Oklahoma officials worry about Trump's rally as Tulsa County COVID infections rise to record levels
Days before President Trump's first rally in over three months, on June 20 in Tulsa, city officials and politicians are worried, as the number of COVID-19 cases in Tulsa County rise to record levels.
While Trump supporters lined up with their lawn chairs and umbrellas outside the BOK Center in Tulsa, the city's Republican mayor said he will not be attending President Trump's rally on Saturday.
"I would love for some other city to have tried this first," Mayor G.T. Bynum said at a press conference Wednesday. "But the president chose this city, and so it falls on us to set that standard moving forward," Bynum added.
Bynum said hosting the president will be a "tremendous honor" for his city and he will greet Mr. Trump at the airport but will spend the rest of the day with the police officers protecting the city.
Mr. Trump has dismissed concerns about the risk surrounding his return to the campaign trail, blaming the news media for "trying to Covid Shame us on our big Rallies."
Trump campaign official masks and hand sanitizer will be distributed at the rally upon entry to guests, though the use of neither will be mandatory. Attendees will be required to pass a temperature check. Campaign sources familiar with the rally planning say there are no plans for social distancing within the arena, which holds over 19,000.
"When you come to the rally, as of any event, you assume a personal risk," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters, Wednesday. "That is just what you do. When you go to a baseball game, you assume a risk. That's part of life, it's the personal decision of Americans as to whether to go to the rally or whether not to go to the rally."
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt had been "looking into" other possible venues for Saturday's rally, including an outdoor space that allows for less crowding. But campaign officials insisted on holding the rally at the BOK indoor arena, with overflow crowds of up to 9,000 to be directed inside the adjoining Cox Business Center.
"The CDC does not have guidelines for large gatherings of over 10,000 people. I don't know of any state that would enable that," said CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus.
The Oklahoma Department of Health has urged senior citizens and other vulnerable individuals to "stay home" ahead of the president's rally and watch a livestream of the event instead. Commissioner Lance Frye said those looking to attend the president's rally "will face an increased risk of becoming infected with COVID19."
The department has tripled its contact tracing team ahead of the rally Saturday, and Oklahoma continues to provide free testing at centers across the state, with a dozen in Tulsa County. Testing in Tulsa County is by appointment, but a link on the city's website directing visitors to "COVID-19 Testing Sites & Appointments" leads to a broken page.
Tulsa County tracked 89 new coronavirus cases on Monday and 96 new cases on Tuesday — both the biggest single-day upticks since the COVID-19 outbreak began. The Tulsa Health Department is concerned about "the safety of any large gathering of people in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult to maintain" and is urging residents to follow public health guidelines.
This week, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, Dr. Bruce Dart, expressed concern about the ability to keep Mr. Trump safe from the coronavirus. On Wednesday, Dart said he'd like to see the rally postponed.
Individuals gathering without taking proper precautions will make it easier for the virus to be transmitted, Dart said, leading to "a definite possibility of seeing increased infection and increased death from those infections."
Mr. Trump announced nearly 1 million people have requested tickets to attend the "comeback" rally on Saturday, though some who have registered for the rally say they're virtually trolling him.
Fifty-one year old Iowan, Mary Jo Laupp, helped lead the effort when she posted a video encouraging followers to register to attend the event on Team Trump's website – and then bail in a virtual protest. The grandmother concedes the Trump campaign will "still get butts in arena seats," but hopes the move will send a message. "I had no intention of spearheading some bizarre no-show peaceful protest, but it kind of just blew up."
A group of Tulsa attorneys requested a hearing to impose a temporary, emergency injunction stopping the rally this week, but a Tulsa judge denied the effort, Tuesday.
Tulsa native and Congressman Markwayne Mullin announced Monday that he has rounded up 400 volunteers to help staff the rally. In a virtual Trump rally Monday, he also warned of "outsiders" coming into the state. "I know there's a lot of outsiders that are coming in. And let me tell you, if something happens and people get out of line, know that's not Oklahomans. That's not Tulsans." Mullin continued, "That is people that's being bussed in that are trying to cause destruction and disruption."
In an email obtained by CBS News, Tulsa Police Chief Franklin Wendell informed members of the Tulsa City Council that "every federal law enforcement agency is involved in this endeavor." With no promises the Trump campaign will foot the bill for mounting security costs, state lawmakers worry about Tulsa's ability to shoulder more expenses, since both the city and county are already cash-strapped amid the coronavirus pandemic. "As a law enforcement agency, if another agency requests assistance, we go and worry about the costs later."
State, local and federal law enforcement officials will coordinate with Secret Service on "zones of security" spanning from inside the arena to planned protests one mile northeast, local law enforcement officials said.
Organizers like Mareo Johnson of Black Lives Matter Tulsa stress protests coinciding with the president's rally will be peaceful efforts "promoting unity and love among all genders, races, ages coming together in solidarity." Johnson anticipates hundreds will attend.
City Council member Vanessa Hall-Harper expressed worry the events will contribute to what she calls a "petri dish" of COVID-19 community spread. The lone black member of the Tulsa City Council denounced the timing of Mr. Trump's rally, during what she called "an emotionally unstable time" in the U.S.
"When you put Trumpers – people that follow him – in the same vicinity as black and brown disenfranchised communities, it's a powder keg ready to explode."
Outside of the rally, the BOK Center has postponed and cancelled all of its concerts and sports attractions through July. Hazel Trimble is still waiting to get her money back after the arena cancelled its April concert with country artist Sturgill Simpson. The 54-year-old Tulsa resident, who dropped out of her radiology technician program in part over concerns she might be exposed to COVID-19 in hospital rounds, says her Facebook feed is filled with "alarmed" neighbors in light of the city's coronavirus uptick.
"It should not be happening. Our mayor, our governor, they're ignoring all of the recommendations from the health officials." Trimble said. "And it all seems very political. That's the problem. Then again, that's what's happening across the country, right?"
Nikole Killion and Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed to this report.
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