WASHINGTON – History may judge the coronavirus pandemic as the eye of the storm of the 2020 campaign for the White House.
On Wednesday (June 17), Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden held his first public event after weeks of speaking from the basement of his home, in Darby, Philadelphia.
President Donald Trump sails back into the storm with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday.
And Vice President Mike Pence kicks off his “Faith in America” tour in Pewaukee, Wisconsin on Tuesday, June 23.
By far the most controversial of the three events is Mr Trump’s rally in a 19,000 seat indoor venue in Tulsa.
Epidemiologists worry that it courts a public health disaster; Covid-19 cases are spiking in several states including Oklahoma.
And local authorities and analysts are worried about Tulsa becoming a flashpoint given the current mood in cities across America where thousands have turned out on the streets to protest racism and police brutality against African Americans following the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota on June 25.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma registered a record for single-day new coronavirus cases. A Washington Post analysis on Tuesday showed nine states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas – reported either new single-day highs or set a record for seven-day new case averages. .
There will be temperature checks at the Tulsa rally and masks will be distributed but will not be mandatory. Those attending will have to sign a waiver absolving the Trump campaign if they fall sick.
A group of Tulsa residents, businesses and nonprofits tried to force event organisers to enforce social distancing protocols for the rally, saying in a lawsuit that it could act as a coronavirus super spreader. But a judge on Tuesday rejected their plea.
Separately, on the same day, Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, said fears of a second wave of infections were “overblown” and that “the media has tried to scare the American people.” He made the point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
At least 115,000 people in the United States have died of the coronavirus, with case numbers now well over two million.
“People keep talking about a second wave. We’re still in a first wave,” Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the administration’s top infectious-disease experts, told the Wall Street Journal this week.
Asked whether he would attend a Trump rally, Dr Fauci, who is 79, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday “I’m in a high-risk category. Personally, I would not. Of course not.”
The Tulsa rally also comes at a particularly sensitive time for race relations.
In Minnesota the former police officer who killed Mr Floyd has been charged with murder. On Wednesday, in Atlanta, investigators charged another police officer, also a white man, with murder after he shot a black man twice in the back while he was running away evading arrest for a minor infraction. The incident took place last Friday June 12.
Given this, and with protests in scores of cities big and small, Mr Trump’s choice of Tulsa is seen by many black Americans as provocative.
With the violence and looting and more heavy-handed police tactics in recent protests, as well as the risk of armed provocateurs – a far right white supremacist and his accomplice who infiltrated a Black Lives Matter protest in California on May 29 and killed a police officer and wounded another was arrested this week – there is a risk that Tulsa could become a flashpoint.
The President initially scheduled the rally on June 19 – or Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery. He cast it as a “celebration.”
But ending slavery on June 19, 1865 was not the magic wand for African Americans.
Fifty six years later, in 1921, the thriving black community of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, was attacked by white mobs – who employed even a machine gun and private planes to drop flaming turpentine balls – killing hundreds and rendering thousands homeless. The black neighbourhood was burned to the ground.
Facing mounting concern, the President pushed back the rally by a day to June 20. But that cut no ice with African Americans in particular.
Racial tensions could be incited at an already “hyper escalated time,” Teresa Wells, CEO of the strategy consultancy Tenth & Grey, told The Straits Times.
“We have to do better as a nation; acknowledging our history is not the same as recovering from it,” she said.