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Watch Now: Tulsa mayor 'not positive' the community will be safe from COVID-19 at Trump rally, calls for people to take personal responsibility

Correction: Mayor G.T. Bynum said President Trump's visit to Tulsa will be the first by a sitting president since George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton visited Tulsa in August 1993. The mayor's reference has been omitted from this story.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum called President Donald Trump’s decision to visit the city for a rally on Saturday a “tremendous honor,” even as he acknowledged Wednesday that he was “not positive” everything would be safe for the community amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But even though Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart called for a postponement of the event and said vulnerable populations should stay home, Bynum said during a news conference Wednesday that “we have a responsibility to protect each other through this, through responsible behavior in our daily lives, not pointing the finger at protests over a couple of weeks or pointing the finger at a rally that’s going to occur” on Saturday.

The mayor said residents shouldn’t be surprised at the recent uptick in positive COVID-19 tests, noting that he personally has seen what he called a “relaxation” in vigilance on safety measures, such as wearing face coverings in public.

Bynum decried what he deemed the politicization of the act of wearing a mask, saying it should be viewed as a public health measure to protect others.

Despite this, he said the responsibility for safety at this weekend’s events is “on every individual” in the same way it is when people are returning to their normal lives following months of restrictions on their movements.

Dart said the ongoing rise in positive tests — currently at 116% higher than the previous week — is precisely why he recommended that Trump’s indoor rally be postponed.

He said staff members at the Tulsa Health Department are overwhelmed with efforts to conduct contact tracing in response to each positive COVID-19 test in the county, which could worsen if cases continue to increase at a high rate.

“The question will be this weekend when everybody that shows up at this event is given a mask and is given a temperature check and has access to hand sanitizer: Will they be safe about it or not?” Bynum said.

Management for the BOK Center, where the Trump rally is to be held, has said those items will be made available for attendees, but the campaign is not mandating the use of masks in the arena.

Dart said he believes those with compromised immune systems and older people should stay home and participate virtually.

“I know so many people are over COVID, but COVID is not over,” Dart said. “COVID is here. It’s transmitting very efficiently in our community. Please stay the course. Follow recommendations. If you’re in public, wear a mask. Social distance. Pay attention to hand washing and hygiene, and keep yourself safe and healthy.”

The BOK Center has a capacity of 19,199 people, though the Trump campaign has said it’s received hundreds of thousands of RSVPs. Those who do so must agree not to hold the campaign or organizers liable if they become ill, as the campaign acknowledged that “an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”

Asked about the rate of potential infections after the rally, Dart said it was “absolutely” possible it could become a “super-spreader” event. He said the concern stems from large numbers of people congregating and then traveling, which for some will be across the country.

Asked why he did not follow Dart’s advice on postponing the rally, Bynum said that call is up to the operator of the BOK Center, which agreed to a contract with the campaign and has “sole discretion” on bookings. He said the operator assured him it provided the state’s safety and hygiene requirements to the Trump campaign.

Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith said, though, that “I think that we should have done any and everything that we could to move this to some other time, because, as you all heard, the numbers are spiking.”

She added that hospitalizations are currently low but said, “I promise you that we are going to see issues in this community” once test results become available within the next two weeks, which is the general timeframe of when someone can become ill with the virus after exposure.

Dart commented: “Trust me, I really get quarantine fatigue. People’s lives were disrupted, and it was so unexpectedly in ways that we never fathomed pre-COVID.

“And so I do understand that at some point you throw your hands up and you just want to live your life and not pay attention to the reality around you.

“But this is the reality around us is that we have a virus that we have little to no immunity in the community. We have no vaccine. We have no clinical therapies. The only precautions (available) are the recommendations we make about mask wearing and distancing and hygiene.”

Bynum and Dart, along with Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin, said they support people’s constitutional right to attend Trump’s rally, Juneteenth commemorations or any protest in response to Trump’s visit. However, Franklin asserted that “we’re going to maintain order” in the city and pointed out that high temperatures forecast for this weekend also will pose a health risk to many people.

