Weeks before the full extent of just how damaging coronavirus would be to the United States was publicly known, powerful Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) was busy telling a group of wealthy constituents to prepare for the worst — without, apparently, sharing those same concerns with the general public. In audio obtained by NPR and published Thursday, Burr — whose position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee grants him exclusive access to national security assessments — is heard telling attendees at a private luncheon for North Carolina business leaders that "there's one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."
Burr also told attendees:
Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?
Later in his remarks, Burr predicted that the U.S. military would likely need to be mobilized to address the pandemic outbreak — something that, as of this week, has indeed taken place.
Burrs remarks, made Feb. 27, stand at direct odds with those from President Trump, who at the time was busy downplaying the virus's severity and the threat it posed to the United States. They also stand in notable contrast to public statements made at the time by fellow Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has access to national intelligence briefings through his assignments on both the Senate Judiciary and Armed Services committees.
Just days before Burr dined with business leaders who reportedly paid anywhere from $500 to $10,000 to join the private club hosting his luncheon, Blumenthal tweeted the following:
Burr, for his part, offered a somber — if fairly benign — statement several days after his luncheon, upon news of the first coronavirus infection in his state of North Carolina:
It's a far cry from the grim, and ultimately prescient, remarks he'd made just days earlier to his gaggle of lunch buddies — many of whom were invited as representatives of companies that, it just so happens, had each spent upwards of $100,000 on Burr's previous election campaigns, according to NPR.
In a statement to NPR, Burr's office defended the senator's seemingly asymmetrical response to the viral outbreak. "Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, [Burr] has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus," Burr spokesperson Caitlin Carroll said. But NPR notes that nowhere in Burr's public statements from around the time of this recording was there anywhere near the level of concern and urgency about the virus.
Now that coronavirus and its dangers have become front page news across the country — and the world — Burr has adopted a similar public tone he used in chatting with business leaders in February. What took him so long remains an open question.