A sea of red, white and blue emitted the smell of sweat and barbecue. Pairs of cargo shorts, “Trump” socks and New Balance shoes shuffled around each other to get a better look at Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence spoke maskless from a stage during his campaign speech at The Villages — a massive retirement community northwest of Orlando — drawing hundreds of carefree, non-distanced President Donald Trump supporters Saturday afternoon. The crowd of about 500 people was predominantly made up of people 50 years or older; there were more lap dogs than children.
“The road to victory runs right through Florida,” Pence said.
The ZIP codes making up The Villages have totaled 1,719 COVID-19 cases as of Saturday night, according to the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard. There have been 728,921 positive cases in Florida since the pandemic spread in the U.S. in March.
Risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pence didn’t discuss COVID-19 deaths, but praised Trump’s travel ban on China and mentioned the president and first lady’s recovery after contracting the virus.
“If you cherish faith, freedom, law and order — and life — in 24 days we’ve gotta reelect President Donald Trump for four more years,” Pence said, referring to the Nov. 3 presidential Election.
In 2019, the Villages’ population was about 98% white, and 79.7% of residents were 65-years-old or older, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Trump previously campaigned in The Villages in October 2019.
By the time Pence arrived 30 minutes late, the crowd’s final form was reminiscent of a large-scale Fourth of July celebration. People packed into the six-foot distancing spaces between seats, and about a third of them kept their masks on — fewer wore them properly.
Pence talked about the vice presidential debate and Trump’s pro-military policies. He criticized Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s policies, claiming he was going to defund the police and pack the court.
The Biden campaign has said it will not take money away from police and has not answered whether or not he will pack the court, which means adding seats to the Supreme Court.
Congressman Daniel Webster of Floria’s 11th District spoke before Pence, and said America’s neighborhoods and communities won’t be safe under a Biden presidency.
Hands and MAGA signs shot into the air when Pence spoke of “backing the boys in blue” or four more years for Trump. The crowd jeered and booed at mentions of Biden, vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The Villages’ paramedics — decked out in face and neck coverings, sunhats and rubber gloves — were stationed with wheelchairs just outside the perimeter, fully prepared to infiltrate the crowd and rescue fainting seniors who succumbed to the 90-degree heat. They rescued at least six attendees, their “Make America Great Again” signs drooping in defeat as they were wheeled out of the rally.
The speech was held outside of Brownwood, a town in The Villages.
Life-sized statues of bulls and cowboys surrounded the town’s entryway, and a rustic sign hung over the road: “Brownwood,” it said — a Disneyland-esque, cowboy-themed strip mall. The faux-wild-western village’s buildings looked more like saloons and barns than modern-day businesses.
But rather than riding horses — or cars — residents zipped through the streets in golf carts, sub-25 mph, while Trump and American flags flapped in the wind behind them.
Hundreds of golf carts streamed into an empty lot next to the town square. The fleet lined the perimeter of the event’s designated seating area, parked and facing the stage like a drive-in theater.
Crowds of chattering people dressed in matching MAGA gear lined up to enter the lot.
Elaine Kovach, a 75-year-old retiree, said she was offered hand sanitizer, masks and water at the event’s entrance. She said she wasn’t too concerned about COVID-19 and she thought everyone she had been around was respectful of rules.
Henrietta Amey, a maskless, 83-year-old Villages resident, said she doesn’t wear masks, but prefers to wash her hands and take vitamins.
“I take showers as soon as I get home — take my clothes off, put them in the washing machine,” she said. “So far, I’ve been lucky.”
When Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, she said she knew he would get through it.
“It takes a lot of prayers, and God answers prayers,” she said.
In the event, about 250 seats were set in pairs in front of the stage with about 6 feet between each, but attendees moved chairs around freely.
As the crowd filled the no-longer socially distanced seats, a plane flew over the Brownwood lot tugging a banner that read, “Pence is why you can’t see your grandkids.”
Esteban Ramirez, a 23-year-old energy consultant and attendee, carried a “Latinos for Trump” sign at the rally.
“There’s not really much of a diverse community here, and I think it’s really important to try to put your voice out there and represent,” Ramirez said.
Almost three hours before Pence took the stage, most of the seats were filled. Attendees kept themselves busy by dancing in a circle to “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Walking on Sunshine,” two breaks in a playlist of mostly patriotic country music.
Later, a man and woman slow-danced to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
John Leszewski, an 80-year-old attendee said he and his wife's temperatures were not taken at the doors, but credited any high temperature to the heat. He said he was not worried about COVID-19.
“Let me put it this way,” Leszewski said, “I’m 80 years old, and I have no fear.”
Anna Wilder is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter. She's from Melbourne, Florida, and she enjoys being outdoors or playing the viola when she's not writing.