U.S. Rep. Don Young downplayed COVID-19. Now he’s back to in-person campaign events.

Rep. Don Young in his Washington, D.C. office in July 2019. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

As the Alaska economy reopens, so has U.S. Rep. Don Young’s campaign for his 25th two-year term.

At 87 years old, Young is the nation’s oldest Congressman, and he’s at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His campaign says it took precautions when holding a 130-person political fundraiser in mid-June, outside the downtown Anchorage home of former Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

But just in case, Treadwell kept an extra layer of backup.

“If you have to do contact tracing,” Treadwell said, “there’s a pretty good list of who showed up.”

Young, a Republican, also held another outdoor event on the Kenai Peninsula earlier this month at the home of Soldotna GOP state Sen. Peter Micciche, according to an invitation. And he’s planning an in-person fundraiser to celebrate his birthday this week at a South Anchorage restaurant, Little Italy.

“This is a Covid-safe, socially distant event,” said the invitation to Young’s most recent two events. “Feel free to wear a mask.”

No one appeared to be wearing a mask, however, in a photo subsequently posted by Young’s campaign that showed dozens of people gathered outside Treadwell’s home.

The string of in-person events hosted by the Young campaign comes as Anchorage officials warn of a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled in part by people attending private gatherings. The city’s health department issued an alert Friday directing people to wear face coverings and avoid crowds and gatherings.

Young initially downplayed the coronavirus as the “beer virus” before it infected hundreds of Alaskans and killed 12. And he’s now the only major statewide candidate to resume in-person fundraising since the pandemic took hold.

At least one other GOP gathering also went forward last week, inside a busy Palmer restaurant. And on Saturday in Oklahoma, President Donald Trump held his first rally since the pandemic began, even as some health experts warned of the risk of a so-called “super-spreading” event.

Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden, meanwhile, held a subdued event in the Philadelphia suburbs last week, with about 20 reporters and locals each with their own socially distant chair inside a circle of tape, the New York Times reported.

The events highlight a sharp partisan split when it comes to treatment of COVID-19 at both the national and state level. In a poll of 400 Alaskans last month, 92% of Democrats said they see COVID-19 as a “real threat,” while just 1% say it’s “blown out of proportion.”

For Republicans, 42% see it as a real threat, while 53% see it as blown out of proportion, according to the poll, which was done by Dittman Research on behalf of the conservative group Alaska Policy Forum.

Nationally, twice as many Republicans as Democrats say they’re socializing in public places, according to a poll earlier this month by the data firm Morning Consult.

In Alaska, not all Republicans have resumed in-person fundraising. GOP U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who’s up for re-election, has no events to announce, said campaign manager Matt Shuckerow.

But generally, left-leaning independents and Democrats have been more cautious about convening in-person gatherings. Sullivan’s best-funded challenger, independent Al Gross, has limited his fundraisers to online events, as has Young’s leading opponent, independent Alyse Galvin.

Both Galvin and Gross are seeking the nomination of the Alaska Democratic Party in the August primary election.

“COVID-19 really has no political boundaries,” Gross, an orthopedic surgeon with a master’s degree in public health, said in a phone interview. “And there’s really no reason for candidates on either side of the political spectrum to put their lives, as well as the lives of Alaskan voters, in jeopardy simply to raise money, when they can continue to raise money digitally.”

Some Alaska Democrats have gotten creative with their online fundraisers. Anchorage state House candidate Liz Snyder held a Facebook Live community event from her mostly-empty backyard last week, which had dozens of digital “co-hosts” and collected about 700 views.

“If you hear clucking, it’s cause there’s chickens,” Snyder warned viewers at the start of the event. “And if you hear kiddos, it’s because there’s kiddos.”

Gross, the independent U.S. Senate candidate, has held his own digital events, including fundraisers on the Zoom platform. Galvin, the independent challenging Young, has also shifted to virtual events, according to Malcolm Phelan, her campaign manager.

At first, Galvin’s campaign was worried about the impact of canceling in-person events, but so far, it has not seen a decline in financial support, Phelan said.

“Alyse has actually been able to reach many more voters across the state. We’ve had events in living rooms almost every night since the pandemic began. We’ve had supporters from Glennallen to Ketchikan host Alyse in their virtual living rooms,” Phelan said in a prepared statement. “We will be paying close attention to the guidance of our Alaskan public health professionals before we move back to in-person events.”

Republicans have moved more quickly to resume in-person campaigning.

After holding Zoom meetings and socially-distant gatherings in April and May, the Valley Republican Women held a forum for GOP state House hopefuls Thursday evening inside the packed Sunrise Grill in Palmer. Video footage showed candidates and viewers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, and none appeared to be wearing masks.

As for Young, he’s only recently resumed in-person events, and other candidates are also getting out for door-knocking, parades and farmers markets, campaign manager Truman Reed said in an email. He noted that Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat, appeared at a Black Lives Matter rally earlier this month.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all campaigns to make adjustments and we are taking all concerns very seriously,” Reed said. “Congressman Young himself is wearing masks where appropriate, and taken special precautions in regards to the distribution of food.”

Young is following the CDC’s guidelines, Reed said. But the CDC’s guidelines for “gatherings” include wearing a face covering when in close contact with other people, and avoiding handshakes — and photos from the event show an unmasked Young shaking hands with a Republican state House candidate.

Treadwell, the host, pointed out that the fundraiser was held outside, which is one of the CDC’s suggestions for gatherings. “There was hand sanitizer everywhere,” he added.

Treadwell said he’s taking the pandemic seriously, adding that the virus has killed one of his friends in Washington, D.C. But he acknowledged that not everyone at the fundraiser appeared to see things the same way, as some were giving hugs and handshakes.

“There was every opportunity for people to protect themselves,” he said. “I think most people behaved. Some didn’t. And I, as the host, could be found on the fringes of my own event — not smack in the middle.”