re facing a serious threat . . . we have to meet it as one country,” Mr Biden said. “But the president gives us no direction and he pits us against one another. We can’t continue like this: half-recovering and half-getting-worse, half wearing masks and half rejecting science.”
Among the steps that Mr Biden urged Mr Trump to take to get the crisis under control were invoking the Defence Production Act to boost the production of personal protective equipment; imposing federal guidelines for state-reopenings; and doubling the number of drive-through testing sites. He has also said he would require masks to be worn if elected.
Wearing masks, Mr Biden said, should not be a political decision, even as it has become an increasingly contentious issue in some parts of the US.
“It’s called patriotism. It’s called responsibility. It’s called making sure you look out for the other person”, Mr Biden said.
Mr Biden said that if he won November’s election, he would begin working on a coronavirus plan before he took office. He said he would ask for input from Anthony Fauci — one of the nation’s top health experts, who is helping lead the country’s coronavirus response — whom he would ask to stay on in a key role.
Mr Biden also accused Mr Trump of failing to use the past few months to prepare the US for a safe reopening: “Statewide lockdowns that so many Americans lived under for months were intended to buy us time to get our act together. Instead of using that time to prepare ourselves, Donald Trump squandered it. Now, here we are, more than three months later. We’re hardly better prepared than we were in March.”
Since he pulled ahead in the Democratic primaries, Mr Biden has struggled at times to stay in the media narrative, particularly at the outset of the outbreak when Mr Trump appeared on national television every day as part of the coronavirus task force briefings.
Over the past two weeks, Mr Biden has begun to hold small, socially-distanced events with voters in the mid-Atlantic — not far from his home in Delaware. On Tuesday, the candidate said he would not be holding campaign rallies before the election in November, calling 2020 “the most unusual campaign . . . in modern history”.
The Trump campaign has hammered Mr Biden, claiming that he has deliberately shied away from interactions with the press and voters and instead camped out in the cellar of his Delaware home, limiting his appearances to virtual fundraisers and television.
In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Mr Trump’s campaign noted that the Biden event represented the first press conference for the vice-president in almost 90 days. Mr Trump had held 55 question-and-answer sessions with the press over the same period, the campaign said.
“I think what it reveals is that Joe Biden can’t stand the bright lights of scrutiny. Every time he ventures out from his basement, he makes some grave error that his campaign has to deal with for several days,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director.
“Every day that goes by that he hides from Americans is more evidence that he is not qualified to be president of the United States.”
Mr Biden did not shy away from taking his own shots at the president, particularly over a report from The New York Times that Mr Trump took no action following claims that Russian operatives offered bounties to Taliban militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
“The idea that somehow he didn’t know or isn’t being briefed is a dereliction of duty . . . it’s an absolute dereliction of duty,” Mr Biden said.