(AFP) – Hundreds of supporters lined up early Saturday for Donald Trump’s first political rally in months, saying the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a big, packed arena would not keep them from hearing the president’s campaign message.
The street outside the fenced-off area around the BOK Arena was full of Trump supporters, many in red “Make America Great Again” hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks and there was little sign of social distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.
The president has minimized the risk that the evening rally — with thousands of shouting, cheering, chanting attendees — might trigger a coronavirus outbreak, hoping instead that the controversial event will reignite his misfiring campaign.
The stakes could not be higher — both for the health of the 19,000 people spending hours at the Tulsa arena and Trump’s political fortunes five months before an election in which he trails in the polls.
“Today we’re here to show we support President Trump and that we, the people, we’ll win the 2020 election, no matter what the fake news media and other liberal, leftist, mind-controlling big firms are saying,” said Brad, a husky white man who declined to provide his last name.
A quick survey of license plates in the area showed that most attendees appeared to be from Oklahoma, but many will be returning to homes in nearby states, after possibly being exposed to the virus.
The rally has been controversial not just because of the virus risk but because it originally was scheduled for Friday — the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US — in a city known for one of the worst massacres of blacks in American history.
The crowd outside the arena Saturday was overwhelmingly white.
This will be the first of Trump’s signature rallies since March 2, when the country went into lockdown to try to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
The pandemic has since killed nearly 120,000 Americans and caused huge disruption to a once-booming economy, which had been Trump’s strongest re-election selling point.
For Trump and his supporters — who he hopes will turn out in big numbers to vote in key battleground states — Tulsa is now the place to show their strength.
“This is a super important moment for all of us,” said Stephen Corley, 19, who had been camping outside the arena since Tuesday to be sure he would get in.
“We all have a common purpose and a common goal here,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Oklahoma is so overwhelmingly Republican that Trump’s job isn’t so much to win over the locals as to revive a campaign rocked over his handling of the pandemic and weeks of racial tensions.
Some of the flak, of course, comes from presidential challenger Joe Biden and other Democrats, but painful blows have also come from a handful of fellow Republicans.
The latest and most stinging critique came this week from former national security advisor John Bolton, ahead of the release of his book “The Room Where it Happened,” in which the ex-aide describes Trump as ignorant and corrupt.
A judge on Saturday blocked the administration’s attempt to prevent publication.
With polls showing him trailing Biden, Trump is eager to change the narrative, and rallies have long been his favorite political tool.
But while Trump rolls the political dice, the crowd, and what could be tens of thousands of Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters outside, will be gambling with the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
On Friday, the state’s Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit seeking to halt the rally over health concerns.
“We are confident that we can operate safely in Tulsa,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
Rally organizers will provide everyone with hand sanitizer, a temperature check and an optional mask, she noted.
Attendees must sign a waiver, protecting the organizers from any liability in the event that COVID-19 spreads at the venue.
Trump himself has been adamant about not being seen in a mask and for weeks has insisted that the virus is disappearing, allowing the economy to open back up.
Jody, a Trump supporter who declined to give her last name, lined up early with her five-year-old son Aaron, dressed to look like a mini-Trump.
She said she’d be wearing a mask.
“We know six people that have been sick from COVID-19, so absolutely,” she said.
“But you can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do.”