Health boss threatened after trying to postpone Trump rally, emails show

Three days before Donald Trump’s first indoor campaign rally during the coronavirus pandemic – at an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June – the director of the Tulsa Health Department marvelled at the wave of abuse that was cresting in his direction.

“It’s been crazy since the announcement of the presidential rally,” Bruce Dart wrote to Lori Freeman, a colleague who led an association of local public health officials. “It’s amazing how people strike out against anyone who they assume is not supportive of the president instead of listening to our messaging around staying safe in this pandemic.”

“You’re doing a fabulous job,” Ms Freeman wrote back. “Be strong (as will I).”

With the coronavirus still spreading, Mr Trump has now restarted campaign rallies, bringing fresh controversy to new communities. This month, thousands of people, many without masks, crowded into an indoor manufacturing facility in Nevada to hear the president speak, defying a state directive to limit gatherings to 50 people. Nevada governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, called Mr Trump’s actions “shameful, dangerous, and irresponsible”. The director of the state’s coronavirus response predicted a spike in cases because of the campaign event.

Tulsa’s experience before and after the Trump rally show the difficulty that many communities face in balancing the desire to protect residents from the pandemic while catering to a president and Republican Party that have consistently cast doubt on and flouted health recommendations. Mr Dart, a medical doctor and public health expert who has spent his career working for local governments, was one of the few city officials who publicly warned of the danger of an indoor rally. Those warnings earned him angry emails from Mr Trump supporters about his health recommendations as well as those who thought he did not do enough to stop Mr Trump’s rally, according to emails obtained by the Post through a records request.

Mr Dart has since said the rally, as well as large protests that weekend, probably led to some coronavirus infections, but he has avoided going into detail. Some attendees have tested positive, including several campaign staff members and Secret Service agents, as well as Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, and former presidential candidate and pizza executive Herman Cain, though it is not known where they contracted the virus. Mr Cain later died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The rally was not just a health concern for Tulsa. The highly publicised event attracted about 10,000 attendees, according to an estimate by the Tulsa World, including many from surrounding states. There were also crowds of protesters in Tulsa at that time.

“Unfortunately, I think spread occurred elsewhere from being in Tulsa that weekend,” Mr Dart said in an interview.

After the Tulsa rally, which attracted a smaller crowd than the Trump campaign expected, the president stopped holding indoor rallies. His appearances have predominantly taken place virtually or at outdoor venues. But the event in a Las Vegas suburb raises the possibility that Mr Trump will revive the indoor rallies that were a mainstay of his 2016 campaign – again putting pressure on state and local officials.

Trump has defended his choice to hold indoor gatherings, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week: “I’m on a stage, and it’s very far away.”

In Tulsa, the criticism of Mr Dart and the health department did not end when Mr Trump flew home from his rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Centre. Mr Dart and his department have been buffeted by subsequent political battles over his department’s recommendation that face masks be required in public and that schools start virtually instead of in person.

“Wearing masks is harmful!” one resident wrote to Mr Dart on 14 July. “Why are you hell bent on forcing Tulsans to muzzle up?! We are not your serfs or guinea pigs!”

Mr Dart has received threatening calls and emails from residents who “have not been pleased with the recommendations made by the health department,” said Reggie Ivey, the department’s chief operating officer.

Mr Dart filed a police report about the threats, and the department reviewed security protocols, but no arrests were made, a health department spokesperson said.

“Unfortunately, during Covid, I think we’ve seen the best of human nature, and we’ve seen the worst of human nature,” Mr Dart said.

Distrust and anger toward local public health officials has sprung up in jurisdictions nationwide, including in many conservative areas. For a profession long seen as providing important if unglamorous work – restaurant inspections, immunisations – the scrutiny has added another layer of pressure on top of gruelling hours and staffs stretched thin by the pandemic.

“This is a brutal time for them,” said Ms Freeman, the chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “They’ve always been so trusted in their community. And now so much of their advice is not trusted or is ignored.”

Ms Freeman keeps a database of the more than 50 public health officials nationwide who have resigned, been fired, or faced threats and intimidation because of their work during the pandemic.

