Getting the Virus Can Change a Politician’s Mind, Say Some Who Had It
And now, the president of the United States.
Across the country, scores of elected officials at all levels of government have experienced the alarming moment of finding out that they have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Their diagnoses raised all sorts of pressing questions about their health, and the well-being of those around them. But for many politicians, living through the virus has also been a turning point, forcing them to re-examine their own views on the pandemic that has shaken their governments and sickened their constituents.
“We are not taking this seriously enough,” said Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, Tenn., who spent 11 days in a hospital, sweating through his clothes in unbearable pain. After his release from the hospital in July, he recorded a video extolling the value of face masks.
“I think President Trump is possibly going to have a different outlook on Covid now that he’s tested positive,” said Mr. Brooks, a Republican. ”I know I did.”
At least nine public officials have died of the virus. They include judges, state legislators from Louisiana and South Dakota, and a Jersey City councilman. The riverfront town of Washington, N.C., is still reeling from the death of Mac Hodges, a four-term mayor nicknamed “Bear,” who bounced from Rotary talks to budget meetings to East Carolina University tailgates and seemed to know everyone in the 9,500-person town.
“It was a wake-up call for us: We need to be more careful,” said Virginia Finnerty, a city councilwoman who tested positive for the virus in July. “We live in a small sheltered town. We were taking precautions, but somewhere in our subconscious we thought, ‘It’s not going to affect us.’”
The virus is notoriously unpredictable, and some politicians reported feeling fine despite the diagnosis.
Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, 47, worked by Zoom during his quarantine, living by himself at a guesthouse near the governor’s mansion. He returned to the Capitol two weeks later. Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, 65, was recently sidelined from the campaign trail but quickly announced that he had recovered.
The governors had both declined mask mandates, reflecting a skepticism that is more prevalent among Republicans, including Mr. Trump, who has largely rejected wearing masks.
On the other hand, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, issued a mask mandate in May and tested positive last week. “When you take the call sitting beside your wife that you’re both positive, it really does get your attention,” said Mr. Northam, who has spent quarantine working on issues such as the budget and police reform and playing with his family’s new puppy. “Don’t take anything for granted.”
Shevrin D. Jones, a 36-year-old Democratic state representative from Florida, says he still sometimes takes naps because he finds himself exhausted in the middle of the day. “I’m not exaggerating: I literally thought I was going to die,” he said of the worst days of his illness. “Your anxieties hit you so hard.”
Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, one of the first elected officials in the country to confirm he had contracted the coronavirus, did some 10 television interviews a day from his house while fielding work calls and emails. “It turns out I was able to do quite a bit of work,” Mr. Suarez, 42, said. At night, he binge-watched TV shows like “Ozark” on Netflix.
Despite his mild case in March, it took 17 days for him to test negative. If that happens to Mr. Trump, he might have to skip the planned Oct. 15 debate in Miami.
“Maybe it influences him,” said Mr. Suarez, a Republican elected to a nonpartisan position. He at one point urged residents to wear masks indoors, in part because of his experience with quarantine. “Maybe,” he said of Mr. Trump, “him getting sick will give him a different perspective.”
It did for Everett Green, the mayor of Scott City, Kan. For many months, few people had gotten sick in his rural town of 4,000. Almost every business on Main Street had stayed open. “We were all basically going about our lives,” said Mr. Green, a Republican in a deeply red area. “The coronavirus was something we were seeing on TV.”
But then, as cases were rising in Kansas and across the Great Plains this summer, Mr. Green attended an election party for a fellow Republican running for the Kansas State Senate. Indoors, he mingled with a few dozen people. They had cookies and punch. No one wore masks.
A week later, Mr. Green learned that someone at his table at the event had the virus. A test quickly confirmed that he had it as well. Within 12 hours, his entire family had fallen ill.
“I became very convinced of the contagiousness that I had heard about in the news reports,” said Mr. Green, who previously had wondered whether the severity of the virus was being overblown and politicized during an election year. “I was immediately convinced: This is a real thing.”
Though Mr. Green, 55, had a relatively mild case — he stayed in bed for four days and at one point spiked a 103-degree fever — it was enough to change his perspective.
He started wearing a mask to the grocery store even though it is not required by the business. He tells anyone who will listen that the virus is indeed worse than a regular cold. And he recently sought to enforce a county mask mandate, asking City Council members and street workers to wear face coverings on the job. The decision was so unpopular that he now suspects that people have been avoiding him at City Hall.
“There is no zealot like a convert,” Mr. Green said.
Ronnie Thompson, the mayor of Morganton, N.C., has also sought to use his own experience as a warning in his largely conservative county.
Mr. Thompson, a Democrat, tested positive for the virus in July and wound up hospitalized for five days after his fever spiked and he developed severe diarrhea. The day after he was released from the hospital, he recalled, he offered a face mask to a man at a grocery store, but the man rejected it and said he believed that the coronavirus was not real and that masks made people look stupid.
Mr. Thompson said he hoped Mr. Trump’s diagnosis might help convince people who were not persuaded by his own illness.
“A lot of people in this area who support him do not believe in wearing masks,” said Mr. Thompson, who is back to riding his bicycle 12 miles a day but recently noticed that his hair is falling out, one consequence of the virus. “I think this is going to make it real.”
Jack Begg contributed research
g contributed research.