To observe Trump and his entourage this month as he prepares to resume normal campaign activity coast to coast could lead one to conclude that the coronavirus pandemic is over.
In reality, the virus continues to ravage the United States and is fast spreading in some midsize and small cities that avoided bad outbreaks this spring. Recent spikes in coronavirus cases have been recorded in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma — all states where Trump has said he plans to soon hold campaign rallies.
“It is the ultimate powder keg,” Kavita Patel, a primary care physician and former senior adviser in the Obama White House, said of political rallies. “And this won’t be just one rally. It’s a sequence of rallies. They won’t stop. That’s Donald Trump throwing a match in.”
Trump plans to kick off his campaigning Saturday night before an expected capacity crowd of 19,000 inside the BOK Center in Tulsa, an arena that has canceled or postponed other events scheduled for June, July and August because of the pandemic. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said he spoke Monday by phone with Trump and is considering moving the rally outdoors.
“Maybe we could move it outside,” Stitt told reporters. “That is still kind of in the works. It is currently at the BOK Center, so we are trying to take every safety precaution possible to make it a safe event.” He added that “we are a free society” and people can decide whether to attend Trump’s rally or not.
The Trump campaign, which claims more than 1 million people have requested tickets, is requiring attendees to assume all risks related to virus exposure and agree not to sue the campaign, the venue or any contractors.
Trump has argued that because tens of thousands of people have been attending racial justice demonstrations, it is therefore appropriate for him to resume holding large rallies.
The president tweeted Monday, “The Far Left Fake News Media, which had no Covid problem with the Rioters & Looters destroying Democrat run cities, is trying to Covid Shame us on our big Rallies. Won’t work!”
Trump maintains that the nation’s steady pace of testing — an estimated 20 million total tests have been conducted thus far in the pandemic — “Makes us look bad,” as he put it Monday on Twitter.
“If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” the president told reporters later in the day during a meeting with some members of his Cabinet.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has flouted and at times even made a mockery of public health guidelines. By returning to the campaign trail later this week — and by his and his team’s lax overall adherence to the recommendations of public health experts — Trump is signaling that he thinks the threat of the virus has largely passed.
The president’s message is belied by the facts and is incongruous with appeals from health officials inside Trump’s administration urging Americans to continue social distancing and take other safety precautions to stop the spread and to save lives.
In Tulsa, for instance, the number of coronavirus cases has shot up steadily over the past two weeks, and on Sunday, the city’s health department reported a record high of 89 confirmed new cases, bringing the total there to more than 1,600.
Vice President Pence said Monday that in Oklahoma, the number of coronavirus cases “has declined precipitously.”
“In a very real sense, they have flattened the curve,” Pence said.
In fact, the number of new coronavirus cases in Oklahoma has risen steadily in June, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The seven-day average of new cases in the state on Monday reached 173, up from an average of 67 cases on May 31.
“COVID is here in Tulsa, it is transmitting very efficiently,” Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa City County Health Department, told the Tulsa World newspaper. “I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic. I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well.”
The Trump campaign plans to check the temperatures of every rallygoer and provide each with a mask and hand sanitizer, as well as offer water bottles, according to campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine.
“The campaign takes the health and safety of rallygoers seriously and is taking precautions to make the rally safe,” Perrine said.
At the White House, some other preventive measures that went into effect after two staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus in May have largely dissipated, in keeping with Trump’s determination to convince Americans it is safe to resume normal activities.
White House spokesman Judd Deere defended the administration’s actions.
“In addition to social distancing, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, regular deep cleaning of all workspaces and requirement of a facial covering when away from ones desk in the West Wing, every staff member in proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for covid-19 as well as any guests,” Deere said.
Mask-wearing has been inconsistent at best, however. White House staffers routinely interact with one another and with the president without covering their faces and have rarely if ever been photographed in masks in recent weeks.
When Pence visited the Trump campaign’s headquarters in Northern Virginia last week, he tweeted a picture from his visit showing scores of staffers packed together tightly around office cubicles without masks. The vice president later deleted the tweet.
Asked about the visit by CBS News Radio, Pence said, “I’m very confident that all the actions there were appropriate and that as that office continues to operate, they’ll operate in a safe and responsible way, just like businesses all across America are doing.”
Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been drawing a deliberate contrast with Trump. He wears a mask in most of his public appearances, and aides require everyone around him to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Biden is in no rush to resume large rallies, aides say, but rather is convening small roundtable sessions or delivering speeches without audiences. His Philadelphia headquarters emptied out in March when much of the country shutdown, and Biden campaign staffers continue to work from home.
“Donald Trump has consistently demonstrated he cares more about winning reelection than about keeping Americans safe,” Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said. He added, “It’s why he’s going against CDC guidance now to hold rallies even as over 20 states are seeing rises in covid cases. With his poll numbers in a nose-dive, he’s desperate to jump-start his flailing campaign, because as usual Donald Trump is only worried about one thing: Donald Trump.”
Trump said last week that he planned to hold rallies soon in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, in addition to Oklahoma. CNN reported Monday that Trump is also eyeing a rally next month in Alabama.
All of those states have reported recent increases in new coronavirus cases.
Doctors, nurses and public health officials in these places said they risked losing credibility with the public if the precautions they were encouraging were openly flouted by the president’s reelection campaign.
“This is a continuation of the effort to downplay the seriousness of the virus and part of the clear anti-science tenor that has characterized this administration’s belief system,” said Palmer Edwards, president of the North Carolina Medical Society.
Some suggested the protections Trump enjoys made him incapable of understanding the risks of the virus for others, including his own supporters.
“Putting large groups of people together, without requirements about social distancing and mask-wearing, is very irresponsible,” said Dennis Taylor, president of the North Carolina Nurses Association.
Any move to hold an upcoming rally in North Carolina would be highly combative given Trump’s public feud over health guidelines with the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, and ultimate decision to relocate most Republican National Convention proceedings from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Fla.
“Public health experts have been clear that large gatherings are among the worst settings for viral spread of covid-19,” Cooper’s spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said.
North Carolina is in the second phase of its reopening and prohibits indoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
Arizona — where Trump is expected to headline a Students for Trump event on June 23 in Phoenix — has no explicit limits on large gatherings, though the governor’s most recent order recommends against “social settings where appropriate physical distancing is not practical.” Maricopa County specifically advises residents to avoid assembling with more than 10 people.
Guidance about large gatherings has become more complicated since the eruption of protests, acknowledged Ross Goldberg, the president of the Arizona Medical Association. “It’s a tricky point because we’ve seen crowds assemble in recent weeks for a variety of reasons,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the large gathering is — I have concerns.”
Scott Harris, Alabama’s chief health officer, said seniors and people with chronic health problems should steer clear of campaign events. And he said that the Trump campaign should take “every reasonable precaution” to “protect people, particularly the most vulnerable.”
In Mobile, Ala., where Trump reportedly plans to stump for former football coach Tommy Tuberville in his primary race against Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general and Alabama senator whom Trump routinely assails, officials are trying to make a direct appeal to the president.
“We would love to see everyone wear a face covering, including President Trump when he is here,” said Laura Cepeda, the chief medical officer in Mobile County. “That sort of leadership would do more to encourage others to wear masks than us asking people to do it ever would.”