Bynum did not directly address Trump’s earlier plan to host his rally on Juneteenth or related criticism of racial insensitivity by the White House, though he said he was glad more people seem to recognize the day’s importance.

Gov. Kevin Stitt had invited Trump to tour Tulsa’s Greenwood District, home of Black Wall Street and the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, but Stitt said Wednesday that he is now recommending that Trump not visit Greenwood.

Black community leaders expressed concern at the prospect of the president’s presence on such a significant day in Black history. Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said bluntly that Trump’s rhetoric on race “doesn’t have a place in the Greenwood District,” which he said is a place famed for “Black Excellence.”

Keith on Wednesday suggested that she could take Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on a tour of the county’s aging levee system, which is due for updates after last year’s flooding, as an alternative.

Bynum said he would be at Tulsa International Airport to welcome Trump to the city but had no plans to attend the rally, instead opting to spend time with police officers while they work on Saturday. Bynum has said he does not attend “partisan” political events but believes he has a duty to be there when Trump arrives.

“I thought one of the most embarrassing moments for me as an Oklahoman was when President Obama came to our state and the highest ranking state official that showed up to greet him was the mayor of Oklahoma City,” he said. “No one else in the state government showed up to greet the president of the United States.”

“I may be old fashioned, but I think when the president of the United States comes to your town, regardless of your politics, the mayor shows up to greet them,” Bynum said.

As COVID-19 surges in Oklahoma, Tulsa Health Department workers are 'starting to wear down'

As Oklahoma hits a stride in ever increasing COVID-19 infections, health officials and political leaders remarked on the continued need for prevention.

Oklahoma has hit another high in new COVID-19 cases, with 259 more confirmed infections, the state reported Wednesday. Likewise, Tulsa County also hit a new high. County health officials reported 96 new confirmed cases.

Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said at a press conference Wednesday that the department’s staff is overwhelmed and has been working seven days per week since mid-February.

“They care so deeply about this community and people who live here, and they want to protect everyone,” Dart said. “Not only are they emotionally and physically starting to wear down; I think their hearts are hurting, as well.”

Across the state, 8,904 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed since March. The death of one person, an Oklahoma County woman who was older than 65, was reported Wednesday, bringing the statewide death toll to 364, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

“I really get quarantine fatigue,” Dart said. “People’s lives were really disrupted and in ways we never fathomed pre-COVID, so I do understand that at some point you throw your hands up and you just want to live your life and not pay attention to the reality around you, but this is the reality around us.”

Dart has several times recommended the postponement of President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa. He said an event such as it is a potential “super spreader event.”

Elected officials have remained resolute, despite public health officials’ concerns, in allowing large-scale gatherings this weekend in Tulsa.

Mayor G.T. Bynum made direct statements to the Tulsa metro populace in response to criticisms of his actions and inactions regarding large-scale gatherings slated for Friday and Saturday.

“I think it would be a real tragedy if we ended up focusing on an event with 20,000 people that will happen for four hours over the weekend and not talk about what a million people are doing every single day in this community,” Bynum said at the press conference.

To be more precise, not doing. Many Oklahomans have foregone wearing masks. A coffee shop east of downtown Tulsa, visited by a Tulsa World reporter daily, often had seating filled to capacity. Only employees wore masks. Bynum estimated that only 10% to 20% of grocery shoppers wear masks.

One could assume that if Tulsans are forgoing masks, then they may not be washing their hands sufficiently.

“It’s important to note that, through the first two phases of (reopening), we continued to see a decline in cases in Tulsa, and what that tells me is that even when we didn’t have government mandates in place (for) what people could do, Tulsans were still concerned in that first month alone and still vigilant enough that they were doing the right things,” Bynum said.

But he expressed doubts that social gatherings this weekend were going to be safe.

