Trump’s Tulsa Rally Defies Public Health and Protest Concerns
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s resumption of his signature campaign rallies this week is intensifying criticism of his response to the biggest domestic crises of his presidency: The deadly coronavirus pandemic and widening protests over police brutality against Black Americans.
The June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is shaping up as a nightmare scenario for public health officials. Trump plans to address supporters inside an arena that holds nearly 20,000 people, with no special capacity limits, despite concern that crowded, indoor events are ideal for transmitting the coronavirus.
The campaign plans to give a mask and hand sanitizer to everyone who attends -- and require them to agree to a waiver absolving the campaign of liability if they get sick.
Trump’s choice of venue and date are also proving fraught as he confronts the national outcry that has followed the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody last month. Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history -- the 1921 Tulsa massacre, when a White mob sacked a prosperous Black neighborhood.
While Trump has conceded an error in the scheduling -- he bumped the rally a day to avoid holding it on Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery -- he is pressing ahead undaunted, and has said he plans to hold more of the events in other states with rising coronavirus cases, including North Carolina and Arizona.
“To have an indoor rally, intentionally, at this very moment in time, is just not smart,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “It puts people at risk. I think that it is liable to cause deaths.”
The administration on Monday repeatedly downplayed the rising numbers of cases of Covid-19 in states including Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Florida. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attributed the increasing caseload to expanded testing for the virus.
“If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” Trump told reporters at the White House. On Twitter Pence said that “despite hyperventilating by some in the media, only 11 counties out of over 3,100 are seeing a true acceleration in new Coronavirus cases & less than 2% of counties show any significant increase in cases.”
Pence told Fox News on Tuesday that the campaign was “looking at outside activities” given the high demand for tickets to the Tulsa event. When pressed on why the rallies aren’t being held outdoors, Pence said, “You raise a good point and what I can tell you is it’s all a work in progress.” He praised Oklahoma for safely reopening, though the state has low but increasing case totals.
“It’s that common sense that Americans continue to put into practice every day, that I’m sure people will put into practice come this Saturday, that’s going to keep Oklahoma and keep all of America on a trajectory of safely reopening America,” Pence told Fox on Tuesday.
Mina said the growing number of infections is likely due at least in part to states lifting social distancing requirements. “As social distancing measures have been lifted, increasingly in many of these areas we are seeing that no place is immune to this virus, and it will travel where people travel,” he said.
Oklahoma itself has had reported fewer than 10,000 cases of Covid-19, among the fewest in the country and one reason Trump’s campaign chose the state. But the head of Tulsa’s health department has warned against the rally, and the department said in a statement Monday that it “is concerned about the safety of any large gathering of people in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”
The BOK Center in Tulsa, where the rally will be held, has canceled or postponed a series of other events, including concerts by Bon Jovi, KISS and Justin Bieber, over the next several weeks “in light of the ongoing Covid-19 situation and out of an abundance of caution,” according to its website. Other than Trump’s rally, the next scheduled event is July 30.
Trump has boasted about a crowd so big that it’ll spill over into the nearby city convention hall, which he said holds 40,000 people. “I’m going to have 22,000 plus 40,000,” he said at the White House Monday. Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, has said more than 1 million people have requested tickets.
“We’re going to talk about out nation, where we’re going, where we’ve come from,” Trump said. “And I can tell you on Covid or coronavirus or whatever you want to call it, plenty of names, tremendous progress is being made.”
Though Tulsa hasn’t experienced the kinds of protests, riots and looting that have convulsed some U.S. cities this month, the arrest earlier this month of a pair of teenagers who the police said were jaywalking has evoked many of the same questions driving unrest across the U.S.
A major in the Tulsa Police Department is also under fire for saying in a radio interview that police shoot Black people “less than we probably ought to be based on the crimes.” In the same interview, he denied the existence of systemic racism.
Trump and his supporters have pointed to the nationwide protests as an excuse for him to resume his rallies, arguing that if it’s safe enough for Americans to demonstrate on city streets against the police, he can invite thousands of his supporters to join him in arenas to build enthusiasm for his re-election. Health officials have regularly warned that the virus spreads more easily indoors.
Yet the Tulsa World newspaper said in an editorial on Monday that “this is the wrong time and Tulsa is the wrong place for the Trump rally.”
“We can’t see any way that his visit will be good for the city,” the paper said. “The public health concern would apply whether it were Donald Trump, Joe Biden or anyone else.”
Parscale said Monday on Twitter that everyone attending the rally at the BOK Center, which is owned by the city, would have their temperature checked in addition to being issued masks and sanitizer. There’s no indication that attendees will be required or encouraged to wear the masks, however -- Trump has never worn a mask in public and has mocked Biden for taking the precaution.
Meredith Matone, the scientific director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview on Monday that political rallies were “something where individuals are going to have to make their own risk assessment.”
“I myself would not attend a rally without a mask and the ability to physically distance from people,” she said.
But there’s no sign Trump is considering rescheduling the gathering again and it’s unlikely anyone else would cancel it. A spokeswoman for the city of Tulsa said the event was the responsibility of Trump’s campaign and the firm that manages the arena.
“Every entity has the same access and constitutional right to hold events in public spaces,” spokeswoman Michelle Brooks said.
A spokeswoman for the arena’s manager declined to comment. City officials have scheduled a news conference for Wednesday regarding the virus.
The city’s mayor and Oklahoma’s governor, both Republicans, have generally supported the Trump rally, with caveats. Mayor G.T. Bynum encouraged the campaign to have “enhanced hygiene considerations for attendees” but that the city would “protect the free and peaceful exchange of ideas.”
“I am excited to host the president on Saturday, June 20, as we celebrate restarting our economy and getting Oklahomans back to work,” the governor, Kevin Stitt, said in a statement last week.
And Oklahoma’s lone Democrat in Congress, Representative Kendra Horn, stopped short of criticizing the president for holding the rally. She instead urged him to avoid divisive rhetoric “as our nation faces the health and economic consequences of a deadly pandemic and grapples with the tragic reality of systemic racism.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.