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Trump visits battleground Michigan to address auto workers and black leaders amid coronavirus

Trump gives White House trips campaign flair

The last time President Donald Trump dropped into an Ypsilanti, Michigan, manufacturing plant, hundreds greeted his presidential motorcade. Protesters shouting into bullhorns donned pink knitted "pussy hats" and latex masks resembling the newly inaugurated president. Signs reading "facts matter" and "wake up America" dotted the road.

This time around, there will be less noise because of the coronavirus pandemic. Local law enforcement hopes for no crowds under the extended stay-at-home order. And everyone will likely be wearing masks, since they're required for health reasons.

After three years, Mr. Trump is returning to Ypsilanti to tour Ford Motor Company's converted Rawsonville plant, which began producing ventilators exactly one month ago. There, Mr. Trump will also meet with local and national black leaders before addressing workers. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a Detroit native, will join Mr. Trump for the conversation with black leaders. Black Michiganders represent 31% of diagnosed COVID-19 cases and 40% of the deaths in the state, but just 14% of its population. 

As the U.S. coronavirus death toll climbs past 90,000, the Trump administration seeks to highlight one success: an unexpected surplus of ventilators. The visit marks the president's third trip to a swing state in as many weeks, one he won in 2016 by less than 11,000 votes, becoming the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988.

Yet, unlike the political battlegrounds of Florida or North Carolina, the COVID-19 pandemic's devastating toll on Michigan has taken over 5,000 lives and ranks seventh nationwide in deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University. Over 1.7 million Michiganders have filed for unemployment since March 15, which is more than a third of the state's labor force, based on the numbers released in February. 

Russ Collins runs two theaters in downtown Ann Arbor, operating with a skeleton 18-member staff and 120 furloughed part time workers he plans to pay by the end of the year with funds from a PPP loan. Ticket counters at both the State Theater and Michigan Theater have been re-outfitted with Plexiglas, and new rules will require masks upon entry.

"It is very, very disturbing to see this active and thriving downtown brought to a dead halt," Collins told CBS News. "It gives you pause about how things can and will recover as the pandemic subsides. I'm sure that it will, but it certainly causes anxiety."

When coronavirus hit, general manager and executive chef of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales and Kitchen, Maggie Long, struggled to find PPE from her local distributor. "They're out of everything," she exclaimed. Forced to furlough half her staff, the café and brewery, which is still selling food for takeout, has also been selling groceries from area farmers. Bacon, wheat and milk filled a growing need while paying the bills.

Long worries the president's rosy pitch to reopen America may encourage others to forgo newly adapted health and social distancing measures. "I don't think anybody's ready to reopen fully. To try to push this scares me on a personal level, and it scares me as a boss," Long told CBS News. "It's one thing to paint a picture. It's another thing to live in it."

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has begun slowly lifting the state's strict shelter-in-place to accommodate those living in it. Although Thursday's official White House visit actually violates an executive order requiring manufacturing facilities to "suspend all non-essential in-person visits, including tours," she has no plans to stop the trip.

"While the president's visit is contrary to the governor's order, this is an opportunity to showcase how important Michigan is to the response to COVID-19," Whitmer's communications director Zack Pohl said in a statement. 

Republicans in the legislature have sued Whitmer over use of her emergency powers while conservative activists regularly congregate in Lansing, stoked by the president's Twitter account. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" Mr. Trump tweeted April 17 in response to protests. Two weeks later the president wrote, "The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry."

Despite the ongoing battle, an April Fox News poll found 63% of Michiganders approved of how Whitmer has handled COVID-19, compared to 47% who approved of how Mr. Trump has handled the pandemic.

Both parties are fiercely competing for Michigan's 16 electoral votes in November. After Mr. Trump's 2016 victory, Democrats scored big wins in 2018, including Whitmer's nearly 10-point victory that gave the party control of the governor's mansion for the first time since 2010. 

"Michigan is ground zero," said Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, whose district includes Ypsilanti. "Anybody that understands politics knows that this is a competitive state, which they didn't four years ago. Democrats laughed at me when I said Donald Trump could win."

To reclaim the state in November, Dingell says Democrats must do a better job of talking about manufacturing jobs sent overseas, further amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic's spotlight on outsourced medical supply chains.

Trump's presumptive Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden has been talking behind a camera lens since mid-March, something staunch supporters do not seem to mind.

"I just don't think Joe Biden would do that," said Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democrats, where Ypsilanti is located. "I don't think he's going to have rallies where large amounts of people congregate. I just think that it's dangerous for one thing. It goes against all the things that we're talking about, which is to stay apart from each other right now."

But Michigan GOP chair Laura Cox is confident in the choices Mr. Trump has made in responding to the pandemic. 

"I think it's really important that people recognize that his strength is definitely something that we need and will continue to need as we weather this storm," Cox said.

"If the tenor of the time doesn't work to your advantage, then you just have to change the subject," said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. 

But changing the subject is no easy task in the age of COVID-19. The president's recent excursions outside of Washington sparked controversy after he opted not to wear a mask to PPE manufacturing facilities in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

That could change this week.

Ford spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said in a statement that company policy demands "everyone wears PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19," and added that Ford had shared its safety protocols with the White House ahead of the trip. In a follow-up statement, Ford said, "The White House has its own safety and testing policies in place and will make its own determination."

Probed on his impending decision, the president told reporters that his decision to wear or not to wear a mask will depend on the situation. "Am I standing right next to everybody or am I spread out? And also, you know - Is it a hospital? Is it a ward? What is it exactly? I'm going to a plant. So we'll see."  

Fin Gomez contributed to this report.

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