October 25, 2020

The White House Rose Garden event wasnt just a public health disaster, it was also a failure of leadership for everyone involved

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  • An event held in the Rose Garden may have been responsible for infecting many high-profile politicians with coronavirus.
  • As a Notre Dame student, it was extremely disappointing to see our President, Father John Jenkins, at the event and not following the protocols that we students have been carefully following ourselves.
  • Rachel Palermo is a J.D. candidate at Notre Dame Law School.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Leaders must lead by example. 

Setting policies is an important part of being a leader. But the people who set the rules need to join the rest of us in following them.

As a law student at the University of Notre Dame, I have spent the last few months following important rules that have been imposed by our school.

Early this summer, the Notre Dame administration announced that we would return to in-person classes for the fall semester, even as many colleges and universities converted to fully remote learning. In exchange for being able to attend in-person classes, our community has been entrusted with meeting certain safety expectations.

To name a few: we wear masks at all times, stay six feet away from other people, and refrain from traveling outside of the area. We are often reminded that our responsibilities to one another don’t end once we leave campus.

I understand that the only way to keep our community safe is to take the COVID-19 rules and recommendations seriously, even when they are inconvenient. I’m proud that many other Notre Dame students have demonstrated responsible behavior — on and off campus — because they also understand the stakes are too high. 

Last week, along with many of my classmates, I watched the Rose Garden ceremony for the nomination of our professor, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, with disappointment and embarrassment. 

Setting aside whether or not we believe that nominating someone to the US Supreme Court a month before an election is appropriate, we sat in disbelief as some Notre Dame professors and administrators didn’t wear masks, ignored social distancing guidelines, and even shook hands with other attendees. They broke every rule and guideline that we have been told to follow. 

We watched a potential super-spreader event unfold before our eyes on live television, with familiar faces in the crowd. For those of us who have been social distancing since the spring, watching the ceremony was like observing an alternate reality. 

This week, we learned that Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and other high profile White House officials in attendance at the ceremony tested positive for COVID-19. Trump’s diagnoses came just 48 hours after mocking Joe Biden at the presidential debate for his habit of wearing masks. 

Sen. Mike Lee and former Gov. Chris Christie, who tested positive as well, were captured on video hugging other attendees in the Rose Garden. Our own University President, Father John Jenkins, was also present, flouting both mask and social distancing guidance. He has since announced that he has the virus. 

While we cannot say for certain that the nomination ceremony was the root of the spread, either way, it demonstrated failed leadership. Our professors and administrators should have followed the practices they hold us accountable for, and our government leaders in attendance should have exercised a sense of responsibility and basic common sense.

One thing is clear — the Trump administration’s stubborn and careless attitude toward COVID-19 has put people at risk. Trump’s events, like the one we saw in the Rose Garden, have exacerbated the public health crisis. The Trump campaign regularly hosts large gatherings both indoors and outdoors, where no social distancing protocols are followed, and where masks serve as the punchline to jokes.

There have been clear consequences to the lack of safety precautions at Trump events, including the death of Herman Cain, who died after he likely contracted the virus at Trump’s Tulsa rally. And each person who contracts the virus at a Trump event subsequently puts their friends, families, colleagues, and neighbors at risk. 

But somehow, even after Trump himself has tested positive, the Trump campaign hasn’t learned their lesson yet. The morning after Trump announced his COVID-19 diagnosis, his campaign hosted an indoor event in Sioux City, Iowa, without masks or social distancing. Further, a senior advisor to the Trump campaign stated that there will not be additional safety protocols at upcoming rallies following Trump’s hospitalization.

I wish every person who has contracted COVID-19 a speedy recovery, including the first family and Father Jenkins. But the recklessness in the Rose Garden and the aftermath that has followed must serve as a wake up call. Somehow, the fact that we have lost 200,000 lives to the coronavirus in the United States has not been enough to motivate the change in behavior that we need. We need to be better. 

From the people running our country, to the people running our universities, our leaders need to step up. 

Rachel Palermo is a J.D. candidate at Notre Dame Law School. She previously served as the Assistant Press Secretary & Director of Women’s Media at the Democratic National Committee.

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