Finger-pointing for Saturday’s lower-than-expected attendance at President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign rally in Tulsa has been aimed at everything from COVID-19 fears stoked by the media and overreaction by local law enforcement to a grand conspiracy by teenagers to grab up tickets with no intention of attending.
But management at the event venue on Monday flat-out denied social media rumors circulating that suggested their employees had kept people out by abandoning checkpoints where attendees had their temperatures taken about an hour before the 7 p.m. rally.
“To be clear, the BOK Center’s responsibilities for Saturday’s event began at the facility doors,” read the written statement. “Attendees were screened blocks away under the watchful guidance of secret service and other law enforcement agencies. We cannot address what transpired at those checkpoints, but we can state that every attendee who passed through those security processes, were able to easily access the building in plenty of time for the start of the rally, if they so chose to enter.
“The building also had no control over the events taking place outside of the venue. That event and all of its logistics was handled by the event organizer. If attendees were delayed in any way, it was solely at the direction of the event organizer who had control over the outside perimeter.”
Asked whether BOK Center management ever halted admission over the lack of social distancing or concerns about capacity, Meghan Blood, director of marketing for ASM Global, the venue management and services company, responded: “No one was barred from entering in the last hour before the rally began due to any reason, including capacity. If attendees were delayed in any way, it was solely at the discretion of the event organizer.”
The Tulsa World estimates that about 10,000 people were inside the BOK Center for the rally by President Trump’s campaign. At full capacity, the arena can accommodate about 19,000.
Andrew Little, public information officer at the Tulsa Fire Department, has told the international media that 6,200 people attended the rally. On Monday, he told the Tulsa World he had been receiving a lot of questions about the origin of that information.
“The number is from scanned tickets. That is information that is given directly from the BOK Center to the fire marshal, who was there to ensure safety. Scanned tickets did not include media, suite holders or staff from the rally or the BOK Center,” Little said.
He added: “We are not in the political business. It is not our job to say whether it is a low number or a high number. The only thing that matters to us is if everyone is safe.”
Expectations had been much higher because Brad Parscale, the chairman of Trump’s 2020 campaign, said earlier last week that there had been more than 1 million tickets requested for the event.
Parscale over the weekend blamed the media for warning people away from the rally because of COVID-19 risks and expected protesters. And he reportedly told The New York Times “that local law enforcement in Tulsa had overreacted, making it difficult for supporters to gain entry” and even claimed to have thousands of emails from supporters who tried to get into the BOK Center and were turned away.
Two Tulsa World photojournalists documented only one instance in which TPD closed an entry gate to the secure perimeter that had been established for several blocks in every direction around the arena.
Time stamps on their photographs show that a gate on Fourth Street near Cheyenne Avenue was closed from 3:11 p.m. through 4:06 p.m. because anti-Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters had converged there.
“I don’t think they were trying to get in so much as they were trying to bar others from getting in,” Tulsa World Photo Editor John Clanton said of the protesters. “TPD and (state) troopers in riot gear and face shields came in and formed a line. Someone from TPD was announcing we all had to get back half a block.
“It was slightly less than an hour when people (attending the rally) started trickling back in, but this is not a massive amount of people — maybe 30 to 50 people. It’s not like there was a bunch of Trump people trying to get in right then. Most of the people who wanted to be in the BOK Center were already inside because the gates opened at 10 (a.m.). At that point, protesters were definitely outnumbering Trump fans.”
On Monday evening, Tulsa police confirmed there was only that one instance in which they had to close an entry gate.
“During the day there was a brief period of time, approximately 30 minutes, where the overwhelming quantity of demonstrators prohibited individuals from entering one of the three points of entry,” said Tulsa Police Capt. Richard Meulenberg. “During this time, officers closed and secured the gates until additional officers could arrive. When the additional officers were in place, the gates were reopened, and attendees were safely brought into the event.
“This singular and brief incident was the only time ‘local law enforcement in Tulsa’ closed a gate, thereby restricting anyone from entering the event.”
Gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump’s rally in Tulsa
Mayor G.T. Bynum said Monday that he told BOK Center officials a week before President Donald Trump’s rally that he would back their decision should they decide not to host the event.
