As Tulsa braces for thousands of people to flood downtown on Saturday for President Donald Trump’s campaign rally, counter protests and Juneteenth celebrations, some Oklahomans, including health professionals, activists, and business owners, are anxiously awaiting the weekend.
The events come at a time when new cases of the novel coronavirus hit record highs in the state, and activists, residents and business owners have expressed concern that the president’s visit will fuel racial tensions amid protests over systemic racism and police brutality.
Over the past week, Tulsa has made national headlines. First, when a Tulsa Police Department major made inflammatory comments on the rate at which black Americans are shot by police, and again when the department released body cam video of officers rushing and handcuffing two black teenagers for jaywalking.
Then, in what would be his first campaign event since the coronavirus outbreak began, President Donald Trump announced he would hold a rally in Tulsa on June 19, or Juneteenth, the day celebrated as marking the end of slavery in America. Trump later pushed the event back by one day following outcry over the timing.
The nation will again look to Tulsa when thousands of people gather to listen to the president speak in downtown’s BOK Center, which has a capacity of about 19,000, on Saturday evening.The nearby Cox Convention Center is expected to be used as an overflow site for the rally to hold another 6,000 to 8,000 people. And hundreds, if not thousands more, are expected to participate in counter protests and continued Juneteenth celebrations that day.
Several businesses in the downtown area, including QuikTrips, have said they plan to temporarily shutter over the weekend.
Saturday has the potential to draw in “a mass amount of people” the city has never seen before, said Tulsa Police Department Chief Wendell Franklin at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
“The eyes of the world are on us now,” Franklin said. “The eyes of the world are upon Tulsa, Oklahoma, during this event. And we are ready for it.”
On Wednesday, the state reported a high of 259 new cases of COVID-19 and reached 8,904 known infections. The seven-day average of new cases, which is used to deemphasize daily swings and outliers in the data, also hit a new high.
As of Wednesday, there were 197 people hospitalized for the disease, which officials have said is well below the state’s health system’s capacity. However, infectious disease experts say deaths and hospitalizations are a lagging indicator because it can take several days or even weeks for people to develop severe symptoms and seek medical care.
Earlier this week, a group of health care professionals penned a letter to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum urging him to cancel the rally.
Bynum said in a Facebook post on Tuesday that although the rally wasn’t his idea and he had some anxiety about the event, he would not attempt to stop it from happening.
In his first news conference since Trump announced the rally, Bynum on Wednesday said the city was in a “very different place” from where it was in early March when cases of the disease first started to emerge in the state.
The health care system has had the time to build capacity for a possible influx of coronavirus patients and built up a reliable supply of personal protective equipment, he said.
Asked why he thought the rally wasn’t dangerous to hold, Bynum said “I want to be clear, I’m not positive that everything is safe.”
“I’m not a public health professional. I’m not here to testify to the safety of anything,” he said.
Oklahoma on June 1 entered the last phase of the governor’s three-step plan to reopen the state. Bynum said that ASM Global, the company that manages the BOK Center, provided Trump’s campaign with the plan’s guidelines and the campaign would abide by them.
He said postponing or canceling the rally was not the city’s decision to make, as ASM Global had full authority for decision making.
The BOK Center said on the rally’s event page that all attendees would be given a mask, a temperature check, and that extra hand sanitizing stations would be placed throughout the facility.
Tulsa County reached a new high in new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, reporting 96 more infections for a total of 1,825 known cases. The seven-day average of new cases also reached a new high at 73.9 cases.
“Unfortunately, we have continued to set new records in the number of cases reported in Tulsa County,” said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department.
“Since June 6, we have seen a significant increase in hospitalizations. Hospitalizations typically lag behind infection reporting.”
Dart said he had recommended the rally be postponed. Asked if he expected cases to spike or additional deaths, he said “that’s a possibility.”
“We’re concerned. I mean people coming together without taking any precautions is what causes the virus to transmit. It gives the virus the ability to transmit from person to person,” he said.
“So of course we’re concerned, and it’s a distinct possibility, if people don’t take the proper precautions and don’t protect themselves.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say large gatherings where it’s difficult to maintain distancing of at least six feet apart and that draw attendees from outside of the community are in the highest risk category for COVID-19 spread. Meanwhile, experts say transmission at outdoor events is possible but less likely.
“Let me be clear, anyone planning to attend a large-scale gathering will face an increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19,” Dart said.
While some officials and health experts have expressed concerns over the large, indoor gathering, Oklahoma’s commissioner of health and top health official, Dr. Lance Frye, has refrained from sharing his thoughts on the event.
“It’s not my place to say whether I think a rally is a good idea or not,” Frye said at a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
“All I can do is give you the public health opinion of, follow CDC guidelines and try to keep yourself safe and if you’re one of the most vulnerable populations … then it’s better to watch that from home.”
Trump’s campaign has said more than 1 million people have requested tickets to the president’s rally.
Outdoor venues for the rally were considered but ultimately it was decided the event would stay at the BOK Center, Gov. Kevin Stitt said at a new conference Wednesday.
Asked whether it was the right time for the rally, Stitt said he told the president “he is absolutely welcome to come to Oklahoma any time he wants.”
Stitt said he would get tested before the rally but was undecided on whether he would wear a mask. Asked what he would say to Oklahomans concerned about the event, Stitt said they needed to make the “best decision” for their family.
“We’re a free society and you’re free to stay home, and I want people to protect their family,” he said. “If they don’t want to go to the rally, they shouldn’t.”