WASHINGTON – Officials in Tulsa, Okla., are warning that President Donald Trump’s planned campaign rally Saturday — his first in over three months — is likely to worsen an already troubling spike in coronavirus infections and could become a disastrous “super spreader.”
They are pleading with the Trump campaign to cancel the event, slated for a 20,000-person indoor arena — or at least move it outdoors.
“It’s the perfect storm of potential over-the-top disease transmission,” said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. “It’s a perfect storm that we can’t afford to have.”
Tulsa County, which includes the city of Tulsa, tallied 89 new coronavirus cases Monday, its one-day high since the virus’ outbreak, according to the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency. The number of active coronavirus cases climbed from 188 to 532 in a one-week period, a 182% increase; hospitalizations with COVID-19 almost doubled.
That spike has local officials and public health experts concerned about welcoming the nation’s first indoor mass gathering since Trump declared a national emergency in mid-March, an influx of thousands of people interacting inside and outside, amounting to a sprawling coronavirus petri dish.
“There’s just nothing good about this and particularly in an enclosed arena,” said Karen Keith, a Tulsa County commissioner who oversees the area where the rally is supposed to take place. “I don’t want people to lose a parent. I don’t want them to lose a grandma. I don’t want them to lose a family member over this.”
Keith said that the rally was likely to draw gawkers and protests outside the BOK Center, the arena where the event is planned. A large overflow crowd could be accommodated at a convention center a block away, where Trump said Monday that 40,000 others would congregate for his speech.
Epidemiologists are envisioning a worst-case scenario for viral spread. The novel coronavirus can transmit through thousands of tiny respiratory droplets that hang in the air indoors, especially when people are talking loudly, laughing, singing and sharing bathrooms.
Trump on Monday said that criticism of the rally was the result of the news media “trying to Covid Shame us on our big Rallies.” Conservatives have claimed a double standard around large gatherings in recent weeks after Americans attended thousands of protests nationwide, often inches from one another, over the death of George Floyd.
The Trump campaign, which has required attendees to agree not to sue should they contract the virus at the rally, said Monday that it would take body temperatures and distribute masks and hand sanitizer. Those requirements may not be sufficient to stop the virus’ spread, which occurs even among people not showing symptoms, such as fevers and coughs.
“The campaign takes the health and safety of rallygoers seriously and is taking precautions to make the rally safe,” Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said in a statement.
The causes of Tulsa’s rise in cases are still being studied by local health officials. A spokesperson for Tulsa’s Health Department said investigations of “recent outbreaks” were focused on “large indoor gatherings.”
“Like any other public health official, I’m a little angry,” Dart said about the rally. “Frankly, I’m afraid for a lot of people. It hurts my heart that we know this is a possibility and we’re doing it anyway. It’s like seeing the train wreck coming.”