Despite Bynum’s criticisms of his constituents and neighboring communities, many have implored him and the Trump campaign to reconsider.

In an online letter sent to Bynum on Monday, 500 health care professionals in Tulsa and other parts of Oklahoma asked him to issue a moratorium for large-scale indoor events. Bynum said he did not receive the letter, indicating that he hadn’t read it.

Greenwood District stakeholders also filed a lawsuit, which was escalated to the state Supreme Court, seeking an injunction to enforce strict guidelines during the rally.

State Department of Health Commissioner Lance Frye, a medical doctor, said in a prepared statement that those attending large gatherings in the city “will face an increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and becoming a transmitter of this novel virus.”

Frye encouraged all those who may attend gatherings, referencing specifically President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa on Saturday, to be tested after the event. He did not address in the statement any of the anticipated demonstrations slated for Saturday.

The state’s seven-day rolling average of new confirmed cases hit a high Wednesday of 203; Tulsa County’s seven-day rolling average reached a high of 74. Rolling averages are used so no single data point or day skews the data.

Of the 181 people currently hospitalized for possible COVID-19 in the state, the illness has been confirmed in 114 of them, and 67 are under investigation.

Reducing the strain on hospitals and saving lives remain the goals. Prevention methods include social distancing, home isolation, face coverings and enhanced hygiene.

Public health officials started recommending in early April that people wear cloth face coverings to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The recommendation is not to prevent the wearer from contracting the virus but to help prevent the wearer from unknowingly spreading it.

COVID-19 has an incubation period of two days to two weeks, during which time a person may be contagious but not have symptoms.

Social distancing means staying out of group and mass gatherings and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others.

See all of the Tulsa World's coverage related to the coronavirus outbreak​ at tulsaworld.com

Featured gallery: Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in in Tulsa in 1921

Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921

With 'eyes of the world' on Tulsa, police chief discusses plans to keep everyone safe

Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin says he’s not sure how many people will be in downtown Tulsa on Saturday, but he’s heard estimates of 100,000.

He knows this: There will be a lot, and there will be significant security measures in place to try to protect them all.

“I’m the chief of police for the Tulsa Police Department, and I protect every citizen,” Franklin said when asked during a Wednesday news conference about people who may be coming to Tulsa to protest President Donald Trump’s visit. “I don’t care what color you look like, I don’t care your political affiliation, sexual preference. I don’t care. We’re going to protect all of the people that come to our city and do that in a professional way.”

The Tulsa Police Department will have help from various agencies. Those include the Secret Service, FBI, Oklahoma Highway Patrol, potentially 250 National Guard troops, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies in the area.

Franklin said he didn’t have a total number of law enforcement officers that will be present but said the city will “ramp up” security for the president’s rally, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa.

“Our goal is to keep people safe. That’s what we do. That’s the ultimate goal,” Franklin said during the media gathering at police headquarters in downtown Tulsa. “And that is to ensure the president and the dignitaries visiting our city arrive safely, make it to their event safely and make it back to their destination back home safely. That is what we do.

“In the middle of that, we also want to allow people to peacefully protest — for people to have their expressions heard. We are going to ensure that those individuals have those rights. That’s our constitutional right to do so. We want to make sure that is done in a peaceful manner.”

Franklin said security will involve road closures downtown, including around the BOK Center. He said details will be released later in the week, but he warned that people who plan to drive downtown should expect delays. Some streets will be closed intermittently and others might be closed for the day, he said.

Franklin said people who plan to attend the rally should expect a walk of several blocks from parking to the arena. He also urged people to plan for heat.

“We’re going to maintain order throughout this, and we’re also going to provide health and life-saving measures that could occur,” Franklin said. “Because let’s keep in mind, that it’s going to be 90 degrees Saturday, and you’re on concrete and lots of buildings around. So the surface temperatures will be increased. So people need to hydrate and be prepared for hours and hours inside of a concrete jungle, if you will.”