“I had a lengthy conversation that weekend with both Doug Thornton and Casey Sparks and told them, ‘If you don’t feel safe, you are the experts we trust to operate this facility. You are one of the top event management companies in the world, one of the largest. If you don’t feel that this can be conducted safely, then you should not do it, and I will have your back.’
“Those were my exact words in my conversation with them.”
Thornton is executive vice president for Arena, Stadium and Theaters at ASM Global, which manages the BOK Center. Sparks is general manager of the BOK Center.
Thornton on Monday night confirmed the mayor’s recollection of the conversation and provided some context.
“I said to him I am confident we can operate the building safely; I am confident we can make it safe for our staff,” Thornton said. “... What I was not really comfortable with was giving a capacity percentage. I said I don’t know, what would the accurate number be? Twenty, 30, 50 percent? I am not qualified to make that kind of judgment.”
Thornton said that since state guidelines allowed for a full capacity event, and local officials had not offered a suggestion on what the appropriate crowd size should be, he asked the Trump campaign for what public health guidelines they planned to implement.
The campaign never provided a plan, Thornton said, so the BOK Center took steps to put social distancing information throughout the arena.
“Our view was there was nothing to restrict them from the full capacity unless otherwise directed from a local official,” Thornton said. “That was my take on it.”
Thornton said the event happened under unprecedented conditions and he praised city officials for their work to make it happen. He added that he looks forward to working with the mayor and other city officials to bring clarity to policies.
“I’m all for it, so we can avoid this situation in the future,” he said.
Bynum reiterated his contention that there was nothing he could do to stop the event from being held at the BOK Center and that politics played no role in his decision-making process.
Bynum, a Republican, said he has always been guided by one principle — to do what is best for the residents of Tulsa.
“I have not done anything in my time in this job to try to move onto something else,” he said. “I have only done the work in this job as best I see fit to best serve the citizens of Tulsa.
“There are a lot of things that we have worked on in my time as mayor, which, if I was trying to climb the political ladder, it would be pretty ridiculous to be trying to do if you are trying to move ahead in Republican politics in Oklahoma.”
Bynum drew heavy criticism on social media after announcing last week that he would not attempt to block Trump’s Saturday rally by invoking a civil emergency. The event was held amid a rise in new COVID-19 cases in the state.
But the mayor said city officials handled the event the same way they would have had it been a Hillary Clinton rally or any other large political event.
“Our job at the city is not to get involved in presidential politics and picking sides,” he said. “Our job is to safely facilitate the room for people to express their views.”
Bynum said he did not speak with Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart until the weekend of June 13-14, after ASM Global had entered into an agreement with the Trump campaign to hold the rally. By that time, Dart had come out in favor of postponing the event.
“The discussion at that point was whether we should depart from the state’s reopening plan and enact a ban on public events of a certain size in Tulsa,” Bynum said.
By the end of the weekend, after additional conversations with officials from ASM Global, the Governor’s Office and local hospitals, Bynum decided against imposing any kind of ban.
“The challenge for us was that we have been using hospitalization counts as our metric and the state has been since the beginning of reopening, since May 1,” Bynum said. “... So while Bruce, I think, has very fair concerns about our increasing positive case count, we’re not seeing an endangerment of our hospital capacity.
“So I ultimately felt that changing the metric that we’re using as our red flag and applying it to one event would not stand up to legal muster, so decided not to invoke any sort of citywide ban.”
Prior to the Trump rally, Bynum had been praised widely for his response to the COVID-19 outbreak. He quickly enacted a series of social distancing and shelter-in-place measures to stop the spread of the disease. In doing so, he said repeatedly that he would rely on the advice of Dart and other local health officials.
But the Trump rally was something different, occurring at a different time, Bynum said.
“I said that consistently throughout the early going when we received zero guidance from the state as to what we ought to be doing, so naturally we would follow the guidance of the Tulsa Health Department, but for the last month and a half, the Tulsa Health Department has not been calling the shots on the reopening, the state Department of Health has been doing that,” Bynum said. “And the state Department of Health’s metrics that they are using to guide that reopening is the hospitalization rate and overall hospital capacity.”
