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A Congressman Skipped the Coronavirus Relief Vote. Instead, He Went Home to Tell Senior Citizens to Blame Mass Media.

Rep. Don Young of Alaska isn’t the only politician to downplay the threat of coronavirus, in direct contrast with his state government’s public efforts. He may be the only one to do so at a gathering of senior citizens, though.

U.S. Rep. Don Young in 2019. At a gathering of senior citizens last week, he called the coronavirus the “beer virus” and said its dangers were overblown because of media-fueled hysteria. (Mark Thiessen/AP Photo)

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This story was produced in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House, Rep. Don Young, skipped a vote early Saturday on a federal coronavirus relief package. Turns out, he was in Alaska, where hours earlier he had told a gathering of senior citizens that dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic — the “beer virus,” he called it — have been overblown because of media-fueled hysteria.

Young isn’t the only politician to downplay the threat posed by the virus. Over the weekend, the governor of Oklahoma tweeted a photo of himself eating dinner with his children at a busy Oklahoma City restaurant. He deleted the tweet and subsequently has advised the state’s residents not to congregate in groups of 10 or more and to pick up food at restaurants instead of eating in.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Monday told residents, “For crying out loud, go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.” He subsequently decided to ban eating at restaurants.

And Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less.” He said he wants people to keep the virus in perspective.

Speaking on Friday at Mat-Su Senior Services, a nonprofit that provides housing and services for the elderly in the city of Palmer, Young urged calm and told the crowd that COVID-19 is not as deadly as some past viruses, according to a recording of the luncheon. The remarks by Young, a Republican, were first reported by the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

“They call it the coronavirus. I call it the beer virus. How do you like that?” Young, 86, said to laughter in a reference to the popular Corona beer. “It attacks us senior citizens. I’m one of you. I still say we have to as a nation and state go forth with everyday activities.”

That advice contradicts recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and information posted to Young’s own official campaign and congressional Facebook pages and his congressional website. The speech reflects how, as many elected officials work to calm their constituents, their messages sometimes lag behind or defy the advice of experts who are urging Americans, particularly older Americans who are most likely to die from the virus, to stay at home and avoid contact with others.

Of the roughly 80 people in the crowd for Young’s event on Friday, more than half were seniors enjoying a lunch of chicken cordon bleu and roast beef as part of the regular meal service at the nonprofit, said Ailis Vann, executive director of the Palmer Chamber of Commerce.

While Young downplayed the threat of the virus, his intention seemed to be to urge calm, she said.

The speech came a week after Young’s staff launched a “Coronavirus Resource Center” on the congressman’s webpage with links to CDC guidelines urging social distancing, two days after the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a global pandemic, one day after Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the first case in Alaska and two hours after Young’s own campaign urged Alaskans to “follow health protocols and best practices being suggested by our health care professionals.”

Young said he’d flown into Alaska the night before and began the far-ranging talk by quoting Franklin Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

That was a time of war, Young told the crowd (though Roosevelt actually said that in 1933, six years before the war began in Europe.) “Whether you realize it or not, we are at war now. But mostly because of the presentations by the mass media.”

On Saturday, Young attended an NRA fundraiser in the Mat-Su region of Alaska, according to posts on his campaign Facebook page. That was the same day the U.S. House voted on a federal coronavirus relief package.

Young criticized the relief package in his remarks.

“We have to be aware of that because even the president’s proposal sounds good, $50 billion, $50 billion we don’t have. We’re gonna borrow that money from the future generations,” he said.

Fielding questions from the crowd about international travel and testing, Young compared the illness to past epidemics: “Again, guys, this is blown out of proportion about how deadly this is. It’s deadly, but it’s not nearly as deadly as the other viruses we have.”

“I say the exciting part about if you just look even in China where this thing originated, it peaked and then it’s going down,” Young said. “It will happen here in the United States.”

When an Anchorage Daily News reporter called Young’s office in Washington for comment Wednesday, an employee said the congressman’s spokesman was working remotely. On Monday, Young’s official Facebook page announced that “out of an abundance of caution” he had directed his staff to begin working online from outside the office.

The spokesman, Zack Brown, did not respond to any questions about Young’s remarks, including whether the congressman’s views had changed in recent days as the number of Alaska coronavirus cases escalated and why Young’s suggestion that the seniors continue to “go forth” with everyday activities appeared to contradict statements made on his social media feeds and website.

Brown emailed a statement saying: “Congressman Young continues to be concerned for populations particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including seniors. Congressman Young has been in communication with House Leadership to ensure that proper resources are available to turn the tide in the fight against COVID-19.”

Young’s reelection campaign manager, Truman Reed, wrote: “It was my understanding that the Congressman was trying to urge calm, stressing his confidence that we will weather this storm.”

“This pandemic’s impact is very real, growing and causing all of us — our governments, businesses, health care professionals and as individuals — to have evolving views and protocols to face its challenges,” Reed wrote in an email. He said Young’s campaign has canceled events and postponed all face-to-face campaign activities.

On Tuesday, the senior center that hosted Young’s luncheon days earlier announced it would be canceling all subsequent activities for two weeks.

Update, March 26, 2020: Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who this month told a group of seniors that fears of the "beer virus" have been overblown by the media, on Thursday delivered a very different message.

“Weeks ago I did not fully grasp the severity of this crisis, but clearly, we are in the midst of an urgent public health emergency,” Young said in a video published to YouTube and distributed by his office. As of Wednesday night, 59 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Alaska and one resident had died of the virus, according to the state health department.

“This pandemic is dangerous and ... is especially threatening our senior citizens, of which I am one,” said Young, who is 86.

Kyle Hopkins is an investigative reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kylehopkinsAK.

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