WASHINGTON – After months away from the election campaign, President Donald Trump plans to rally his supporters next Saturday for the first time since most of the country was shut down by the coronavirus. Trump will travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma – a state that has seen relatively few cases of COVID-19.
But health experts question the decision, citing the risk of the infection spreading among the crowds and triggering epidemics when people return home. The Trump campaign itself recognizes the risk of a waiver, participants must agree to release them from any responsibility if people get sick.
What makes rally high risk?
Trump’s rally will be held indoors, in a 19,000-seat arena that has canceled all other events until the end of July. Scientists believe the virus spreads much more easily in crowded, enclosed spaces than outdoors, where circulating air has a better chance of dispersing viral particles.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes events with the highest risk of coronavirus transmission as follows: “Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to stay at least 6 feet apart and participants are traveling from outside of the local area. The CDC recommends cloth masks in places where people can scream or sing.
Trump rallies typically draw tens of thousands of supporters. They typically line up for hours outside before going through airport-style security and crowding into an arena, where they sit side-to-side or stand shoulder-to-shoulder. The gatherings are generally loud, with a lot of shouting, cheering and chanting. Some people dance and make fun of journalists. Sometimes protesters face violence before being evicted by security.
Many participants are older, which would put them at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. It is not uncommon for several people in the crowd to need medical attention when the temperature rises.
The rallies also typically draw supporters from surrounding cities and states. Some die-hard fans roam the country from rally to rally like groupies for a group.
Dr Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard, called Trump’s upcoming rally “an extraordinarily dangerous step for attendees and those who may know, love and see them afterwards.”
Trump supporters from neighboring cities and states could bring the virus home, Jha said. “I would feel the same if Joe Biden organized a rally.”
The number of cases in Oklahoma is low but increasing
In its final stages of reopening, Oklahoma now allows public gatherings of any size as long as organizers consider social distancing. Participants in any large gathering should stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart and wear a cloth face covering when distance is a challenge, the state health department said. .
The state has a relatively low death rate compared to the rest of the country, but new cases are on the rise. In Tulsa, cases are on the rise, with 71 new cases reported on Friday. The Tulsa health department was already investigating an outbreak linked to a gathering inside a large group of people.
“I am concerned that large groups of people congregate indoors for extended periods of time,” Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Department of Health, said in a statement Friday. “It is imperative that anyone who chooses to host or attend a gathering take the necessary steps to stay safe. “
Dart said the risk of the virus spreading increases with more people coming together for longer periods of time.
Oklahoma health officials have said anyone who attends a large public event should get tested for COVID-19 soon after.
Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Trump rally meets all criteria for the riskiest type of event.
“I would definitely recommend people to wear masks and try to keep as much distance as possible,” Payne said.
Julie Fischer, associate research professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said the event could have broad repercussions for the country.
“With some bad luck, this scenario could end with the seeding of community outbreaks of COVID-19 across the United States,” she said.
Masks and precautions
The Trump campaign declined to answer repeated questions about whether it will force participants to wear masks, socially distance themselves, or take other steps to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
Trump has made it clear that he thinks empty seats are bad optics. “I can’t imagine a rally where you have all four full seats. Every – every six seats is empty for every one you’ve got full. It wouldn’t be too good, ”he said in April.
Trump also insisted that the flagship event of the Republican National Convention – his acceptance of his party’s nomination for re-election – be moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Fla., After the Democratic Governor of Carolina North refused to promise that it would not impose restrictions.
Trump is eager to resume the rallies that are the centerpiece of his campaign. The president reveled in his large crowds. Events gave him a chance to speak out and assess the kind of rhetoric that will appeal to his ardent political base. They are also helping his campaign expand his voter databases and will serve as a contrast to Democratic challenger Biden, who has suspended campaign events because of the virus and has not drawn the same size of crowd.
But the decision to pull the trigger now was prompted, in large part, by the mass anti-racism protests that took place across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Campaign and White House officials say the protests – and the limited public health outcry they generated – have covered them. If it was okay for tens of thousands to march through the streets demanding racial justice, why can’t Trump rally his supporters as well?
Of course, the protests were held outdoors, with many participants wearing masks.
“Any large gathering, whether protesters or rallies, is dangerous,” Jha said. But infection is less likely during an outdoor walk than during a crowded event in an enclosed space, he said, citing the airflow.
The Trump campaign, acknowledging the risk, has attempted to shield itself from lawsuits with disclaimer language on its registration website.
“By clicking Register below, you acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present,” the campaign advised to people registering for the rally. “By attending the rally, you and all guests voluntarily assume all risks associated with exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to retain Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.” responsible in case of illness or injury.