GOP Senate Candidate Addresses Mostly Maskless Crowd at Restaurant, Says People Need to 'Be Careful' About COVID

Bill Hagerty, a Republican Senate nominee from Tennessee, addressed the ongoing threat of COVID-19 transmission during a campaign event over the weekend, which saw a number of attendees crowded around the politician inside a Clarksville restaurant not wearing face coverings Saturday afternoon.

Images taken from Hagerty's stop at Johnny's Big Burger—as well as one shared on his Twitter post—showed several people in the audience without masks. Subsequent photos from a rally in Tennessee's nearby Shelby County later that evening also showed a number of attendees without face coverings.

What a terrific time in Montgomery County this afternoon! There’s no better place for a kick off the vote #HagertyRally than at Johnny’s Big Burger, where they have my favorite honeybun and ice cream!

— Bill Hagerty (@BillHagertyTN) October 3, 2020

Great kick off the vote #HagertyRally this evening in Shelby County! West Tennessee, THANK YOU for the love and support! #TeamHagerty

— Bill Hagerty (@BillHagertyTN) October 4, 2020

Some commenters to Hagerty's Twitter post from the restaurant pointed out the lack of mask-wearing people in the audience. "No masks?!? Have you not learned anything from the last few days?!?!?" wrote one user. Another person remarked: "Another irresponsible almost maskless indoor gathering."

Last month, the candidate reportedly drew criticism from local leaders for taking part in a maskless event in Jackson. "We talk about the importance of consistency across the state for a mask mandate," said Jackson Mayor Scott Conger at the time, as reported by Jackson Sun. "To see county leaders that aren't issuing mask mandates in their communities come into our community and not wear masks, it's frustrating."

Hagerty, a businessman, is an ally of President Donald Trump whose platforms clearly prioritize economic progress. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, political leaders' views about approaches to managing the spread of COVID-19 have largely differed along partisan lines—with Democrats generally opting for more stringent regulations to reduce transmission risks and Republicans eager to reopen economic sectors.

Speaking about the continued incidence of COVID-19 confirmed across the U.S., and acknowledging Trump and the first lady's recent diagnoses, Hagerty reportedly encouraged people to "be careful" until a vaccine is developed during Saturday's campaign event.

"I am hopeful that we will get over the hurdle very soon and get a vaccine in progress. Meanwhile, people need to be careful, but we can't afford another shutdown," he said, according to local news outlet Clarksville Now.

"My perspective on [COVID-19] precautions has been the same all along," Hagerty reportedly added, responding to a question about whether Trump's recent diagnosis altered his perspectives about COVID-19 and how best to manage it.

Hagerty has been a strong proponent of reopening the economy throughout the pandemic. In April, he was appointed to Trump's Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, which were created to assist the White House in revamping the U.S. economy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"My prayers and my family's prayers go to the president and his family and everybody that has been affected by this," Hagerty continued in reference to Trump's positive test result, Clarksville Now reported. "I think that we are all in agreement that we don't want to see another person infected with this virus. I am very optimistic about the progress we are making toward a vaccine."

Hagerty was involved in Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and later elected to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Japan under the Trump administration. He held the role from 2017 to 2019. This past summer, Hagerty received an official endorsement from Trump before eventually securing the GOP senatorial nomination in Tennessee. A pledge to continue supporting the president's policies as a member of the Senate is an integral part of Hagerty's current campaign.

Newsweek reached out to Hagerty's campaign for comments, but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

Updated 5:08 PM ET.

Bill Hagerty
Bill Hagerty, the current Republican Senate nominee from Tennessee, appears at a 2017 event in Tokyo shortly after becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images