OKLAHOMA CITY — The state’s top health official this week said it wasn’t his place to comment on whether it’s a good idea to hold a massive campaign rally in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
But Lance Frye, interim commissioner of the state Department of Health, urged the tens of thousands of people planning to attend President Donald Trump’s campaign rally Saturday in Tulsa to follow federal health guidelines and to stay away if they’re particularly susceptible to complications from COVID-19.
“Individuals looking to attend Saturday’s event, or any other large-scale gathering, will face an increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and becoming a transmitter of this novel virus,” he said.
State health officials are urging everyone to get tested for COVID-19 before attending the event at the BOK Center and to get tested again in the days following. Attendees should also minimize social interactions after the rally.
They’re also urging attendees to wear a cloth face covering, use hand sanitizer, avoid touching their faces and try to stay six feel away from others whenever possible.
But with as many as 100,000 people expected to converge on the area Saturday — and another 20,000 more packing the arena to capacity — some observers say social distancing measures may be nearly impossible.
The Trump campaign has said more than a million people requested tickets to the indoor event.
The state, meanwhile, has seen a sharp uptick in its case numbers in the days ahead of the rally.
“Public health officials including Tulsa’s own Health Department director are warning that this event could have dire consequences for Oklahomans and has the potential to overwhelm hospital capacity,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “If we are going to be proactive, we need additional federal funding to ensure that we can recover from any fallout due to a population equal to one-fourth of our state gathering together during a pandemic.”
Virgin said cases are climbing in record numbers, and Oklahomans can’t ignore the data and expect the disease to vanish.
Trump said during a television interview Wednesday that he’s not concerned about his rally causing a COVID-19 outbreak.
“If you look, the numbers are very minuscule compared to what is was. It’s dying out,” he said.
Trump’s campaign will require rally participants to undergo temperature screenings when they enter the arena. They’ll also hand out face masks and hand sanitizer.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said an initial plan earlier this week to try to move the rally to an outdoor location in Tulsa did not work out, so the rally will remain indoors.
He said campaign officials are also looking at opening an overflow site at the nearby convention center that could hold an additional 6,000 to 8,000 people.
He said he’ll be getting tested for coronavirus prior to the rally and plans to introduce the president.
“As far as wearing a mask, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to wear a mask,” he said Wednesday.
Stitt said he won’t be wearing a mask when he introduces Trump, but hasn’t decided if he’ll don one while in his seat.
Frye said health officials always expected the number of COVID-19 cases to increase as the state reopened businesses and more people began to move around.
The state is currently conducting about 6,000 COVID-19 tests a day and has agreements with out-of-state labs, so Frye said he’s not concerned about the capacity to test attendees.
Still, Frye said he will not be attending Saturday’s rally. He is instead planning to work elsewhere.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.