Bynum also noted that Dart never told him the city should implement a citywide ban on public events.
“He said that he wished it would be delayed,” Bynum said. “Well, delaying it is not in my power. The only option at my disposal was a citywide ban on public events.”
Bynum also noted that not much has been made of the fact that on the same weekend as the Trump rally, Expo Square held several events at the fairgrounds, including a gun show, a home and garden show and simulcast horse racing.
“I am pretty sure the Trump rally at the BOK Center this weekend was not even the largest attended indoor facility in the city of Tulsa this weekend,” Bynum said.
County Commissioner Karen Keith said it was disingenuous for the mayor to compare the Trump rally to the activities at the fairgrounds.
“The totality of our numbers will be close to the rally numbers, but nowhere close to the added numbers at the rally that included all of law enforcement and campaign staff,” she said. “In addition, our events were spread out among multiple venues and days with one completely outdoors.”
Featured gallery: Scenes from the Greenwood District block party Saturday
Tulsa County on Monday didn’t set a record in new daily positive cases of COVID-19 for the first time in six days.
The state reported 48 new positive cases in Tulsa County, down from Sunday’s record of 143 — which had been the fifth consecutive day for highs in single-day new positives. There have been 2,397 cases in the county, of which 876 are active.
Tulsa County’s novel coronavirus cases began to climb at the beginning of the month. The county’s seven-day rolling average of new daily positive cases is almost eight times higher now than on May 31, up to 106 from 14. On Sunday, the seven-day average was at a record 112 cases.
The county’s seven-day average peak in April was 27, bottoming out to a low of 10 on multiple occasions.
Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, said he was surprised at the then-daily record of 89 cases reported June 15, given numbers released on Sundays and Mondays usually are lower because of reporting lags.
So the latest daily record of 143 new cases Sunday was a surprise, too. The steep drop Monday to 48 has Dart intrigued to see if Tuesday’s reported data might begin trending in a better direction.
He said the next 10 to 14 days will help reveal what public health ramifications are felt from President Donald Trump’s campaign rally this past weekend in Tulsa.
“We didn’t have near the numbers that had been advertised, but I still saw a lot of people gathering close together and not wearing masks,” Dart said. “I have no idea if they were able to wash their hands or had hand sanitizer.
“I saw instances of behavior that could increase the risk of disease transition. That’s why we’re paying close attention, and we’ll see what’s coming in the next 10 to 14 days.”
The death toll across the state was 369 as of Monday.
Another 218 cases statewide were reported Monday. Oklahoma on Sunday set a single-day high for new positives at 478, topping the 450 on Thursday.
There were 2,127 active cases in Oklahoma as of a state report Friday.
The state’s positive tests began taking off nearly two weeks ago, with a seven-day moving average of 103 new cases on June 10 that now has more than tripled to 331.
For perspective, the state’s seven-day rolling average peak in April was 130 new cases per day, before bottoming out at 81 per day on May 10.
The state’s surge isn’t attributable to more testing.
There were 31,302 positive and negative tests the week of June 14, and 29,003 the week of June 7.
Both are lower than the 44,219 and 33,354 done the weeks of May 31 and May 24, respectively.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Sunday again renewed its recommendation for residents who chose to attend large-scale gatherings in recent weeks to be tested, even without symptoms.
The Tulsa Health Department encourages being tested for COVID-19 about seven days after attending a large gathering.
Dart said Tulsa County’s five-consecutive days of records for new daily positives that ended Monday is an indicator that people are bending the curve in the wrong direction.
“It tells me that all of our citizens here in Tulsa who are going out in public — we all need to remember that the virus is still here — we need to do a better job following the CDC guidelines around physical distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing,” Dart said.
Featured gallery: Look for the helpers
Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis and University of Oklahoma President Joe Harroz Jr. were the guests on the latest Tulsa World Let’s Talk virtual town hall.
The Tulsa World Let’s Talk town hall series is moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of the editorial pages, and sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Look for the helpers: See what these Tulsans are doing to ease the stress of the coronavirus pandemic