President Donald Trump went to Omaha, Nebraska Tuesday night hoping to boost his chances of winning the area’s competitive electoral college vote.
But he left a logistical mess in his wake at Eppley Airfield as scores of people were left trying to get back to their vehicles via buses from the large-scale event in the midst of a raging pandemic.
Trump’s rallies during the pandemic have already worried health experts because, even when they’re outdoors, the large events feature little in the way of social distancing and lax mask-wearing from the audience. But the logistical issues in Omaha likely only compound the existing anxieties over holding such big events and gathering so many people together at a time when health experts are still sounding the alarm over the deadly coronavirus.
The Omaha World-Herald reported there were hundreds left stranded for “up to three hours in freezing temperatures,” as they attempted to leave the event via chartered buses.
A spokesperson for the Omaha Police Department said in an email that “buses loaded and hauled approximately 25,000 people to the event site over a 10 hour period of time,” from 10 a.m. Tuesday until the start of the event. But estimates about how many people headed to the airfield have varied, and the spokesperson noted the numbers were preliminary.
Officer Michael Pecha, a public information officer with the Omaha Police Department, said that six people were taken to area hospitals with a variety of medical conditions. “Those needing medical attention were contacted by medics over the duration of the event, not just at the end,” he said in the email.
Those in the crowd “flooded to the waiting buses” around the time the rally ended at about 9 p.m., according to the Omaha Police Department. As a result, a large number of people decided to walk to their cars, OPD said, even though the closest parking lot was about 2.5 miles away.
Those on foot snarled traffic “and delayed bus trips considerably,” Pecha said in the email, noting that law enforcement worked to help as best they could. “Many people underestimated the distance from the event back to the parking lot on foot. The last person was loaded into a bus from the rally site at about 11:50 p.m.,” Pecha said.
Derek Oden, executive director of the Douglas County Republican Party, said in an email that the rally “had 3 times the expected number” of attendees. He raved about “an amazing atmosphere; tailgating, positive, flags, vendors everywhere” but, post-event, he said the “real problem was the 40 shuttle buses (cap. 54/each) were getting trapped in the unload parking lot and unable to make returns quickly.”
“A lot of police driving back and forth along the hike and stopping for folks having trouble with the hike,” Oden said in the email. “Overall, it was a lot of fun.”
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign responded to the aftermath of the event in an email saying, “President Trump loves his supporters and was thrilled to visit Omaha last night,” while also touting that “despite the cold, tens of thousands of people showed up for his rally.”
Samantha Zager, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary, blamed “local road closures and resulting congestion” for the delays but added that “at the guest departure location, we had tents, heaters, generators, hot cocoa, and handwarmers available for guests.”
“We always strive to provide the best guest experience at our events and we care about their safety,” Zager said.
On the campaign trail, the scene was criticized by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who said that “hundreds of people including older Americans and children” had been “stranded” following the event.
“It’s an image that captured President Trump’s whole approach to this crisis,” Biden said, referring to the pandemic.