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Trump to visit battleground Pennsylvania after supporting closed counties' push to reopen

In a state he hopes to win in November, Trump has encouraged locked-down counties to reopen, even as the governor has threatened to withhold federal funds if they do.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for Camp David from the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump, shown May 1 at the South Lawn of the White House, will visit a medical equipment company in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania on Thursday, May 14, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — President Donald Trump is set to visit Pennsylvania on Thursday, his second trip in as many weeks to an electoral battleground state as part of his push for the country's economy to reopen.

Trump is scheduled to visit a Lehigh Valley medical equipment company that has been sending personal protective equipment nationwide as part of an effort to bring masks, gowns and gloves to the U.S. from overseas.

Owens & Minor was one of five companies selected by the Department of Health and Human Services to supply 600 million N95 respirator masks over the next 18 months, according to the company's website. The president is expected to make remarks to employees who have been supporting that effort. The company's president and CEO, Ed Pesicka, appeared with Trump and other business leaders at a coronavirus task force briefing in the Rose Garden in March.

Trump's visit to Pennsylvania — a crucial state for him in November — comes as several rural, conservative counties express frustration with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's decision to reopen certain parts of the state while others remain closed — despite a relatively low number of positive cases and deaths. A protest is also set for Friday in Harrisburg, the state capital, in support of reopening the state.

"Overall I support the president, but nobody really has a handle on this, nobody has a plan. We need to trust our doctors," Nathan Brown, a Lehigh County commissioner, told NBC News. "Is he campaigning? Is he saying thank you to the medical facility out of the sincereness of his heart? I don't know. I just know he's coming here and hopefully it doesn't create a mass hysteria."

Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by only 1.2 percentage points but a recent Fox News poll put him behind apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 8 points. Less than six months out from the general election, the president is looking to resolidify his support in the state after its agricultural and manufacturing industries suffered from the impact of tariffs he imposed on China and the ensuing trade war.

Trump on Monday tweeted in support of Pennsylvanians looking to reopen the state, while the governor called counties looking to reopen early "cowardly" and "selfish," and threatened to withhold federal stimulus money and revoke small business licenses.

Businesses in Lancaster County plan to move to the first phase of reopening — from "red" to the "yellow" — on Friday without Wolf's approval because it has already received $95 million from CARES Act funding. Smaller counties have had to wait for the state to distribute funds.

"We're beyond frustrated; the governor's guidelines have been very subjective," Lancaster County Commissioner Joshua Parsons told NBC News. "We want to safely bring the economy back. Working people are being crushed and their businesses destroyed."

In Lehigh County, elected officials aren't looking to explicitly defy the governor, but are hoping he'll allow them to move to the "yellow" phase to give business owners a choice to reopen.

"I was really offended by that," Brown said, referring to Wolf's threat to withhold stimulus money. "I don't think we're a bunch of cowards. We're boots on the ground telling the governor to open up the county or other counties, because of what we're seeing at local levels. We all have to fight this together, and it's a shame it's becoming a Republican vs. Democrat fight."

Shelby Lawson called Trump's visit a "touchy subject." Her sewing shop in Bethlehem lost all of its business upon closing, missing out on her prime season of alterations for prom and wedding dresses.

"I respect the office, but my heart of hearts tells me that if he'd taken action immediately, we wouldn't be in the state that we are now," Lawson said of Trump. "I will not be voting for him. I just do not feel that he's represented me and family well."

Chad Balliet, who owns a bicycle shop and cafe in Emmaus, has grown frustrated that the pandemic has become a political issue. He's had to furlough 11 employees as he runs bike repairs via curbside drop-off as an essential business and would rather the focus be on the medical response so that small businesses can start to reopen.

"I don't know how long small businesses can bleed and hemorrhage like we have been," Balliet said. Of the president's visit Thursday, he said: "You like the guy or you don't like the guy — at the end of the day he is our president, and I believe he's trying his hardest to lead our country through something that it hasn't experienced in anybody's lifetime. It's a very difficult thing."