Amid weeks of civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin witnessed a disturbing sight on Wednesday: masses of Donald Trump supporters—some in Confederate gear—lining up blocks from the site of the 1921 race massacre on “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa.
Some of the assembled fans, determined to attend the president’s first campaign rally in months, sang pro-Trump anthems and told local reporters they set up tents in order to ensure they got good seats inside the nearly 20,000-person arena. After all, it promised to be the largest indoor public gathering in the country since COVID-19 sent a shockwave of lockdowns and quarantines throughout the world.
“The point is to rally his base, and they are out there on this sidewalk wanting to be the first in line,” Goodwin, who serves as chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen people out there sleeping with the Confederate flag symbol. Because of the racist elements that he attracts, you’re adding fuel to the fire of the racial tensions in Tulsa.”
But that’s not the only problem facing Goodwin’s constituents. The state’s COVID-19 numbers are “continuing to climb and climb and climb,” as she put it, and the rally is likely to be populated by uniquely COVID-19-skeptical hordes amid a surging pandemic that has hit communities of color with horrific force.
As of Thursday, Oklahoma had 8,904 cumulative cases of the virus, which had caused 364 deaths. Compared to other states, those numbers were relatively low. But compared to Oklahoma’s previous numbers, they amounted to an ominous trend. Authorities reported new record-high case counts in the state at large—and in Tulsa specifically—in recent days. In fact, at least one recent cluster made national news when it forced a 1,600-employee factory for home appliances manufacturer Whirlpool to temporarily shutter. Adding to the concern on Thursday, local authorities reported that a technical error would delay its COVID-19 reporting numbers.
Gov. Kevin Stitt reopened Oklahoma’s economy on June 1, and Dr. Bruce Dart, the executive director of the Tulsa County Health Department, told The Daily Beast last week that an increasing number of residents have stopped wearing masks or staying home due to “quarantine fatigue.”
“The state was open too soon and this was predicted, and that’s what we’re getting,” said Goodwin.
A plethora of scientific studies and media reports have shown the Black community is being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19. Meanwhile, many Black Tulsans work in Greenwood, the setting of the 1921 massacre where roughly 300 people were killed, 35 city blocks were burned, more than 800 people injured, and 10,000 Black Tulsans were left without homes. The fact that the neighborhood is mere blocks away from the setting of the rally, which was initially scheduled on Juneteenth—the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the country—has not escaped anyone’s attention.
Nor have the epidemiological risks.
Local public health authorities all the way up to the top infectious disease experts in the country have sounded the alarm in recent weeks over the risks of Trump’s rally. Even the typically party-line hosts of Fox and Friends appeared nervous about it on Thursday morning.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the public face of the nation’s coronavirus response, told The Daily Beast earlier this week that he would not personally be willing to attend the event since he’s “in a high-risk category.”
“Of course not,” Fauci said, noting that a good rule of thumb is that “outside is better than inside, no crowd is better than crowd” and “crowd is better than big crowd.”
Days earlier, Dart, the executive director of the Tulsa County Health Department, urged people not to attend and told The Daily Beast he asked Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum to “postpone the event until it’s safe for large crowds to gather indoors.” Mayor Bynum’s office only responded to a request for comment this week from The Daily Beast by noting that he was “not available,” though the event appears to be within the city’s control. The arena hosting the rally, the BOK Center, has been closed since March “out of an abundance of caution,” according to its official website. And the City of Tulsa website declares that it must grant a permit for any event at the facility, though Bynum has said he did not know about it until after a permit was already given.
“I’m not positive that everything is safe,” Bynum said on Wednesday.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and an expert on U.S. readiness for pandemics, called the rally “unconscionable”—especially in a state where he described the COVID-19 situation as “not exactly stable.”
“It’s likely that an event like this, at this particular moment, is going to be a super-spreader event,” said Redlener, painting a portrait where even one infected attendee could transmit the virus to dozens, who could in turn infect their friends, families, and coworkers.
Deadly clusters started by just one asymptomatic or presymptomatic person have been documented all over the country in recent months, in Arkansas, in Chicago, in Washington state, and in New York. In many of those cases, all appropriate precautions were followed, and people still died.
