Trump fans defy virus warnings at rally, even as staffers test positive

Laurent Banguet, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 21 2020 08:53 AM

Trump fans defy virus warnings at rally, even as staffers test positive 1
Supporters of US President Donald Trump cheer at the start of his first re-election campaign rally in several months in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 20, 2020. Leah Millis, Reuters

TULSA - Donald Trump arrived in Tulsa Saturday for his first rally in months as supporters dismissed coronavirus fears to hear the US president -- but several staffers on his advance team tested positive for COVID-19 and crowds appeared smaller than promised. 

Thousands filed into an indoor arena where Trump aims to revive his election fortunes after several bruising weeks, and despite the rally emerging as a flashpoint in the pandemic era.

Many rally-goers wore red "Make America Great Again" hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks and there was little physical distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.

The president has downplayed the risk that the evening rally -- with thousands of shouting, cheering attendees -- might trigger a coronavirus outbreak, ignoring danger warnings by Tulsa health and municipal officials.

But the narrative of a trouble-free campaign event was punctured Saturday when the campaign announced that six members of its Tulsa advance team tested positive for coronavirus.

"Quarantine procedures were immediately implemented," campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. "No COVID-positive staffers or anyone in immediate contact will be at today's rally."

With the White House promising massive crowds in Tulsa, the president was scheduled to address an outdoor "overflow" gathering next to the arena before headlining the indoor rally at 7:00 pm (8 a.m. in Manila).

The Tulsa crowds "are unbelievable," Trump boasted as he left the White House bound for Oklahoma.

The comment was premature. With many upper deck arena seats empty, and no crowd materializing outside, the overflow speech was scrapped.

"The last time I saw a crowd this small was Trump’s Inauguration," tweeted Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.

In a rare concession, the Trump campaign too acknowledged attendance fell short of expectations. Murtaugh quickly blamed "radical protesters" and the media for seeking to "frighten off the president's supporters."

The stakes Saturday could not be higher -- both for the health of thousands spending hours at the arena and Trump's political fortunes five months before an election in which he trails in the polls.

"Today we're here to show we support President Trump and that we, the people, we'll win the 2020 election, no matter what the fake news media and other liberal, leftist, mind-controlling big firms are saying," said attendee Brad, who declined to provide his last name.

CAMPAIGN REVIVAL?

The rally has been controversial not just because of the virus risk. Originally it was scheduled for Friday -- the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US -- in a city known for one of the deadliest-ever massacres of African Americans.

Racial tensions have roiled the nation following the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Trump has fanned the flames with provocative rhetoric, including a tweeted threat to protesters ahead of Tulsa's rally.

Dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters did gather at rally checkpoints and confronted attendees, but no violence was reported.

This is the first of Trump's signature rallies since March 2, when the country went into pandemic lockdown.

The virus has since killed nearly 120,000 Americans and hugely disrupted a once-booming economy, which had been Trump's strongest re-election selling point.

With Oklahoma overwhelmingly Republican, Trump's job is not to win over locals, but to revive a campaign rocked by his handling of the pandemic and weeks of racial tensions.

Some of the flak comes from presidential challenger Joe Biden and other Democrats, but a handful of fellow Republicans -- including Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton, who wrote a scathing memoir -- have also landed painful blows.

With polls showing him trailing Biden, Trump is eager to change the narrative, and rallies have long been his favorite political tool.

VIRAL DANGER

But while Trump rolls the political dice, the crowd, albeit smaller than predicted, gambles with their health.

Oklahoma virus cases have spiked recently, and the state's total as of Saturday has surpassed 10,000. 

Team Trump stood firm. "We are confident that we can operate safely in Tulsa," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.

Rally organizers provided everyone with hand sanitizer, temperature checks and optional masks.

Attendees were required to sign a waiver protecting organizers from any liability in the event COVID-19 spreads at the venue.

At the rally, business student Louis Fazil dismissed the expert health advice that masks offer protection.

"I don't really wear it, it's just in case somebody's feelings get hurt," Fazil told AFP. "Because it don't help nothing, it's just for decoration."

© Agence France-Presse