By Saundra Amrhein and Zachary Fagenson
THE VILLAGES, Fla. (Reuters) – Across the Villages, a sprawling retirement community with more than 115,000 residents in the vital political battleground of Florida, reactions to the growing coronavirus crisis are invariably colored by a voter’s partisan views.
To Democrat Andrew Walker, Republican President Donald Trump’s handling of the outbreak proves he is unfit for the White House. To Republican Bruce Casher, Trump’s Democratic foes are blowing the global pandemic out of proportion to take him down.
But what brings both sides together are concerns about the plunging stock market and slowing economic growth caused by the virus – a potential danger sign for Trump ahead of a November re-election fight in which Florida and older voters will play a key role.
Interviews at the densely populated Villages with more than a dozen senior citizens – the demographic most at risk from the virus that has sickened more than 100 people in Florida so far – showed many were more worried about their investment portfolios than about getting ill.
“I am concerned about that,” Casher, 68, said of an economic slowdown, adding that Democrats and other enemies of Trump “want the economy to crash before the election.”
For Walker, 71, Trump’s uneven handling of the outbreak reinforced his decision to switch his registration from Republican to Democratic after supporting Trump in 2016. He cast an early vote in Tuesday’s presidential nominating primary for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner.
“This is another example of how Trump is unqualified to be president,” said Walker, criticizing him as too slow to respond to the outbreak and for blaming it on Democrats.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll from March 2-3 also showed opinions about the coronavirus divided along party lines. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to see the outbreak as an imminent threat to the United States and to say there were taking steps to be prepared.
Until financial markets began reeling, Trump had made the booming economy a key pillar of his re-election argument. Now, state Republicans worry a recession could drag Trump down in Florida, which has a huge elderly population that is heavily dependent on fixed incomes and investments.
“If this crisis continues and it’s apparent that the government was flawed in its response, then there will be a price to pay,” said former Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida.
“The president has encouraged people to check their retirement plans throughout his presidency, and that’s not going to work now,” he said.
‘REASSURE OUR PEOPLE’
Local Republican leaders said they will work to reassure voters that Trump is taking appropriate action.
“We’re going to have our people from the campaign and the party at every level re-emphasize the president’s words to reassure our people and our neighbors that the economy will be fine,” said Michael Barnett, Republican Party chairman in Palm Beach County.
Those efforts could prove vital in the traditional presidential swing state of Florida, which Trump narrowly won with 48.6% of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 47.4% in 2016. Exit polls showed 21% of the state’s voters that year were 65 or older.
Trump ran up much bigger margins in the three counties that include the Villages, traditionally a Republican stronghold. He won 60% or more of the vote in all three.
The coronavirus has forced schools to close, professional sports leagues to suspend or end their seasons, and many employees to work from home, upending daily life across the country. As of Sunday, no positive cases had been reported in the counties that include the Villages.
While events in the sprawling retirement community’s many town squares were canceled on Friday, residents have refused to panic – even as they take precautions such as using hand sanitizers, skipping some social outings and driving to visit children in other states instead of flying.
Louis Peltola, 71, a lifelong Democrat, said he believed the coronavirus outbreak had been “pooh-poohed” and mishandled by Trump. While he was not worried about his own health, he was concerned about the future of the Villages.
“It could be horrible here,” Peltola said, given the advanced age and compromised immune systems and health of many of the residents, all factors that put them at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus.
Like others, Peltola was taking precautions – socializing only in small groups and washing his hands often.
Many other residents expressed support for the administration. Trump was doing “an awesome job” handling the outbreak, said Christine Ebmeyer, 61, who cast an early ballot for the president in the Republican primary, as did her husband and 80-year-old father.
“We have a lot of faith in our president,” she said.
Mike Vallario, 70, and his wife Trish, 73, said they planned to self-quarantine if coronavirus reached the Villages, particularly because Mike suffers from diabetes.
They were confident about how the crisis was being handled, but were keeping an eye on the stock market and their retirement portfolios even as more immediate concerns beckoned.
“We may not have toilet paper,” Trish Vallario said, noting a shortage at local stores.
On Thursday night, before events in the Villages town squares were canceled, the Brownwood Paddock Square was packed with several hundred people for a concert by The Hooligans, a rock band covering British hits from the 1960s.
Maureen Golden, 50, and husband Mark Golden, 60, held cans of beer in insulated huggers as they enjoyed the music with friend Alan Bruce, 59. All three said they are taking mild precautions by using hand sanitizers, and that they supported Trump’s response to the crisis.
Mark Golden said the sociable nature of the Villages and advanced age of its residents gave him cause for concern.
Even so, he said he would not be bowed by fear.
“I’m not going to live like the sky is falling,” said Golden, dressed in shorts and a tropical-print shirt. “I refuse to not live my life.”
(This story was refiled to fix typo in headline.)
(Reporting by Saundra Amrhein and Zachary Fagenson in Florida; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)