The sight that greeted President Donald Trump when he took the stage last month in Tulsa for his first political rally since the novel coronavirus outbreak halted American life was one that health officials and critics had worried about in the days leading up to the June 20 event. While the crowd of supporters inside the 19,000-seat indoor arena was significantly smaller than expected, a majority of attendees didn’t wear masks. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they cheered raucously as Trump thanked them for coming out.
“I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now, and everything is negative,” the president said. “Don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything. Today it was like, I’ve never seen anything like it … You are warriors.”
Now, just over two weeks later, Tulsa County is experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases — and a top local health official has suggested Trump’s rally and other large events, including protests, “more than likely” contributed to the recent spike.
“The past two days we’ve had almost 500 cases, and we know we had several large events a little over two weeks ago, which is about right,” Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart said during a news conference Wednesday. “So I guess we just connect the dots.”
On Monday, the county tallied 261 new cases — the most recorded yet in a single day — and an additional 206 were reported Tuesday, according to figures kept by the Tulsa Health Department. Experts have said the virus’s incubation period is believed to be as long as 14 days.
Dart’s comments mark the latest development in the aftermath of the rally, which was held despite warnings from city leaders, health officials and residents about the potential dangers of cramming thousands of people into an enclosed area when Oklahoma was already setting daily records for coronavirus cases. Dart was among the people who voiced concerns, urging the rally be postponed and calling it a “huge risk factor” in a June 13 interview with the Tulsa World.
In a statement to The Washington Post early Thursday, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh criticized the media for focusing on the president’s rallies amid the pandemic.
“There were no health precautions to speak of as thousands looted, rioted, and protested in the streets and the media reported that it did not lead to a rise in coronavirus cases,” Murtaugh said, referring to the nationwide protests over racism and police brutality. “Meanwhile, the President’s rally was 18 days ago, all attendees had their temperature checked, everyone was provided a mask, and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available for all. It’s obvious that the media’s concern about large gatherings begins and ends with Trump rallies.”
Ahead of the rally, Trump’s campaign appeared to be aware of the risk, adding a coronavirus disclaimer on the sign-up page for tickets in addition to announcing the safety precautions mentioned by Murtaugh.
But just hours ahead of the Tulsa rally, six staff members at the BOK Center, including two Secret Service employees, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Undeterred by the positive cases, Trump held the rally as planned, drawing about 6,200 supporters to the arena, where masks were a rarity and social distancing recommendations were openly flouted. Meanwhile, hundreds gathered outside to protest in the street. Around the same time, large events celebrating Juneteenth, which were resurrected in response to the rally after initially being canceled because of the pandemic, also took place in the city, the World reported.
In the days immediately following that June weekend, Tulsa County saw a surge of coronavirus cases with roughly 200 to 250 new infections confirmed daily, The Post’s Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig reported. Two other staff members and a local reporter who attended the rally also tested positive afterward.
On Wednesday, Dart described the latest spike in Tulsa’s cases as “an exponential rise” that officials expect will continue over the next few days. When asked about the spread of the virus in Tulsa County, Dart responded, “Right now, we do have the highest number of cases” in the state. Oklahoma has more than 17,800 reported cases and 407 deaths as of early Thursday.
“You know, we’ve had some significant events in the past few weeks that more than likely contributed to that,” Dart said, later adding, “If we’re going out in public and we’re engaging with other people and we’re not taking precautions, we’re going to have transmissions. That’s just the bottom line.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at a separate news briefing Wednesday that she had not seen Dart’s remarks, but stressed that “it’s people’s individual choice as to whether to go” to Trump’s rallies, The Post’s Felicia Sonmez reported. McEnany noted the Trump campaign has strongly encouraged rallygoers to wear masks, in line with directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The president’s been operating in accordance with CDC guidelines — recommended, but not required,” McEnany said. “But as he said recently, if he weren’t tested every day, and if he were in a situation where he couldn’t distance, he would wear a mask.”
While Tulsa has yet to issue an order mandating masks, Dart and Mayor G.T. Bynum (R), who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, implored residents to wear them.
“Oklahomans know how to come together to respond to significant challenges and events,” Dart said. “I’m asking everyone today to wear a face covering. Come together as a community as we have done in the past to protect each other in slowing the spread.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.