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'It has terrified me': Liberal group pushes ahead with door-knocking despite staff's coronavirus cases

McClatchy Washington Bureau — By Alex Roarty McClatchy Washington Bureau

July 23-- WASHINGTON-Eight employees with the Progressive Turnout Project, which has been knocking on doors to turn out voters in the 2020 election in a dozen states since June, have tested positive for COVID-19, a top official with the Democratic-aligned group said, a development that has frightened some of the organization's staffers and underscored the risk of in-person campaigning amid an ongoing pandemic.

How each of the employees contracted the coronavirus is unknown, according to Alex Morgan, the group's executive director, who said that none of the eight spread it to each other. But Morgan acknowledged that five field staffers tested positive for the disease after speaking in person with voters, none of whom have been notified that they might have been exposed.

Morgan defended the decision not to contact potentially exposed voters, saying the safety precautions taken by the group-including distributing masks to employees while mandating all conversations be held at least six feet apart-meant that the risk of spreading the virus was nearly non-existent.

And he defended the group's decision to launch its controversial canvassing program more broadly, arguing that the group isn't putting anyone at extra risk while conducting the kind of voter outreach necessary to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

"When I've been talking to staff, I've said this is like walking around your neighborhood, but you're also taking all these additional measures as well," Morgan said. "I think that's the bottom line here."

But the decision to continue the canvassing operation has prompted at least one mid-level staffer to quit. Liz Nimmo, who in February joined the Progressive Turnout Project as a district field director in Iowa, said she left the group this week, 14 days after an employee in the state tested positive for COVID-19. She described that development as the latest and most harrowing example of why its operations are dangerous.

"Every week since our canvas launch, we have had a COVID scare," Nimmo said in an interview with McClatchy. "Every single week. It has terrified me."

Nimmo published a post on Medium on Monday outlining some of the reasons she left before speaking with McClatchy. She said when she quit, she was unaware that seven other employees at the group had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Nimmo, who worked as an Iowa field staffer for Cory Booker's presidential campaign, said that since Progressive Turnout Project started voter canvassing in Iowa on June 27, multiple members of her field staff have worried that they were showing symptoms of the virus, only for tests to come back negative. In one case, Nimmo herself said she briefly came into contact with a staffer who later was concerned she was coming down with COVID-19, a nerve-wracking experience that unsettled Nimmo even after the staffer tested negative.

Nimmo said she asked top officials at the Progressive Turnout Project to impose a moratorium on in-person canvassing in the state, but was denied. Nimmo said she eventually quit not out of concern about her own safety, but of the 13 people she helped recruit to the group who were going door-to-door talking with voters.

"I am speaking to you because I am genuinely concerned for the health and safety of my field representatives," she said.

The Progressive Turnout Project is currently canvassing in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The group has also hired staff in Florida, Arizona, South Carolina and Alabama. Morgan said the group has not yet launched its canvassing operation in those states, some of which have seen surges in coronavirus cases, but is closely monitoring the situations there to determine when they will be able to do so.

Morgan said that three of his group's staffers who tested positive did so before being sent to any voters' doors. The other five, he said, were pulled out of the canvassing operation the moment they began showing symptoms. Morgan said he didn't know which of the five states the infected staffers had worked in, except for the case in Iowa, but that each case occurred in a different field office.

Within both parties, whether and how to return to door-to-door voter canvassing-generally regarded as one of the most effective ways to mobilize and persuade prospective voters because of its personal touch-has been a controversial subject since the onset of the pandemic.

Many strategists regard the tactic as far too risky, saying it's the type of politicking that will have to wait until after a coronavirus vaccine is developed. Some major political operations, such as Joe Biden's presidential campaign, have been hesitant to engage in the activity during the general election, opting instead to reach out to voters through digital media, phone calls and text messages.

Another progressive group, Working America, had once planned to knock on voters' doors this month, if they felt local health conditions permitted them doing so. But an official with the group says it has held off on the canvassing operation because, in the group's view, the counties they wanted to campaign in haven't met the public health thresholds it requires.

But Progressive Turnout Project isn't the only group to consider launching a door-knocking effort: Trump's campaign restarted its own in-person outreach in some states this summer.

Voter canvassing is also almost the only reason Progressive Turnout Project exists. The group, which operates independently of Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party, is dedicated to reaching out to voters who lean left but turn out infrequently for elections, a sizable bloc officials there consider critical to winning the 2020 presidential race.

Morgan said if Progressive Turnout Project were forced to abandon its in-person campaigning, it wouldn't be able to help in the fight against Trump.

"I don't know what we would be adding by shifting our efforts," he said. "I do know we make an incredible impact on the doors. ... The only way to get our country through the coronavirus crisis and on the road to recovery is defeating Donald Trump."

He added that the group, which has more than 1,000 employees, works closely with an infectious disease expert to make sure their program is safe and that it closely follows local health guidelines. The group, for example, recently halted its operation in Atlanta after the mayor reinstituted tight restrictions on activity in the city.

The organization distributes hand sanitizer, holds all of its internal meetings and training virtually, hands out political literature to voters sealed in a Ziploc bag, and tells all of its employees that they should stay home if they feel sick.

"When you add up all these pieces together, thinking about all the guidelines in place at the federal, state and local level, we are ultimately somewhere with a risk of one in 10,000, one in 100,000 in terms of likelihood of getting the virus on the job," Morgan said.

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But paeans to safety don't satisfy Nimmo. Even responsible people don't always follow the guidelines in place, she said, even inadvertently. Top officials at Progressive Turnout Project can't even be certain that the potentially infected staffers who knocked on voters' doors followed the guidelines as they were supposed to, she said.

"I think that's reckless, and it's not OK to assume that field reps would follow guidelines perfectly," she said. "Why would they ever admit to not following the guidelines?"

Told that Nimmo felt unsafe while running a district office for his group, Morgan reemphasized that the group was taking every precaution to keep their employees healthy.

"Obviously, again, the health and well-being of our staff comes first," he said. "And I can understand how pulling people off of doors and sending them to go get tested is a serious responsibility. I don't think any of us take that lightly."

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