Coronavirus taskforce officials advised against Trump's Tulsa rally – report

Jessica Glenza
Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Top public health officials in Donald Trump’s coronavirus taskforce warned the US president about holding a mass public rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this weekend because of the health risks of the coronavirus, it has been reported.

NBC News said that both Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, and the taskforce’s response coordinator, Dr Deborah Birx, had raised concerns about the wisdom of such a large event in the middle of a pandemic that remains undefeated.

The TV network reported the two experts had “both vocalized concerns internally” in the past week – but to no avail.

The news comes as officials at the Oklahoma arena where Trump plans to hold his first in-person rally since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US have asked the president’s campaign for a written plan to keep attendees safe.

Related: Tulsa still haunted by memory of white supremacist massacre on eve of Trump visit

The 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa will host the rally on Saturday night, marking Trump’s return to active campaigning in the 2020 election.

The rally will take place amid national protests over police brutality and systemic racism, having been moved back a day to avoid a clash with the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in America.

On Twitter on Friday, Trump said: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”

The remark was criticized for conflating peaceful protests with outbreaks of violence in the weeks since George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by police in Minneapolis.

At a White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump did not mean “any protesters” and was only referring to violent actors and looters.

Tulsa implemented a curfew for protesters around the event, but most concern has focused on the effect of the event itself, an hours-long indoor rally amid what could be Oklahoma’s first large coronavirus outbreak.

More than 9,300 people in the state have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, nearly 2,000 in Tulsa, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University. At least 366 people have died from the disease in Oklahoma, including 65 in Tulsa.

The BOK Center said in a statement it had asked the Trump campaign for “a written plan detailing the steps the event will institute for health and safety, including those related to social distancing”.

The center said it made the request in light of “recent reports of increases in coronavirus cases” from the Tulsa health department, and “the state of Oklahoma’s encouragement for event organizers to follow CDC guidelines”.

“I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today,” Tulsa health director Bruce Dart told Tulsa World newspaper last week. “It’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic.”

The Trump campaign claims more than one million people have requested tickets for the event, although the president and his aids have a history of inflating rally attendance.

Some people have nonetheless been camping out on the streets since at least Wednesday. Trump heralded such enthusiasm on Friday, adding: “My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!”

Trump is behind challenger Joe Biden in polling nationally and in most battleground states. Oklahoma is safely Republican.

The Trump campaign has committed to checking the temperature of every rally attendee, and providing masks and hand sanitizer as they enter the building. All attendees are also being asked to sign liability waivers.

The BOK Center has installed plexiglass between food vendors and customers, and plans to have workers disinfect surfaces throughout the event.

Related: How coronavirus has created a new split in American life

On Friday, the Oklahoma supreme court on Friday rejected a legal request to require everyone attending the rally to wear a face mask and maintain social distancing inside the arena. Masks have become a subject of partisan rancor across the US, with Trump and his supporters publicly eschewing them and Republican governors undermining health officials’ calls for “universal” masking.

In just one recent instance, in Nebraska, Republican governor Pete Ricketts told local courthouses they could not require attendees to wear masks. If they did, towns could be cut out of $100m in federal Covid-19 response aid.

At the White House briefing, McEnany said she did not plan to wear a mask at the rally in Tulsa.

America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, meanwhile, said he would not attend an in-person rally, like Tulsa, at this point in the pandemic.

“Personally, I would not,” he told the Daily Beast. In terms of spreading Covid-19, Fauci said this week, “Outside is better than inside, no crowd is better than crowd …crowd is better than big crowd.”