TULSA, Okla. -- Thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump showed up in an indoor arena Saturday night for a rally that some fear could help fuel nascent spikes of coronavirus cases in some places, concerns that were amplified after six staffers helping to set up the event tested positive for the virus.
State and city health department officials were already bracing for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases from large outdoor demonstrations against police brutality held across the country. Now the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shaped up to be the first indoor event of such a massive scale since the coronavirus pandemic took hold and many states issued stay-at-home orders.
More than 120,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus.
During Saturday’s rally, Trump told his supporters the United States has tested 25 million people, far more than any other country. He also told the crowd that more testing leads to finding more positive cases.
Trump said that “so I said to my people slow the testing down, please.”
Officials said they expected 100,000 people from many states to converge on Tulsa for the rally and other events, but thousands of the BOK Center’s 19,000 seats were empty for the rally. Supporters — most without masks — and hundreds of protesters filled streets Saturday around the stadium.
The Trump campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said in a statement that “quarantine procedures” were immediately initiated and no staff member who tested positive would attend the event. Those who had immediate contact with them would also abstain.
Brian Bernard sported a Trump 2020 hat on Saturday in downtown Tulsa, but no face covering. He said the numbers and media attention on coronavirus are artificially inflated, and that didn’t stop him from making a nine-hour drive from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to attend his second Trump rally.
“I haven’t caught a cold or a flu in probably 15 years, and if I haven’t caught a cold or flu yet, I don’t think I’m gonna catch COVID,” said the 54-year-old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I don’t think it’s anything worse than the flu.”
The map of the outbreak in the U.S., and elsewhere, has become a patchwork, with infections falling in some areas and surging in others. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t hold a televised coronavirus briefing for the first time in months Saturday — a sign of progress in the state that was home to the epicenter of the outbreak — though he did convene a conference call to make an announcement about baseball spring training.
Other states are seeing increases, and Nevada and Arizona, for instance, have reported record single-day jumps in new cases in recent days.
In Tulsa, health department officials have said two large indoor gatherings recently contributed to a spike in new cases. They declined to name the events or say how big they were, but the city has seen the largest increase in infections in Oklahoma in recent days. Several bordering states, including Arkansas, have also seen spikes in community spread of the virus in recent weeks.
That is worrying some experts as Tulsa prepares again for Trump's large indoor gathering.
“I think there's no question that indoor events are more risky than outdoor events. But we don’t really know how big that difference is. And certainly other aspects, like how tightly packed things are ... will make a big difference,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Lessler said large events like the rally or the protests have the “potential to be super spreader events,” but their potential to drive the pandemic is short-lived.
“The larger factor is what happens when people go home," he said. "If everybody goes home and doesn’t respect the social distancing factors and goes out into the community, then they could push the spread.”
On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people hoping to attend an event take into consideration whether it is outside or inside, noting indoor events are “more risky” because it might be harder to keep a safe distance from other people and because ventilation is poorer than outside.
Tulsa County health officials had urged state officials to postpone the event at the BOK Center because of a recent spike in cases: Oklahoma set a high for new cases last Thursday, with 450, and Tulsa saw 125 new cases Friday. Other health experts are worried that attendees could unknowingly take the virus back to their respective hometowns and states, seeding additional outbreaks. But Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said it would be safe.
The Trump campaign acknowledged the risk in a waiver it asked attendees to sign that absolves them of any responsibility if someone should get sick. It was handing out masks and hand sanitizer, but there is no requirement that participants use them and there will be no required social distancing inside. Trump also plans an outdoor event.
Teams of people wearing goggles, masks, gloves and blue gowns are checking temperatures of those heading to the arena on Saturday. Some entering were wearing the free masks as their temperatures were checked, and some took them off afterward.
The rally came a day after the head of the World Health Organization warned that the pandemic is “accelerating.” Outbreaks in the Americas were of particular concern, with Brazil surpassing 1 million confirmed infections, second only to the United States.
It also came the same day the National Institutes of Health halted a clinical trial of a Trump-touted malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, for treating adults hospitalized with coronavirus, saying it found the drug provided no benefit but did not harm patients. Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked authorization to use the drug in treating coronavirus, saying it had the potential for serious side effects.
Meanwhile, health officials are still eyeing the outdoor demonstrations against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Those have gathered thousands of people together, in many instances not wearing masks. States and cities have not yet reported large upticks in virus cases since the protests began at the end of May, but it was unclear whether protesters have been seeking tests in large numbers or are self-quarantining.
California health officials have reported so far only a few people attending the demonstrations have tested positive for COVID-19, but identifying all their contacts is proving futile.
States are also preparing for summer vacations, stressing that people must continue to social distance when going to the beach, camping or taking part in other activities. Delaware officials put out the call to high school seniors who participated in traditional senior week events at beaches over the weekend to get tested, after at least three teens tested positive.