To that end, the BOK Center, which is hosting the event, has reportedly hired a private firm to conduct temperature tests, while event staff will pass out masks and hand sanitizer. But attendees will not be required to wear masks—and given the president’s own behavior and the cascading culture wars over mask use, it’s fair to wonder how many people would willingly oblige.
Redlener noted attendance at all is still a gamble, even with protections, and a significant number of people will likely be forced to work at Trump’s event.
“What if just one person dies who had nothing to do with the rally?” asked Redlener. “Is that worth it? It’s a very cold calculus that they are taking, and I would do everything in my power if I was a public official to put an end to it.”
To be clear, like Fauci, the Republican mayor has said he would not be willing to personally attend the rally—but would greet the president beforehand. But in addition to the nearly 20,000 people who can fit inside the BOK Center, an overflow audience is reportedly set to be held in the nearby Cox Business Convention Center, according to The Tulsa World. Trump said this week that more than one million people had requested tickets, though that had not been verified. While at least 100,000 people were expected to attend the related events, it was not yet clear on Thursday how many people would be attending the overflow rally.
The Tulsa County Public Health Department declined a request for an interview with The Daily Beast this week but provided the agency’s public health recommendations, which note that “any large gathering of people in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult to maintain” is cause for concern, and urge residents to avoid such events and to continue to wear masks and practice diligent hand hygiene.
Despite the apparent consensus from bipartisan lawmakers, doctors, and public health experts—and an unwillingness from even the city’s mayor to attend the dangerous event—the community’s best shot at preventing the rally was, for better or worse, in court.
Lawyers Clark Brewster and Paul DeMuro filed a writ on Wednesday morning on behalf of four plaintiffs—Greenwood District Limited, the general partners of the neighborhood’s Chamber of Commerce, in addition to the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and two immune-compromised Tulsans—to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, seeking an injunction against the companies holding the rally.
The BOK Center is owned by the city and managed by a firm called ASM Global. Doug Thornton, executive vice president for Arena, Stadia and Theaters at ASM Global, said during a Thursday special meeting of the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority that the company was “told at the time by city officials there were no concerns from a public safety standpoint,” according to The Tulsa World. A spokesman for the company did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast last week, and voicemails left on Thursday were not immediately returned.
The underlying lawsuit was initially filed in Tulsa County District Court, where the petition was denied after a set of COVID-19 cases among workers at the courthouse led to new protective measures, Brewster told The Daily Beast. The suit seeks to force BOK Center management to abide by safety protocols amid the pandemic, including temperature screenings, social distancing, limited seating capacity, and attorneys’ fees and costs, The World first reported.
Brewster said that he and his co-counsel were set for a Thursday afternoon hearing and were told to expect a ruling on Friday.
“As a lawyer I would strongly defend [Trump’s] right to have that assemblage and the right of free speech for his supporters,” Brewster told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “The problem is that Tulsa has had a sharp escalation in infections. It looks like a hockey stick.”
“You can’t even have a jury trial right now, and this event is going to pack in up to 20,000 people inside the convention center,” said Brewster.
In an apparent acknowledgement of the rally’s danger, the Trump campaign made national headlines in recent weeks after it required people to sign a waiver assuming “all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agreeing not to hold the president or the arena responsible for any “illness or injury” before entering the BOK Center.
“Nothing prevents them from infecting the rest of us,” as Goodwin pointed out. “That doesn’t protect those of us who don’t want to be infected.”
“We don’t have any waivers that we’re obliged to sign,” she added.
As Brewster put it: “Even if you wanted to attend it and signed a release, that doesn't mean you aren’t going to take it to the nursing home where you work.”
“They’re going to hand out masks and hand sanitizer, but we have a reasonable expectation that people in attendance will not be wearing masks,” he added. “This isn’t about politics. It wouldn’t make a difference if this was a Garth Brooks concert. I’d be filing the same injunction.”
What does make a difference is the cultural moment in which this potentially deadly experiment is taking place.
As Goodwin put it, “You’ve got the COVID-19 virus and the virus of racism, and somehow there seems to be a collision of the two in Tulsa.”