- President Trump resumes his raucous campaign rallies Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, despite concerns from the city’s Republican mayor and warnings from public health officials that thousands could be exposed to the coronavirus.
- Phoenix will be in the spotlight next with a Trump campaign event on Tuesday, while presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has also started to hold small public events with social distancing measures in place.
- An Insider survey of public officials from several 2020 battlegrounds revealed a number of places do not want to host political rallies for Trump or Joe Biden anytime soon.
- “Our response has to be consistent no matter who it is,” said the Democratic mayor of Savannah, Georgia. “If the Dalai Lama or the Pope wanted to come, it’s the same response.”
- Trump’s supporters in some parts of the country say they’d welcome the president despite the COVID-19 risk. One Georgia Republican told Insider the president’s supporters would be “thrilled” to attend a rally.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden have emerged from their quarantine bunkers for a four-plus month sprint to Election Day.
Now the respective GOP and Democratic presidential campaigns just need to figure out who wants them to even come to their cities and towns for partisan rallies amid the worst public health crisis in a century.
There are no easy answers, but an Insider survey of local officials from key battleground states who hosted past pre-pandemic political events revealed a split over whether they would be open to seeing their communities take the chance.
For some of the president’s ardent supporters, the trade off is worth it to welcome Trump even if that means exposing people to the deadly virus.
But several local officials also expressed serious concerns about their ability to safely host events like a Trump rally, a Biden speech or other 2020 campaign events considering both the public health and financial strain imposed by the pandemic.
“Coronavirus doesn’t care who it affects, Democrat, Republican or Independent,” said Van Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Savannah, Georgia. “Our response has to be consistent no matter who it is. If the Dalai Lama or the Pope wanted to come, it’s the same response.”
The Oklahoma experiment
Tulsa is the guinea pig.
Trump will be there on Saturday for his first COVID-era political rally since ceasing his raucous events back in March, and thousands of cheering supporters who may or may not be wearing masks are expected in Oklahoma’s second largest city despite warnings from the Republican mayor and hundreds of healthcare officials that it could be a “super-spreader” event for the virus.
Controversy is everywhere.
Already, a lawsuit seeking to stop the rally failed at the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday. Concerns about civil unrest have also added to fears of the virus as Trump appeared to threaten any protesters with an aggressive show of force.
“I’m not positive that everything is safe,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said Wednesday. His city in the days leading up to Trump’s rally has reported an increase in COVID-19 cases, including a 10 percent jump on Friday from the previous day.
For Trump, the return of his rallies marks a turning point from the coronavirus crisis — even if the threat hasn’t really abated. The president’s campaign message is about trying to move the country beyond the virus after nationwide lockdowns drove the economy into a tailspin.
Whether the Tulsa rally goers will be safe has become its own battleground.
Trump’s supporters argue that the president should be allowed to hold large public gatherings like the one in Oklahoma in much the same way that tens of thousands of people protested earlier this month across the country in anti-police brutality protests.
“The same Democrats that have cheered on the Black Lives Matter protests… Are now saying Trump’s rally poses a ‘coronavirus risk.’ Please shut up,” tweeted Ryan Fournier, a founder of Students for Trump.
Trump’s campaign says it will offer masks, hand sanitizer, and temperature checks in Tulsa, but the masks aren’t mandatory and the president’s reelection effort had attendees sign a waiver that they would not sue if they contracted COVID-19.
The message from the top, though, is clear. During her Friday briefing at the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she “won’t be wearing a mask” when she attends the Tulsa rally, calling it a “personal choice.”
Raising COVID concerns in Arizona
Next up after Tulsa for Trump is Phoenix, one of the nation’s newest coronavirus hotspots.
Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, told Insider her community wasn’t ready for large gatherings of any kind, including Trump’s scheduled Tuesday event for students at a local Assemblies of God megachurch that boasts 15,000 attendees.
“President Trump was in Phoenix last month and he apparently would like to come back again,” she said. “I would ask that the White House coronavirus task force take a look at the public health situation in Arizona and decide whether it is appropriate.”
Indoor events with large crowds in close proximity to each other are some of the most likely venues for the virus’s spread, and Gallego said she has “tried to have the same answer” for anyone who proposes big events in Phoenix.
“We need to lead with the advice of public health professionals,” she said. “We should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which currently does not advise events of ten or more or people.”
An Arizona showdown appears likely. On Friday, the Phoenix city council passed a requirement that residents older than 6 must wear a face mask when they leave home. Meanwhile, an additional 2,000 cases have been counted in just the last day in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, and the city’s hospital beds stand at 84% capacity, according to Gallego.
“I would appeal to him not to come here.”
The Phoenix mayor isn’t alone in fearing a Trump rally could make a precarious coronavirus situation even worse.
The city of Lexington, Kentucky, would have an “extremely difficult” time hosting a large rally, said Susan Straub, a spokesperson for the city’s Republican mayor, Linda Gorton.
“Aside from concerns about the spread of the virus, COVID-19 has steamrolled the City’s budget and our economy,” she said. “A big rally like that would be expensive in terms of providing security.”
But a presidential visit could very well be in the cards, even if the state isn’t in play for the White House. Trump held a rally there in November 2018, and Republicans see him as an asset as they try to protect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the state’s most closely-watched 2020 race.
In Savannah, Johnson said he was relieved that Republicans had not chosen his city as it considered alternative locations for its August national convention after pulling up a large majority of its planned proceedings scheduled for Charlotte, North Carolina.
“While it’s generally always an honor to have the commander and chief in your city, during this very unique time in our history, I would appeal to him not to come for the safety and the welfare of his citizens,” Johnson told Insider.
Johnson criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to start opening the state in April. But the mayor insisted that his opinion was based not on partisan politics but public safety concerns. He said he would also discourage Biden, his party’s presumptive nominee, from holding a rally in Savannah.
A “rock-star” greeting awaits Trump in critical states
Plenty of places are open to welcoming the president despite the coronavirus concerns.
In Macon, Georgia, the county Republicans’ vice-chairman Calvin Palmer complained that the media had overstated the severity of the pandemic and espoused the popular but highly inaccurate conservative talking point that COVID-19 was akin to the flu (In fact, it is deadlier. And unlike the flu, there is no vaccine).
“The majority of us that are conservatives and so forth have moved in that direction of saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to believe that this is like the flu,” Palmer said.
He added that residents should “keep as safe as you can” while still conceding “people are gonna die.”
Trump last held a rally in Macon in November 2018 to support Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign, drawing thousands of supporters. Palmer said he thought the president should “absolutely” visit again, and the area’s supporters would welcome him “like a rock star.”
Up north in Michigan, Dan O’Leary, the supervisor of Washington Township, had a similar view in a state that Democrats are trying to win back in the 2020 presidential election.
A Republican, O’Leary said he “wouldn’t have a problem at all” if Trump returned to see the Detroit-area’s 28,000 residents like he did during the 2018 midterms.
People should be able to make their own decisions about whether it was safe to attend a rally, though it’s also impossible to enforce social distancing in the kind of circumstances evident at a big political event, O’Leary said.
“At some point you have to look at the greater good,” O’Leary told Insider, noting he would welcome Biden as well. “How do you elect a president without people seeing them, without debates, without all the things we do? We have a nation to run. So I’m all for it.”
Looking back on Trump’s 2018 visit, O’Leary said he wouldn’t change procedures significantly because of the coronavirus if the president came calling again.
He would, however, distribute hand sanitizer.