During remarks Thursday afternoon in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden pointedly called back to Trump’s address the night before, when from the Oval Office he announced a ban on a significant amount of travel from Europe and described the disease as a “foreign” virus with origins in China.
“Downplaying it, being overly dismissive, or spreading misinformation is only going to hurt us and further advantage the spread of the disease,” Biden said. “But neither should we panic or fall back on xenophobia. Labeling COVID-19 a foreign virus does not displace accountability for the misjudgments that have been taken thus far by the Trump administration.”
“Let me be crystal clear,” the former vice president added. “The coronavirus does not have a political affiliation, but will infect Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike. And it will not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender, or zip code. It will touch people in positions of power, as well as the most vulnerable in our society. And it will not stop banning all travel from Europe or any other part of the world. It may slow it, but as we’ve seen, it will not stop it.”
Biden, who on Wednesday formed a public health advisory committee for his campaign, also criticized the Trump administration for cuts to global health investments that he said left the US vulnerable to a pandemic like the coronavirus. And he released a lengthy plan to combat the coronavirus that is heavy on broad themes and ideas, like "restoring trust, credibility, and common purpose." But it also includes big and potentially expensive proposals, like preventing Americans from paying out of pocket for preventive care or treatment for the virus, and providing emergency paid leave for people impacted by the virus’s spread.
The Democratic frontrunner also called for COVID-19 testing to be made both free and widely available, for mobile testing sites and drive-through medical facilities in each state, and for preparing hospitals for possibly gigantic patient influxes with temporary hospitals and military resources.
“Biden believes,” the plan states, “we must spend whatever it takes, without delay, to meet public health needs and deal with the mounting economic consequences.”
Trump reelection campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh defended the president in a statement emailed after Biden’s speech. “His every move has been aimed at keeping Americans safe,” Murtaugh said of Trump, “while Joe Biden has sought to capitalize politically and stoke citizens’ fears.”
Thursday’s speech came at a pivotal moment in the campaign. Both Biden and Bernie Sanders have canceled events, citing the public health risks. The next debate, initially set for Sunday in Phoenix, is now closed to spectators and the media and happening in Washington, DC. Just as Biden tightens his grasp on the Democratic nomination and Sanders struggles to reconcile what’s next for his now–long shot candidacy, both are limited to televised moments. (Sanders is expected to address the “health and economic crisis” at a 3 p.m. ET news conference in Burlington, Vermont.)
Biden also has canceled upcoming visits to Chicago and Miami ahead of next week’s primaries in Illinois and Florida, and instead plans events such as a “virtual town hall” Friday for Illinois voters. He spoke Thursday about “radical changes” necessary in daily behavior, with more hand-washing and less hand-shaking and more people working remotely. The NBA and NHL have suspended the remainder of their seasons indefinitely. The NCAA’s March Madness tournament is in jeopardy.
“We’ll continue to assess and adjust how we conduct our campaign as we move forward and find new ways to share our message with the public while putting the health and safety of the American people first,” Biden said.
Just before he began his remarks Thursday, Biden announced a shakeup that puts longtime Democratic strategist Jen O’Malley Dillon in as the new campaign manager and moves Greg Schultz, who had held the position since Biden’s campaign launch last year, into an organizational role that is expected to focus on general election planning.
“I am grateful to Greg for his leadership and hard work to help get our campaign where it is today, and I will value his continued input on this campaign,” Biden said in a statement distributed by the campaign. “I am also thrilled that Jen is bringing her considerable talent and insight to this team. She will be a tremendous asset to a campaign that is only growing and getting stronger as we prepare to take the fight to Donald Trump this fall.”
Biden often offers his experience in federal government as a reassuring attribute during times of crisis, tragedy, and uncertainty. As impeachment proceedings began against Trump last year, he used a speech in Wilmington to paint the president as a threat to the Constitution. And the overall theme of Biden’s campaign is that Trump — through his character and his handling of racist riots in Charlottesville, Virginia — has forced a battle for the soul of the nation.
“No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks,” Biden said Thursday. “But I can promise you this: When I am president, we will be better prepared, respond better, and recover better.”