The executive vice president of the company that manages the BOK Center said during a public meeting Thursday he would have turned down plans for President Donald Trump’s campaign rally on Saturday had Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum told them to say no to the campaign.
“That was the answer we were looking for,” ASM Global Executive Vice President Doug Thornton told trustees of the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority on Thursday.
Trump is set on Saturday to hold the first large-scale public event in the country since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March. The rally comes amid record daily increases in confirmed Oklahoma coronavirus cases, and as discord continues nationwide over police brutality and racism.
The Trump campaign has said almost 1 million tickets have been requested for the event, and city officials are bracing for the possibility of perhaps more than 100,000 people to be in the downtown area Saturday.
Oklahoma on Thursday reported 450 new cases of the coronavirus — a number that dwarfed the state’s previous high, which had also been recorded this week. The Oklahoma State Department of Health did not release the update until late in the afternoon Thursday, hours later than usual, due to an undisclosed technical difficulty. The numbers were released at about 4 p.m., not long after Gov. Kevin Stitt ended a roundtable discussion with Trump in Washington D.C. in which Trump praised Stitt for Oklahoma’s low overall total of coronavirus cases.
Neither the BOK Center, or ASM Global, which manages the facility, had offered much comment this week as critics called for Saturday’s rally to be halted amid public health concerns. But Thornton spoke to TPFA trustees for about an hour Thursday morning during a special meeting, giving the public a first glimpse of the anxiety the BOK Center’s managing company has about Trump’s campaign event.
Thornton said during the TPFA meeting Thursday that ASM Global reached out to Bynum’s office immediately after being approached by the Trump campaign on June 9. The campaign, Thornton said, told ASM Global they were seeking to host a “full-capacity” rally in Tulsa with no social distancing restrictions.
“The mayor’s office response was that we support the event to the greatest extent that the state and President will allow,” based on Oklahoma’s Open Up and Recover Safely Plan, Casey Sparks, BOK Center’s general manager, told the trustees. Oklahoma entered the final phase of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s reopening plan on June 1, allowing businesses to open with no restrictions on size of crowd or distancing requirements.
Trump announced his rally on June 10, at the time saying it would be held on June 19. That coincided with Juneteenth celebrations that mark the end of slavery in the country, celebrations that have particular meaning in a city in which hundreds of black residents were murdered in the 1921 Race Massacre.
Trump later announced he would move the date of the rally to June 20, and aides said Trump had not been aware of the conflict with Juneteenth. Trump later said that by originally setting his rally on the same date as the holiday, he had “made Juneteenth famous,” and that “nobody had ever heard of it” before his rally announcement.
Thornton reiterated throughout Thursday’s meeting that ASM Global felt pressured to make the rally happen, saying Stitt sent them a letter “acknowledging the event will take place under full capacity.” Thornton said they felt they had received little guidance from the state or city, other than an acknowledgement that since state guidelines did not prohibit the rally, they should hold it exactly as Trump’s campaign requested.
“What if (Bynum) would have said no?” asked one of the TPFA trustees.
“If he’d have said no, we would have said no, too,” Thornton replied.
“We wanted to make sure the city was comfortable and more importantly that the law enforcement officials were comfortable with (large crowds inside and outside the BOK Center) and the answer was yes,” Thornton said.
Bynum, during a news conference on Wednesday, told reporters that he hold told ASM Global “you need to operate this safely and whatever decision you make, we’ll have your back, but that it’s their decision under their contract with the city. They have sole authority for making the decisions on bookings in that facility.”
Thornton said ASM Global was told by city officials that “there were no concerns from a public safety standpoint.”
Bynum, in a press conference on Wednesday, said he would not block Trump’s rally, and that he had “anxiety” about “having a full house at the BOK Center.” But at the same time, he said he was “not a public health professional.”
“I’m not here to testify to the safety of anything,” Bynum said.
In an email, a Bynum spokeswoman told The Frontier that ASM “asked the Mayor if the City could support the event from a law enforcement standpoint. Mayor Bynum told ASM the City could handle law enforcement support outside the event space — not security for the event itself.”
But two public health officials — Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Lance Frye and Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart — both expressed hesitation during Thursday’s meeting about the rally taking place as planned.
Frye said he felt the rally was “a train rolling down the hill that we’re not going to be able to stop.”
“We’re probably going to have to just figure out how we’re going to try to decrease the spread of this during this event,” Frye said. “Keep the messaging out there that vulnerable populations should stay home, and watch it on TV. Don’t go, and try to get people to follow CDC guidelines on large public gatherings.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know if the population that’s attending this is the population that’s going to listen to us.”
Frye told trustees that “hopefully there won’t be any fatalities, but you don’t know.”
“I don’t think we’re going to stop this event, so we just have to focus on prevention,” Frye said.
One of the trustees asked Frye for an idea how many potential fatalities could be caused by a surge in coronavirus cases in Tulsa County as a result of the rally.
“Any reason to believe we’ll have no deaths from the spike?” the trustee asked.
“There certainly could be and may be, but it’s difficult to say for certain,” Frye said.
Frye’s comments appeared to be a departure from statements he made Wednesday during a press conference at the state Capitol. Frye, who was appointed by Stitt last month as the state’s new health commissioner, said on Wednesday it was “not my place to say whether I think a rally is a good idea or not.”
Dart called the rally a “big concern” during Thursday’s TPFA meeting and said large indoor gatherings make it “much easier for the virus to transmit.”
”People in enclosed spaces and in close contact are perfect conduits for virus transmission and that’s what a large indoor event is. It will probably happen,” Dart said, referring to a post-rally spike in positive coronavirus cases.
Thornton told trustees that ASM Global had grown increasingly worried about virus transmission and the safety of employees and attendees to Saturday’s rally, and they had requested the Trump campaign asking “to know what their plan is for social distancing.”
Meghan Blood, the director of marketing for the BOK Center, said on Thursday in an email that the Trump campaign had agreed to temperature-check attendees and provide each attendee with a mask and hand sanitizer upon entering the building.
But a full plan has not been released by the Trump campaign, and Thornton said during the meeting it’s unlikely for it to be possible for there to be social distancing if, as city, state and Trump officials have requested, the rally be held at full capacity.
Trump’s campaign told ASM Global it would have 60,000 masks available for attendees, and would provide 90,000 personal hand sanitizers to people entering the BOK Center.
“Regardless of all that, we are requesting they provide us with a more definitive plan on the health and safety of the patrons who are coming in,” Thornton said.
He said the BOK Center was providing 9,500 masks for staff members on Saturday, and had “677 gallons of disinfectant, 185 gallons of bathroom disinfectant,” and hundreds of hand sanitizer stations located throughout the arena.
Thornton also said they had offered employees the option to skip Saturday’s event if they didn’t feel safe or if they were in an age group more vulnerable to the coronavirus. “About 50 percent” of the employees decided to take Saturday off, Sparks said. She said ushers and ticket staff employees tend to be an older population, and that only two of about 150 of employees they considered to be in a vulnerable age group agreed to work Saturday.
Thornton said they had brought in additional employees from an outside company to help fill staffing levels.
However, many of the employees at the BOK Center are considered part-time employees, he said, and therefore do not have health insurance through work that would cover them if they were infected with the coronavirus during the rally.
Thornton said he “made it clear to the campaign” they needed a $460,000 payment for the rally up front, and have already been paid in full.
Frontier staff writers Clifton Adcock and Kassie McClung contributed to this story.