WASHINGTON — The message from Tulsa’s top government officials Wednesday was not comforting.
Just days before President Donald Trump was set to hold an enormous indoor rally expected to bring tens of thousands of people to the city, the officials announced 96 new cases of the coronavirus, the largest single-day increase in Tulsa since March.
And they offered little in terms of reassurance to residents worried about holding a large, charged, political gathering in the midst of a pandemic and on a weekend when demonstrations were planned across the country to honor Juneteenth.
At a rare news conference, the city’s top health official, Bruce Dart, said he was “absolutely” worried that Trump’s rally Saturday could become a “super spreader” event that would lead to more deaths.
Dart noted that he had recommended the event be postponed until it was safer to bring large groups together indoors and urged people over 60 who wanted to attend: “Please stay home. Seek other ways to participate virtually.”
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Dart said. “Coming together is a definite possibility of seeing increased infections and increased deaths from those infections.”
Trump’s campaign selected Tulsa in large part because the city is in Phase 3 of its reopening and many restrictions on daily life there have been lifted. Tulsa was seen as a perfect backdrop to send a message that the worst of the coronavirus crisis was in the rearview mirror.
Dart emphasized on Wednesday that this was not the case. “So many people are over COVID, but COVID is not over,” he said. “Please stay the course.”
The Tulsa police chief, Wendell Franklin, said he expected Trump’s rally to bring into the city “a mass amount of people that probably Tulsa has never seen before” and noted that the weather forecast for Saturday was 90 degrees.
“Prepare for hours and hours inside of a concrete jungle, if you will,” he said.
Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, said on Twitter that he had received 800,000 ticket requests to the rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Center, calling it the “hottest ticket ever!”
But Franklin raised the possibility of mass protests. In Tulsa, which in 1921 was the site of one of the country’s bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence, Juneteenth protests are expected to be more intense because of Trump’s decision to schedule a rally there on the holiday, which honors the end of slavery in the United States and is celebrated as African Americans’ Independence Day.
Facing criticism, Trump last week said he would delay his rally by a day. But his visit will still coincide with planned protests and celebrations across the city all weekend.
Franklin said he wanted the protests to be peaceful. “Let’s have a safe and hopefully uneventful weekend,” he said.
But Tulsa’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, a Republican who is friendly with the Trump campaign, said that despite the health and safety risks, he was “honored” his city had been chosen to host the president’s return to the campaign trail and described himself as “very grateful” for the visit. He noted that the event would be the first presidential rally in Tulsa since President George H.W. Bush visited decades ago.
“The fact that this president, coming out of this event, would single out our city and say that’s a city that did it the right way, that’s a city that’s reopening the right way, and want to come here?” Bynum said. “I do take it as an honor.”
But he added that “any rational person looking at any large group of people” would have concerns about the weekend and that it was up to rallygoers to wear masks and use hand sanitizer to reduce the risk.
As the mayor spoke, the city’s Facebook page livestreamed the news conference and was flooded with critical comments like “PROTECT YOUR CITIZENS #STOPTHERALLY.”
Parscale has said the campaign will distribute masks at the venue. But campaign officials said they would not require people to wear them inside the BOK Center, the indoor sports arena that signed a contract with the campaign to host the rally.
Attendees have had to waive their right to sue the campaign or the venue if they contract the virus at the rally.
When asked why he had disregarded the advice of his top health official to postpone the rally, Bynum said that it was not his decision and that he did not control bookings at the BOK Center.
Bynum did not address the issue of the timing of Trump’s rally, which was widely criticized as an insult to black Americans. Instead, the mayor called Juneteenth “one of the most important days in the history of our country” and said he was grateful for the “increased awareness” of the holiday this year.
He also said that he intended to greet Trump on the tarmac when the president arrived Saturday but that he planned to spend the evening on the streets with the city’s police officers.
“I’m not going to the rally,” he said.