Long before the Rose Garden disaster, a fly-fishing campaign trip that featured few masks produced a high-profile COVID-19 case—and some pissed-off residents.
When Kimberly Guilfoyle tested positive for COVID-19 before Donald Trump’s July Mount Rushmore speech, it seemed like the result came back just in the nick of time. She and her boyfriend, who happens to be the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., skipped the rally and were said to have avoided contact with the president.
But the duo had already made a lasting impression in the northern plains, where earlier that week they had headlined a two-day Trump campaign event in Big Sky, Montana, potentially exposing locals and political donors to COVID-19—and leaving some to find out about it through the news.
“There’s this whole program set up by the CDC to alert people that have been in contact with someone that may have tested positive,” said Grant Kennedy, a fly-fishing guide hired to teach donors at the Trump event.
“I found out because my co-guide texted me a photo of CNN,” he told The Daily Beast.
As the White House resists calls to contact trace people who were potentially exposed to the president before he tested positive for the novel coronavirus himself, the July infection offers a sort of case study for Trumpworld’s hands-off approach to controlling the spread of a deadly pathogen at their own events.
Tickets for the Trump campaign’s “Mountain West Ranch Retreat,” between June 30 and July 2, set just south of Bozeman, went for as much as $15,000. Attendees included Republicans running for competitive state races, including a candidate for lieutenant governor, Kristen Juras; Rep. Greg Gianforte’s wife Susan; and State Auditor Matt Rosendale and his wife, according to a leaked copy of the guest list obtained by a local NBC affiliate.
Other attendees included Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Aurelia Skipwith, and former Interior Secretary and Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke.
A number of donors had flown in from out of state. Photos taken at the event and posted on social media showed people in close proximity to one another. One photo posted by Juras was taken next to Gianforte’s wife and behind Guilfoyle and Donald Trump Jr.
Few if any masks were worn.
The two-day event included receptions and fly-fishing on a private ranch and a dinner of more than 100 attendees at Big Sky’s ritzy farm-to-table restaurant at Lone Mountain Ranch.
When news broke that Guilfoyle had tested positive for the coronavirus a day after leaving Montana, at least some politicians—including Gianforte, who is running for governor—announced they’d be suspending their campaigns to quarantine.
But multiple locals who worked the event told The Daily Beast they were never contacted by the Trump campaign or local health officials, and instead were forced to make the hard decision to get tested or self-quarantine on their own. Officials at Lone Mountain Ranch told local media they would be quarantining potentially affected staff after hearing of the positive case.
“It’s tough. I was already so unsure because of COVID you know, how busy we were going to be. And then as soon as it’s fine and looks like it can be a really busy season, you all of a sudden have to sit on the couch for two weeks and you’re missing out on those two weeks of work,” said Kennedy, who was one of several fly-fishing guides hired to assist during the two-day event.
Prior to working the event, the guides were not told how many attendees there would be, nor where in the country they had hailed from, according to Kennedy. The guides all had close interaction with Guilfoyle, at times taking her hand to help her in and out of the slippery stream, they said. Kennedy estimated the subsequent quarantine cost each of them at least $5,000 of work, a big revenue loss for a seasonal worker. Another guide said he applied for unemployment for the two weeks under the CARE Act.
They were never contacted by the campaign again after the event.
“Obviously, as a guide, you’re essentially putting yourself at risk with every single client we take out here this summer,” said Kennedy. “But just to think about that, why would you choose the time of a pandemic to have a donors retreat? It just seems irresponsible and kind of stupid in a way. Just disregarding all the potential hazards of having a group of people from all over the country, a lot of them are coming from larger cities where, you know, numbers were higher for COVID. And then bringing it to a tiny community like Bozeman.”
Spokespeople for the Trump campaign and Donald Trump Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite a large portion of the event taking place outdoors, experts said there was still plenty of risk of viral transmission.
“If you were teaching someone how to fly-fish and were next to them and touching them, then you are certainly going to be at higher risk, even if you are outdoors,” Timothy Brewer, a doctor and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast. “If you are close enough to someone that their respiratory droplets could land on you, then you certainly could become infected.”
