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A Steelworker Who Sat In The Debate Hall Says About Trump’s Positive Coronavirus Test: “It’s Frustrating”

"I just literally heard about it when I looked at my newsfeed on my phone about an hour ago."

Posted on October 2, 2020, at 10:39 a.m. ET

The debate hall on Tuesday night
Pool / Getty Images

CLEVELAND — A Cleveland steelworker who attended Tuesday’s debate as a guest of Joe Biden’s was still trying to process the news Friday. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and top Trump aide Hope Hicks — all of whom had been in the room with him that night on the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus — had in the last 24 hours tested positive for COVID-19.

“I just literally heard about it when I looked at my newsfeed on my phone about an hour ago,” James Evanoff Jr., the rapid response director for the United Steelworkers Local 979, told BuzzFeed News in a telephone interview Friday morning.

Though masks were mandatory on site to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, there were members of Trump’s family and traveling party who did not wear them in the debate hall.

“It’s frustrating,” Evanoff said. “It’s probably why we’re in the mess we’re in, because there are a select few who don’t want to wear masks.”

Testing negative for the virus also was a condition of entry; Evanoff, an employee of ArcelorMittal in Cleveland, said he was tested before entering Tuesday. He was at work Friday morning, about to take his break, when reached by phone. The 38-year-old said he has no preexisting conditions that would make him vulnerable to the coronavirus but is often around people who do. He added that he’s careful about wearing masks wherever he goes, and called out Trump, who rarely wears a mask in public and who holds rallies that don’t adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“It’s no different than the fool who will say, ‘I don’t have to wear it at the grocery store,’” Evanoff said. “You run into those who put the mask on just to walk past the attendant at the store, and once they’re past them, they pull them down. It’s upsetting that the president doesn’t lead by example.”

Evanoff was one of two Northeast Ohio guests whom Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, invited to the debate, along with Gurneé Green, the owner of a Cleveland-area fashion store.

“Gurneé and James represent so many of us — Ohioans who get up and work hard each day to support their families and pursue their dreams,” Toni Webb, the director of Biden’s Ohio campaign, said in a predebate statement to “But Donald Trump turned his back on people like Gurneé and James. And now they, like so many Americans, are feeling uncertain about the future after four years of Trump’s failed leadership and broken promises.”

The positive tests in the wake of Tuesday’s debate throw into confusion how major campaign events will take place — including debates — over the next several weeks. Officials with the Cleveland Clinic — which is handling coronavirus protocols for the Commission on Presidential Debates and hosted Tuesday’s event — have not responded to requests for comment about what specific safety measures, including ventilation, were in place to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.