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John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, is keeping a close watch on the Trump rally and its risks to public health. He reports from the front lines of a city that’s about to dare COVID-19 to show its stuff at tonight’s indoor rally for 19,000 people. You can be sure that Trump will not wear a mask. Not wearing a mask in the midst of a global pandemic is the mark of….a brave macho guy? A COVidiot? Time will tell. In about two weeks.
The single best insight into President Donald Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa was posted by Mark Alan on Facebook:
“Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague.”
If there was any thought that Alan was exaggerating, it would be overridden by Trump’s own words. After his campaign bragged about the 800,000 supporters who’ve shown interest in the Tulsa rally, he warned in a tweet:
Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!
As the first of the estimated 100,000 people drawn to the rally arrive, more questions arise about the racism as a curfew is imposed and then rescinded, as the National Guard is put on standby, and as more threats are posted on social media and the Tulsa Police Department reports “that individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive or violent behavior in other states are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally.”
Similarly, as the number of Tulsa County virus infections “skyrocket,” Oklahoma has become the state with the “second-fastest-growing per capita rate of new coronavirus infections in the country, based on a seven-day average.” So, with the plague side of the event, another question arises: Will we see “Profiles in Courage?”
I guess a possible nominee could be a Trump supporter, who’s been camping out in advance of the rally, and told the Oklahoman, “We feel like President Trump and his family have dedicated their lives to helping our country. Sacrificing a week of our lives is nothing for what Trump has done for us.”
I wonder how many of the “more than 50 campaign surrogates plan to attend the Oklahoma rally, including at least a dozen Republican House members and Sens. Jim Inhofe, James Lankford and Tom Cotton” are just as sincere in their commitment? Or, as Axios reports, are they parts of “scenes to be quickly converted into TV ads.”
Who knows what’s in the mind of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who still tells Trump that Oklahoma is “one of the first states that has safely and measurably reopened”?
Stitt did not consult community leaders before inviting Trump to visit Greenwood where, this month, 99 years ago, white mobs burned down the area known as “Black Wall Street,” killing as many as 300 people. (He later changed his mind about a visit.) We know, however, that like other African-Americans, Rep. Regina Goodwin doesn’t welcome the Confederate flags that early arrivals display. And we know she’s right in saying, “This isn’t a campaign stop. He’s already won Oklahoma. This is a dividing tactic to gin up his base and throw red meat out to his folks.”
Stitt’s newly appointed State Department of Health Commissioner, Lance Frye, doesn’t seem to be a likely Profile in Courage candidate. Frye had said it was “not my place to say whether I think a rally is a good idea or not.” Now he feels the rally is “a train rolling down the hill that we’re not going to be able to stop.”
But Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart has earned his Profile in Courage by telling the truth about the recent surge in infections. From the beginning of the controversy, Dart said, “Our job” is “to stand up and try to do the right thing based on what the data and the science is telling us.” He used the term “super-spreader” to describe a possible “outbreak linked to indoor gatherings, with large groups of people congregated in close contact for prolonged periods of time.”
By contrast, Mayor G.T. Bynum takes the prize for the one who knew what the responsible path was, but ducked. He took a first stand, of sorts, on Facebook posting:
Earlier this year, Tulsans collectively undertook great sacrifice to “flatten the curve”. We did this to slow the spread of COVID-19 and allow our local health care system the time it needed to become properly equipped for handling a longer term pandemic.
We acted early and we were successful. …
But, since May 1, he followed Stitt’s reopening plan. That is why he writes: “Do I share anxiety about having a full house at the BOK Center? Of course.” The mayor then said he was unaware of Trump’s plan until the venue management contacted the city about police support.
David Blatt, the founder of the highly respected Oklahoma Policy Institute replied:
This is inexcusable. As a previously strong and vocal supporter of yours throughout your time in office, I am tremendously disappointed in your catastrophic failure of leadership on this. You are neglecting your responsibility as Mayor for the health and safety of Tulsans, and sad to say, the blood of those who get sick and die because of this rally will be on your hands.
Bynum’s credibility was further undermined by the executive vice president of ASM Global, the company that manages the BOK Center. He said that he would have said no to the campaign rally had Bynum told them to say no.
The previous day Bynum said that he had told ASM Global, “you need to operate this safely and whatever decision you make, we’ll have your back, but that it’s their decision under their contract with the city. They have sole authority for making the decisions on bookings in that facility.” He acknowledged “anxiety” about “having a full house at the BOK Center.” But at the same time, he said he was “not a public health professional.” So, “I’m not here to testify to the safety of anything.”
During these discussions, it was learned that half of the BOK’s staff would not work at Saturday’s rally, and will be replaced by part-time workers. Doesn’t that mean the arena staff will barely know who is supposed to do what, when implementing social distancing and other CDC-approved procedures?
Neither do I believe the Courts will be eligible for a Profile in Courage recognition. After 700 medical professionals and other experts were unable to persuade city leaders to protect the public, a suit was filed, arguing the issue wasn’t about politics, but about requiring safety procedures. It argued that state and city executive orders require the arena to follow Center for Disease Control guidance, and make plans for following recommended protocols. It was supposed to follow the state’s “Open Up and Recover Safely (OURS)” plans.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Clark Brewster, argued that the business operators had a duty to follow OURS procedures, and that included discussions with health authorities, which did not happen. (Curiously, the operator, ASM Global, said that it needed to have such discussions with the Trump campaign, but it didn’t respond to their outreach.)
The plaintiffs also “noted that the courts aren’t allowing full trials because of coronavirus safety restrictions. ‘If it’s not safe to have 12 citizens in a jury box, how is it safe to have 19,000 people together?’” one of the lawyers argued.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court was the “only institution that stands between Tulsa and a biological bomb.” But the Washington Post reports that the Court rejected the argument because “the state’s June 1 reopening plan allowed business owners to use discretion over social distancing measures, and they were not mandatory as the plaintiffs had asserted.”
I’ll need to hear the legal debate before making a judgment, but it seems the Court ducked the issue. Yes, businesses can use discretion when making plans for social distancing. But it seems clear that no meaningful discretion has been devoted to the safety plan. And clearly, the lack of discussion and planning is dangerous. I’ll be curious whether the Court discussed the level of safety that is possible when unprepared staff members are tasked with protecting public health within the arena.
Surely the Court also discussed the spread of the disease and the possible deaths of non-attendees who didn’t choose to put themselves at risk…
But, maybe I am taking an approach that is too liberal and/or science-based. As the Los Angeles Times explains, “Saturday’s rally in Tulsa is a powder keg.” It comes with both systemic dangers born of the pandemic and police brutality. But, maybe the public’s health and safety isn’t enough to slow the political process where the President and his people slap together a mega-event which invites their people to “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague.”