Campaigning in the time of coronavirus: Baltimore mayoral candidates embrace hand sanitizer, the elbow bump

A man walks out of the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland where Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had planned to hold a campaign rally Tuesday. So far, Baltimore mayoral campaigns have said they are not planning to miss large forums and events.
A man walks out of the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland where Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had planned to hold a campaign rally Tuesday. So far, Baltimore mayoral campaigns have said they are not planning to miss large forums and events. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Politicians on the campaign trail are all about shaking hands and kissing babies. But with heightened concerns about the new coronavirus, Baltimore’s mayoral candidates are making some adjustments.

They’re arming themselves with Purell, going for the elbow bump and reminding both voters and volunteers to get any symptoms checked out. Others are talking about how they’d handle the crisis if they were in office.


Retail politics is king in Baltimore, said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. When voters have face-to-face contact with a candidate, she said, it motivates them to get out and vote.

But amid fears over the highly contagious virus, Kromer said, “people are changing their behaviors — and campaigns are no different.”


Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign said Wednesday it was calling off large events in Illinois and Florida as he fights for the Democratic nomination. His campaign instead plans to hold “virtual events.” Maryland Sen. Mary Washington, a mayoral candidate, then announced Thursday her campaign would cancel all events for at least the next week in light of concerns over the virus.

“We are listening to medical professionals in doing our part to practice social distancing and slow the spread of the virus as we fully evaluate the situation," she said.

So far, several mayoral campaigns said they are not scaling back on door-knocking strategies or planning to miss large forums and events.

But they’re preparing for how they might respond to a global pandemic that already is affecting life in Baltimore, with cases cropping up in Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Roughly 950 people in the United States have contracted the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and more than 25 have died. There are more than 118,000 cases worldwide, and more than 4,000 deaths.

When Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young was out campaigning over the weekend, he followed up every enthusiastic handshake with a squirt of sanitizer for his hands.

“It’s not for me, but for them,” he said. “I want to make sure that I’m not passing germs on to them from other people who shake my hand, as well.”

He said it’s difficult balancing a competitive campaign while he leads the city amid coronavirus concerns. Young said he’s working with the city’s health commissioner and state and federal partners to provide a stream of information on the virus’ potential impact and how to best keep from catching it. He held a preparedness exercise Tuesday to work through different emergency scenarios, and briefed the media along with members of his cabinet Wednesday. Young announced plans to postpone his upcoming State of the City address in light of coronavirus concerns.

“We’re all working together, and we’re updating everything as we get it,” he said.

City Council President Brandon Scott, another Democratic mayoral candidate in the April 28 primary, called for a hearing on how Baltimore plans to respond to the illness.

His campaign spokesman, Marvin James, said senior members of Scott’s team met this week on how to weather the impact on his campaign. They have to consider, for example, that people may want to talk through their screen doors rather than get up close with strangers who are out knocking on doors to drum up support for Scott. The campaign put together a flier for its volunteers, telling them how to protect themselves and others against COVID-19.

“Please cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough and sneeze, especially while speaking with voters,” it reads. "Clean and disinfect your clipboards, pens, and/or phones before and after your shift.”

State officials have warned people who are over 60 to stay away from large crowds, because research has found that age group to be most at risk of getting very sick from the illness.

The Maryland State Board of Elections issued a statement last week reminding voters that anyone who prefers to vote from home can request an absentee ballot, and they don’t need to give a reason to get one. State officials are also now in talks on how to hold a mail-in only election for the primary, should it become necessary as the illness spreads.

James said the Scott campaign is contacting voters over 60 to remind them about their options.

“Of course, because older voters are more susceptible, campaigns need to be more vigilant in making sure they’re fully educated,” he said.

Older residents also tend to be the most loyal voters, and active campaign volunteers.

Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon, running to reclaim her position, said Young’s administration has not been visible enough during the outbreak. She said she would have put together a preventative action and emergency plan earlier, "not to put people in a panic state, but put people in a conscious state.”

She said her campaign sent a person home after they came in coughing, and staff is wiping down surfaces every day and night.

“I would encourage seniors to vote absentee,” she said.

Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith said he’s “doing a lot more fist bumps” as he meets with voters to convince them he’s the best choice for mayor in the Democratic primary.

Candidates have always had to be mindful of hygiene, he said, even before the coronavirus.

“I’m paying attention to all of that anyway,” Smith said. "But yes, it’s a little bit of heightened sense of anxiety now with the amount of hands we have to shake.”

Washington, another mayoral candidate, said it’s so natural to extend her hand for a handshake as a means of offering respect and building trust. But she knows she needs to “abide by the recommendations to really reduce skin-to-skin contact,” so she does the elbow or fist bump instead.

“I kind of make a joke about it and say, ‘This is what we’re doing. We want to stay safe,'” she said.

She said Thursday her campaign is evaluating its canvassing strategy.

Former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said his campaign will film its events and stream them online so voters can watch from home. His campaign also said Thursday that it would use its prominently displayed billboards across Baltimore to transmit the message: “Stop the Virus. Wash your Hands."


Colleen Mattingly, a spokeswoman for mayoral candidate Mary Miller, said the situation is an “example of why Baltimore needs strong leadership with experience bringing a variety of players to the table to quickly manage a crisis.” She pointed to Miller’s experience as a U.S. Treasury official in the Obama administration, working on the country’s economic recovery.


Democratic Del. Terri Hill of Howard County, a physician who ran recently in a special primary for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, said the candidates don’t need to cancel public events across the board. But they should contemplate more seriously which ones are worth holding. Hill said she would consider transitioning to more teleconferences and telephone town halls, although they can be costly to set up.

If a candidate is holding an event, Hill said, volunteers need to be vigilant about sanitary practices. Candidates also might consider having staffers sign in guests, rather than have each attendee sign the same sheet of paper with the same pen.

“One of the issues we’re not seeing people pay enough attention to are microphones,” Hill said. “You have to take precautions there. Advise them not to touch the microphone, and before and after, try to sanitize by wiping them.”

Kromer cautioned no one really knows now what kind of impact the virus could have on the election.

“Everyone is always looking for the next thing in political swag," Kromer said. “If I was running a campaign, I’d get branded hand sanitizer.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Alison Knezevich, Emily Opilo, Tim Prudente and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.