Public health officials told The Daily Beast that neither Gallatin nor neighboring Madison counties—Big Sky spans both—ever officially launched contact tracing for the donor retreat. That’s because they were never contacted by the campaign, nor by officials in South Dakota, where Guilfoyle tested positive, to alert them that an outbreak might have occurred, they said.
“I remember I reached out to our state health department to see if we received anything. We were getting calls about it from the press, but we’re in this position where we didn’t have a case to investigate. And until we have a case to investigate, there’s not a heck of a lot we could do about it,” said Matt Kelley, health officer with the Gallatin City-County Health Department. “I can tell you none of the campaigns got ahold of us.”
While Guilfoyle’s team confirmed she was positive for the virus in South Dakota, that state’s Department of Health Spokesperson Derrick Haskins said that when the White House Medical Team was notified of her positive test results, the officials said they would take on the next steps of notifying those likely exposed.
“We were informed they would complete the case investigation and contact tracing,” Haskins told The Daily Beast.
Typically, officials in South Dakota would also reach out to the home state where Guilfoyle resided, but Haskins said they were never told where it was. Guilfoyle lives in New York.
“[We] did not have access to her state of residence to send an interstate notice of disease to the appropriate state public health agency,” said Haskins.
It’s unclear why the White House did not instigate the investigation it promised. A representative for Guilfoyle did not respond to a request for comment, and the White House referred a request for comment to the Trump campaign.
John Ebelt, public information officer for the Montana Department of Public Health, confirmed that the state was “not asked by any other states for public health investigation assistance on this matter.”
For their part, Gallatin health officials were not aware of the Trump donor event beforehand, as might have been useful: Kelley said if reports that more than 100 donors attended a dinner at Lone Mountain Ranch were true, it would likely be in violation of the county’s health department rules.
“We have worked really hard to reduce the number of events we have with more than 50 people,” he told The Daily Beast.
Experts said it was highly unlikely that the event didn’t result in the spread of the virus.
“The fact that we don’t know if it spread is only because we didn’t look. You never find anything you don’t look for, so everybody will go away and they wouldn’t necessarily assume that’s where they got it,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor and director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “This was a superspreader event waiting to happen because it has all of the risk factors rolled into one.”
“It violates every public health principle,” Gostin continued. “Putting it charitably, it means they aren’t doing their job. Putting it less charitably, it’s a derogation of responsibility that will cost people’s lives.”
Throughout the spring, Montana COVID-19 cases held steady and low. But numbers rose measurably in July, growing from 67 new cases on July 1 to 208 on July 28, according to state-wide data.
Part of Montana’s appeal is the hiking, fly-fishing, hunting, and wide open space that the Treasure State has to offer. Kelley cited tourism, at least in part, to explain a surge in cases in the county in recent months. Numbers first began ticking up in June, with a spike that began the week of the Trump campaign event, continued through the Fourth of July weekend, and peaked on July 23, according to county data. Because of the overlap with the holiday, as well an outbreak on a construction site in the county that occurred around the same time frame, it’s impossible to distinguish where the spread originated, Kelley said.
The county is currently experiencing another major spike.
Montana has also been a favorite for political rallies, given the state’s tight Senate and House races, but those gatherings have proved to be hard to contain. In mid-September, more than 100 people gathered for a rally headlined by Vice President Mike Pence to stump for Montana’s GOP candidates. The event took place in another town in Gallatin County; local newspapers described the crowds as clustered with few wearing face coverings.
Meanwhile, Donald Jr. on Thursday headlined a packed indoor rally in Panama City, Florida, just a week after his father tested positive for COVID-19 and later spent three nights in the hospital.
For Kennedy, looking to the new crisis at the White House, where at least 30 attendees at a now-notorious Rose Garden event have contracted COVID-19—including the president and first lady—seems like a bit of deja vu.
“It makes me feel like they’re not following their own guidelines during this pandemic,” Kennedy said. “Which makes me feel like they are kind of reckless. They don’t follow the rules.”