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Local leaders respond graciously to news of president’s illness

For Adia McClellan Winfrey, news of President Donald Trump's coronavirus brought complicated emotions.

First comes the obvious: Winfrey, a Democrat from Talladega who is in the running for the Third Congressional District seat, says she wishes Trump a speedy recovery. Then there's more.         

"It was shocking news, but to be honest, it wasn't completely unexpected," she said. "The behavior he's been exhibiting isn't what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says people should be doing."

Political figures across northern Alabama and the nation woke Friday morning to the news that Trump — leader of the nation's COVID-19 response and also its maskless critic-in-chief — tested positive for the coronavirus overnight. For those who no longer trust newspapers, radio and television, there was also the word straight from the president's Twitter account.

“We will begin our recovery process immediately,” Trump tweeted around midnight Alabama time. “We will get through this TOGETHER!”

The news, arguably the biggest presidential health crisis since Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, sparked a short-lived stock market dip and hours of national news commentary on presidential succession. Twitter erupted with emojis of clowns and laughing faces seemingly intended to invoke schadenfreude.

In Alabama's political world, though, there was still an old-fashioned decorum, as if the Trump era had never rustled deeper bipartisan waters. Politicians on both sides of the aisle wished Trump quick recovery — and if they were Republican, they often said little else.

“Our prayers are with ‪@realDonaldTrump‬ and ‪@FLOTUS‬," tweeted U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, the sitting Third District Congressman. “Please lift them up as they fight against this virus.”

Attempts to reach the Congressman's staff for further comment Friday were unsuccessful. Rogers is a longtime Trump ally — the Space Force was largely his brainchild — but when news media outlets compiled lists of people in close contact with the president in the past few days, his name didn't appear on them. 

Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, via Twitter, wished the president and his wife “no symptoms and… a speedy recovery.” Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, who is running as a Republican against Jones, was more effusive, saying via Twitter that “one of history’s greatest presidents will continue to demonstrate his firm leadership” during his recovery from the illness.

“Alabama stands with you, Mr. President, and we appreciate your steadfast leadership,” Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted Friday morning. Two days earlier, Ivey announced the extension of a statewide order that makes wearing face masks mandatory in public spaces.

Ivey is a Republican, and her health orders have brought her criticism in recent months from the anti-mask wing within her party. Trump at times has been a leader of that wing, often refusing to wear a mask, holding large public rallies and even ridiculing Democratic opponent Joe Biden for his mask use as recently as Tuesday night's debate.

Locally, though, officials say mask use seems widespread, if perhaps not universal. Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, said the president's diagnosis may remind people not to grow lax in social distancing.

“If the president of the United States can contract it, anybody can,” he said.

Barton said people tend to grow complacent about social distancing when numbers of new cases are at a relative low, as they are now. He said that when a prominent person in the community is infected, it often reminds people that the virus is real.

Barton cited the August death of Calhoun County Commission Chairman Eli Henderson, 83. For decades, Henderson stayed in office with the kind of retail politics that shakes many hands and remembers first names.

Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess remembers his friend's fate every time he leaves home.

“My wife, my daughter, tell me before I leave the house: ‘Put your mask on. Wash your hands,’” he said.

Hess said he and Henderson had talked about the virus, and he says Henderson was careful about washing his hands and wearing a mask. He said he believes much of the local frustration with masks is more complicated than it seems. People aren't upset with masks, he said, so much as they are with the virus and all its stresses.

“I'm in favor of the masks right now, because of this and because of flu season,” Hess said. “They're hot and aggravating, but we're at a critical time. We've got to pull together and get through this.”

Hess said he too wishes the President well.

Winfrey, the Congressional candidate, said the president's diagnosis is another call to people to "work as one."

“This virus is showing us that it's not about party, it's not about income level, it's not about race,” said Winfrey, who is Black. “African Americans have been more impacted, but everyone is susceptible.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.