Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House, Rep. Don Young, told a gathering of senior citizens last week that dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic — the “beer virus,” he called it — have been overblown due to media-fueled hysteria.
Speaking on Friday at Mat-Su Senior Services, a Palmer nonprofit that provides housing and services for the elderly, 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, 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.
The Palmer and Wasilla chambers hosted the luncheon, with chamber members making up the rest of the attendees, she said. 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. “Whether you realize it or not, we are at war now. But mostly because of the presentations by the mass media.”
After the Friday luncheon, Young on Saturday attended an NRA fundraiser in the Mat-Su, according to posts on his campaign Facebook page. Meantime, he skipped a House vote in D.C. 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.
“We (would) solve a problem right now that's been created primarily by hysteria,” Young said.
“We can overcome this mess if we just be calm," Young said at one point. “We will prevail. You cannot prevail by hiding and responding to fear. “
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 a Daily News reporter called Young’s office in Washington for comment Wednesday, an employee said the congressman’s spokesman was working remotely from another location. 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 helped the House pass legislation authorizing billions of dollars in funding to combat COVID-19, and 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 re-election 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.
Officials at the senior center where more than 80 people gathered for Young’s remarks Friday did not respond to questions about why the gathering wasn’t delayed or canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
On Tuesday the center announced it would be canceling all subsequent activities for two weeks.