Jason Ravitz couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton.

He just didn’t trust her, and was concerned that her tax policies could hurt business owners.

So Ravitz, 48, a registered Democrat and deputy mayor of Voorhees, voted for Donald Trump.

He may never forgive himself.

“I can’t believe I voted for the guy and believed his BS,” Ravitz said. “I paid for it with my dad’s life.”

His father, Steve Ravitz, died in April from COVID-19, which Ravitz attributes in large part to the president’s handling of the pandemic. New Jersey is expected to be an easy win for Joe Biden, so Ravitz wrote in his father for president on his mail ballot as a way to honor him. If he thought there were any chance Trump could win the state, Ravitz said, he would be a Biden voter.

“There was absolutely no way I would even consider President Trump after his horrific handling of COVID that so affected my family and our friends and our business,” said Ravitz, who worked with his father operating a family-owned chain of Shop Rites in New Jersey.

Steve Ravitz's death from COVID-19 caused his son Jason, right, to deeply regret his 2016 vote for Trump. Also pictured (from left) are Ravitz's two other sons, Brett and Shawn.
Photo courtesy Jason Ravitz
Steve Ravitz's death from COVID-19 caused his son Jason, right, to deeply regret his 2016 vote for Trump. Also pictured (from left) are Ravitz's two other sons, Brett and Shawn.

COVID-19 has upended virtually every aspect of American life this year, and the presidential election is no exception. In a Pew Research Center survey in early October, 55% of registered voters nationally said the pandemic is a very important issue.

But for some, the virus’ impact is exceptionally personal.

They are the people who were seriously sickened by the virus, some still suffering ongoing health effects, or whose parents, spouses, siblings, or children were among the 225,000 who died because of it. Public health officials and epidemiologists have long argued that the federal government’s failure to act as a strong authority has hurt the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic. While dealing with illness and grief, they have watched the president make unrealistically rosy predictions about the virus, downplay its seriousness, pitch unproven treatments — and, after finally contracting COVID-19 himself, come out the other end telling people: “Don’t be afraid of it.”

“His lack of empathy and compassion for those of us who lost loved ones or had the virus is not acceptable,” said Kathy Picarello, of Clifton, N.J.

Picarello, 67, recovered from her infection. Larry, her husband since 1976, did not. He died in April at 71. She was always more politically conservative than he, she said, and four years ago was so dissatisfied with Clinton and Trump she didn’t vote for either. Before the pandemic, she was already leaning toward voting against Trump. Losing her husband, she said, decided it.

"If he had shown more compassion, more empathy, maybe I would have swung that way,” she said.

Trump has repeatedly defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic, downplaying the deaths of 230,000 by pointing to projections that 2 million could have died — without noting that is an estimate of the toll if the government had done nothing at all.

“We’re rounding the turn,” he said Oct. 26 in Pennsylvania as cases surged here and nationally.

Trump allies such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who spent seven days in intensive care with COVID-19 after attending a White House “super spreader” event maskless, and the family of Herman Cain, a former presidential candidate who died in July not long after attending a Trump rally in Oklahoma where few wore masks, have stuck by the president.

The Pew survey found the pandemic resonates far more with Democrats. Only 24% of Trump supporters said they considered the virus a very important issue.

Getting sick doesn’t necessarily change that.

“I never equated me being sick with anything the president did or didn’t do,” said Joe Ryan, a registered Republican and township manager in Ridley who had the virus in August.

Ryan was never hospitalized, but was seriously ill for 10 days. He wears a mask and socially distances outside his home, he said. He’s not sure how he got sick.

“It’s probably the sickest I’ve ever been in my life," he said. “Chills, pain in head, pretty much all the symptoms you hear about, I had them all.”

He questioned how much any president could do to combat a pandemic, he said, and how it would be possible to parse culpability among federal, state, and local governments.

“We all have to be responsible for ourselves and take precautions," he said. “I did and I still got it.”

He’s voting for Trump, he said, because his priorities still align with the president’s.

“The economy, security of the country,” Ryan, who for 40 years worked in law enforcement, said, “and I’m very against socialism.”

Fairly or not, the president’s handling of the virus is siphoning off some Republican support, according to a study published Friday in Science Advances. Researchers found areas with higher coronavirus-related fatalities were less likely to support Trump and Republican candidates.

“Yes, I’ve seen people drift away" from the local GOP, said Mike Puppio, chair of the Springfield Township Republican Party in hard-hit Delaware County.

He had a mild case of the virus, he said, but doesn’t blame the president. He thinks the virus has damaged Trump’s campaign because of the president’s polarizing personality, not his policies.

“He sucks all the air out of the room,” he said.

Larry Picarello and wife Kathy
Courtesy of the family
Larry Picarello and wife Kathy

For some who disliked Trump before the pandemic, a family member’s death transformed antipathy to rage.

“Quite frankly, I think he needs to be charged with crimes against humanity and negligent homicide,” said Althea Willis, of Mount Airy, whose mother Mary Sharp, 85, died in April after almost a month in the hospital.

Sharp was healthy, needing only a half of a high blood pressure pill a day, her daughter said. In February the family celebrated her birthday with a cruise to the Bahamas. Two weeks before she took ill, Sharp went out to line dance. Willis, 64, lost her husband to cancer four years ago, but took comfort in her relationship with her mother, who lived with her since 2018.

“To lose two of my best friends in less than four years,” she said, “it’s been rough.”

She’s voting for Biden, she said, and encourages others to do the same.

“I’m talking to all my friends, particularly young people,” she said. “My son is serving in the Navy. I’m just telling him to talk to his friends, his shipmates, whatever you want to call them.”

Andrea Small, 64, a nurse, regrets not encouraging her son Dennis to seek medical attention when he first got sick. His girlfriend also had COVID-19, and he almost certainly contracted it while visiting her in the U.K., Small said. She found her son dead in her home on March 29. He was 37.

Trump, said Small, “refuses to take his responsibility. I bear my own responsibility that I wasn’t able to help my son more.”

Troy Randle, a New Jersey cardiologist who suffered a stroke after contracting COVID-19, shies away from being publicly political, but Trump’s attitude toward the pandemic made him all the more committed to the Democratic candidate.

“For someone that had suffered what I suffered, to make the public feel like it was no big deal,” said Randle, 49. “I felt like it was a slap in my face.”

Several people who lost family early in the pandemic felt fury over recordings released in September of Trump’s comments to journalist Bob Woodward. Trump told Woodward in February the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” yet implied the opposite publicly four weeks later.

Willis wondered what choices her family might have made differently if the president had shared that knowledge with the public.

“It just makes me angrier," she said, “because I feel like my mother and a lot of other people didn’t have to die.”