TULSA — Some Trump supporters braved the COVID-19 pandemic to attend President Donald Trump’s first rally since the national shutdown in March, but fears of contracting the virus may have kept many others away.
Trump’s campaign claimed 1 million people had requested tickets days before his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but Tulsa’s Fire Department says the actual number in attendance at Saturday’s rally was closer to 6,200. (The campaign has insisted it did not include “phony ticket requests” in its estimate.)
This story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“Hopefully we don’t catch anything, but we’re still risking it right now,” said Devin Derrick, a Trump supporter from Yukon.
Some rally goers alleviated their fears by opting to stay outside and not venture into the BOK Center.
“I’m staying here,” said Linda Lohmeier, who drove in from Illinois, while seated in a lawn chair outside the center’s security gates. “Back in the day, I’d have been in the middle of that, but I’m wise now and know it’s better for me at 64 to sit here and listen.”
Lohmeier and her husband, Steve, said they would be willing to gather at an outdoor venue to hear Trump speak. Although an outside address from Trump was planned for an overflow crowd, it was cancelled by late afternoon.
Lohmeier also mentioned she would have preferred if Trump had waited longer to hold his first rally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s scary, especially at our age,” she said. “It should have been a different time.”
Trump supporter and Tulsa resident Tisha Hinojos also opted to stay outside but felt Oklahoma’s swift reopening plan made it the right place for Trump to resume his rallies.
“It has got to start sometime, and this is a really good place to start it,” Hinojos said. “It’s been slightly back on the rise, but we’ve been in level three where more things are open than a lot of other states.”
‘You can’t delay the rally’
Phase three of Oklahoma’s reopening plan began June 1 and allowed businesses to resume unrestricted staffing and accept walk-in customers.
Many rally attendees held fears of COVID-19, but they also felt the campaign was running out of time and couldn’t delay any longer.
“You can’t delay the rally because November is coming real fast,” said Greg Williams, a rally attendee from Dallas.
Williams feared asymptomatic individuals might attend the rally without realizing they carry the virus, but he opted to brave the crowds and hear Trump speak in order to determine his vote by Election Day.
“It’s scary, but there’s definitely nothing anybody can do,” Williams said. “It’s time to roll. If it was January, it might be a different story, but we’re in June.”
Others believe the pandemic posed no threat at all.
“I think, yes, there is a coronavirus, but they’re lying and everything, just so people will stay indoors,” said Trump supporter and Oklahoman Michelle DeRousha. “You don’t isolate healthy people.”
Masks were more common among counter protesters.
Small protesting groups spent most of the day hovering at the intersection of 4th Street and South Boulder Avenue, then gathered into a larger crowd in the evening to march downtown.
“I’m concerned about the health of Tulsa,” said one Tulsan opposed to the rally. “From what we do know about the virus, this exact type of event is an incubator for the virus.”
Another Tulsan worried about the pandemic, Mitch Prewett, said he was particularly concerned about the rally causing a spread of the virus beyond Oklahoma.
“It’s not just contained to the people that are here,” Prewett said. “People are from all over the country that are here, and they’re going to go back to wherever they are from and spread whatever germs and diseases they take with them.”
Prewett believes masks should be viewed similarly to helmets or seat belts, but Trump and Vice President Mike Pence not wearing masks have turned them into a political symbol.
“If those guys wore masks, all these people would wear masks, too,” Prewett said, referring to the crowd of Trump supporters.
From inside the BOK Center, television cameras showed U.S. Sen. James Lankford and his wife wearing masks, but other politicians like Gov. Kevin Stitt and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe did not wear face coverings.
Beyond the possibility of asymptomatic rally goers carrying the virus, Trump’s campaign revealed Saturday that six campaign staff members tested positive prior to the event and were not permitted to attend.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health updated the state’s COVID-19 numbers this morning, revealing 218 new cases. That represents a jump of 2,356 confirmed cases in the past week. Hospitalizations remained at 197 as of June 19.