The street protests that spread around the globe following George Floyd’s death while detained by Minneapolis police in late May haven’t sparked the surge in coronavirus infections that public health officials first feared. Now, they have something new to fret about on the eve of President Donald Trump’s indoor political rally to kick off his re-election bid.
The event, scheduled for Saturday in Tulsa’s BOK Center, marks the first large indoor public event since the country all but shut down in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In that sense, it’s a test case in using huge indoor arenas to host big public gatherings for sports matches and concerts. Making matters dicier, it’s in the middle of a city and state where cases have skyrocketed since the beginning of June.
“If you don’t get a superspreader event coming out of that it would be surprising,” says Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “You've got so many people right on top of each other indoors, people screaming.”
The president’s team is shrugging off such warnings as it focuses its efforts on hosting a record-setting crowd and creating a party-like atmosphere, with music and entertainment. The BOK Center in downtown Tulsa can seat up to 19,000 people, and Trump has signaled he means to fill every seat, despite pleas from city health officials to take his rally somewhere else.
“We expect to have, it’s like a record-setting crowd,” Trump said on Monday. “We’ve never had an empty seat, and we certainly won’t in Oklahoma.”
Trump himself will be at lower risk of infection. In previous rallies, he typically avoids working the crowd directly, instead taking the stage, speaking and leaving. Barring a change from past practice, he’ll remain a safe distance from his supporters.
The outlook for attendees is far more troublesome. They’ll need to agree to waivers absolving the Trump campaign from liability and have their temperatures taken upon entering the arena. Masks will be provided but not required.
“The idea that you would do a temperature check on the way in, that would have no value. Zero value,” says Topol. “And optional masks -- even if everyone did wear a mask, there’s potential for spread in that environment. It’s the worst case scenario. It’s a disaster in the making.”
The risks from sitting close together, inside, while communicating loudly are well documented by now. At a church in Skagit County, Washington, 61 members attended an hours-long choir practice in March. During that practice, it was later determined, 52 contracted Covid-19 from a single sick choir member.
Even with screening, it is a near statistical certainy that someone — and possibly many people — will enter the arena infected, says Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. Weitz has created a Covid-19 event risk calculator which puts the chance that one or more infected people will be there at greater than 99%. “The expectation is dozens,” he says.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, agrees. “You could have dozens of people who are asmyptomatic carriers and don't know they have Covid-19,' she says. “That makes it almost certain that people are going to be infected as a result of this rally.”
The big difference between the Trump rally and the Black Lives Matter protests from a public health perspective is the entirely enclosed nature of the arena, where “respiratory droplets are going to ping around,” Wen says. The exposure may be particularly risky for some participants, since political rallies held by Trump tend to skew toward older people, who are more vulnerable, compared with the street protestors, typically made up of younger generations.
With its characteristic shouting and chanting of slogans, the rally “is on the higher end of risk because there are so many people, it is indoors and the nature of what is going on there — it is not people sitting quietly,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician. “Transmission is much more likely to occur in places that are indoors,” where, he says, it is harder to socially distance, ventilation is poorer, and there is no UV light to help kill the virus.
What’s more, though those attending the Tulsa rally will receive masks and sanitzer at the front door, there is no requirement to use them. While the President’s Coronavirus Task Force recommends routine wearing of masks while in public, particularly in areas where people can’t safely maintain six feet of distance from other people, the president has eschewed the policy and has taunted his rival Joe Biden for doing so. And many of his supporters have followed Trump’s lead.
The BOK Center asked the Trump campaign to provide a written plan detailing the steps it plans to take to ensure the health and safety of the attendees, including social distancing. It will encourage everyone to wear masks throughout the event, and plans to repeatedly clean and disinfect the venue throughout the event.
For both protests and rallies, it’s near impossible to track and trace everyone who was in contact with a person who is subsequently found to be infected. That also worries health officials who know how quickly the virus can spread around a community or region once it gains momentum.
Trump has talked about holding other rallies in Florida, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina, though none of them have been formally scheduled yet. Meantime, researchers are nearly unanimous in voicing how dangerous they view Saturday’s planned Tulsa rally.
“Big events like this are the last thing that should come back in the middle of this pandemic,” said Wen. “It is extremely dangerous.”
Says Ada Adimora, an epidemiologist and professor of medicine in infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill: “Which part of that isn’t obvious? What can be done to avoid it? Don’t do it.”
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