Franklin said the National Guard would be used as a “force multiplier to help assist us in ramping up our numbers and securing a safety area for our city and our citizens.”

Guard troops were present at recent protests in Tulsa and their role will remain the same, said Oklahoma National Guard Lt. Col. Geoff Legler.

“We’re going to have a force there to back up the local law enforcement,” he said.

An estimated 250 Guard soldiers will be assembled at a Tulsa facility and ready to assist as needed and will be “deployed to an appropriate level” if they are needed, Legler said. Should local law enforcement deem it necessary to request assistance, then they will have to make the request to Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which will in turn make the request to the Guard.

The majority of the deployed soldiers live and work in the Tulsa metro area, Legler said.

“These folks are there to come to the aid of their friends and neighbors and not to quash non-violent protest,” Legler said. “The National Guard fully supports nonviolent protests.”

Legler stressed Wednesday that the Guard does not use or possess tear gas, referencing confrontations between police, the Guard and protesters in south Tulsa about two weeks ago.

Franklin said he knows the “eyes of the world” are on Tulsa. He said planning for security will continue through Friday and possibly into Saturday just before the event starts.

“Let’s have a safe and hopefully uneventful weekend,” he said.

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Gov. Stitt says he, Sen. Lankford now recommending Trump not visit Greenwood District

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt said Wednesday he is now recommending that President Donald Trump not visit the Greenwood District in Tulsa on Saturday.

Stitt’s remarks reversing course from earlier this week were made following a news conference concerning the state’s spending of $1.2 billion in federal dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to combat COVID-19.

Trump was initially invited by Stitt to tour the Greenwood District.

The potential Greenwood visit caused some concerns from members of the community and criticism in light of Trump’s rally Saturday at the BOK Center during the COVID-19 outbreak in which social distancing and masks have been recommended.

“Great decision,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, who is chairwoman of the Black Legislative Caucus. “It appeared to be more provocative than productive. Racial tensions are running high and we should be focusing on advancing all of Oklahoma.”

State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said from the very start he thought it was inappropriate for Trump to visit the Greenwood District based on his remarks during a white supremacy rally in Virginia in which Trump said there were very fine people on both sides.

“Greenwood was famed for black excellence,” he said.

Trump has falsely claimed the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not born in this country, Nichols said.

“The president’s rhetoric doesn’t have a place in the Greenwood District,” Nichols said.

Marq Lewis, local activist and founder of We the People Oklahoma, issued a statement Wednesday saying Stitt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum should do their best to keep Trump from visiting Greenwood.

“The people of that area, particularly and especially black people, have been traumatized enough. For that neighborhood, the Juneteenth weekend should be a time of love, celebration and healing — especially this year,” the statement said.

“The presence of President Trump will create the opposite environment. There are numerous ways that the president could see Tulsa and/or meet with the black community without dragging himself, the press, Secret Service, his staff and expansive entourage into our small, tight-knit community. It will be a terrible distraction, an exposure to danger and, frankly, unwelcome.”

Stitt said a possible Trump visit to the Greenwood District “is kind of in flux.”

“That is something that will ultimately be the president’s decision,” Stitt said. “Ultimately, the president doesn’t ask for permission before he comes different places.”

But Stitt said he and U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., have now recommended that Trump not visit Greenwood.

Stitt said it would be disruptive to Juneteenth activities.

Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved black people.

Trump was originally scheduled to hold his rally on Juneteenth but moved it back a day at the request of Stitt, the governor has said.

Stitt said he is no longer looking for an outside venue for the event instead of using the BOK Center.

“We decided to stay where we are at,” Stitt said. “That was one of the things on the table was to look for an outdoor venue. It didn’t work out in the city of Tulsa.”

The crowd is expected to be in the thousands for the rally, scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, with an overflow audience in the nearby Cox Business Convention Center.

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