Protesters, including militia-style groups, have held rallies in opposition to stay-home orders and business closures. Early in the pandemic, the top public health official in Georgia was given an armed guard after threats were made against her. One health director in rural Colorado has had her car vandalised twice since the pandemic began, the Colorado Sun reported.

“I’ve never seen this rapid loss of experienced expertise, leadership, at a time that we need it most, in the thick of a worldwide pandemic,” Ms Freeman said. “It’s very demoralising.”

In the days ahead of Mr Trump’s 20 June rally, increasingly agitated emails poured into Mr Dart’s inbox from people who thought he should cancel Mr Trump’s event. If he did not, many said, he would have blood on his hands.

“Do you want this on your conscience the rest of your life,” one person wrote to Mr Dart the day before the rally. “Just for a job?” A doctor from Long Island, NY, wrote that Mr Dart had a “moral responsibility” to demand that the mayor cancel the event or he would be “complicit”.

“This is truly a matter of life and death for many people,” wrote one person who described herself as a Tulsa resident for more than 65 years. “The thought of our community being used as a guinea pig experiment is very disheartening.”

Not everyone was worried. One Tulsa County resident wrote to warn Mr Dart not to insert himself into politics: “Trump supporters pay your salary just as much, if not more, than Trump haters.”

At the time of the rally, Tulsa Mayor G T Bynum, a Republican, chose to let Mr Trump proceed though coronavirus cases had been spiking in the weeks leading up to the event and despite Mr Dart’s recommendation that it be postponed until a safer time. At a news conference before the event, Mr Bynum said that the venue manager had “sole discretion” on whether to hold the event and that “it’s not my decision to make”.

Mr Bynum did not respond to a request for comment.

In July, while discussing a measure to require future large gatherings to have a coronavirus safety plan approved by the health department, Mr Bynum suggested that he would not want a repeat of Mr Trump’s rally.

“Am trying to avoid a future situation in which, just to pull an example out of the air, the BOK Center books a rally for 19,000 people without a requirement for a safety plan being on the books as a local regulation,” Mr Bynum wrote to Mr Dart and other health department officials in July.

Mr Dart’s email correspondence also shows that ASM Global, the company that managed the BOK Centre arena, did have a plan to keep attendees a safe distance apart. In addition to having 400 hand sanitiser stations, 47,800 gloves and 34,960 disinfectant wipes, the plan submitted to the health department before the rally said the venue would “decommission every other fixed seat to limit seating capacity” in the arena’s inner bowl. On the day of the event, members of Mr Trump’s campaign removed thousands of “Do not sit here, please” stickers and the attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder.

“I support your efforts to recommend additional public safety requirements for events within the BOK Center facility,” Mr Dart wrote to the arena management after reviewing the safety plan. “From a public health perspective, I have shared my concerns about the inherent risks of all large gatherings at this time.”

In July, Mr Bynum, on Mr Dart’s recommendation, proposed an ordinance requiring adults to wear masks in public places. Mr Dart had expressed that such ordinances are a tough sell to the public and that Mr Trump was one reason.

“It’s going to be hard to require masks in Oklahoma as political as the issue is with the president and governor refusing to wear masks,” he wrote to Dale Bratzler, the chief coronavirus officer at the University of Oklahoma.

The city council ultimately voted 7 to 2 to approve the ordinance.

George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Health Association, credited Mr Dart and the health department with “brave leadership through a really challenging time”, adding that “there’s a lot of misinformation and fear”. Masks ordinances have saved lives and allowed businesses to stay open, he said.

Although no known coronavirus cases have been definitively linked to the rally, cases spread in Tulsa at a greater rate after the event. The seven-day rolling average, which stood at 112.1 cases on the day of the rally, peaked at 253.9 cases by 29 July, before declining to 129 cases as of 17 September, the most recent data available from the Tulsa Health Department. Tulsa has had 152 deaths related to Covid-19, more than double the number when Mr Trump held his event.

Although the health department does contact tracing on all coronavirus cases in the county, including those linked to that Trump rally, it does not make public those findings because it is often hard to isolate where a person contracted the virus, department officials said.

“The bottom line – and this continues, it was true then and it continues to be true – when people come together in large groups, transmission occurs,” Mr Dart added. “It’s best not to have large gatherings.”

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