Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma was braced on Saturday for Donald Trump’s first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic struck the US, claiming more than 118,000 lives, plunging the economy into recession and leading to widespread criticism of a botched response to a crisis that has seen the president’s approval ratings tank.
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The indoor rally, at Tulsa’s 19,000-capacity BOK Center, came as city and state experienced a surge in Covid-19 cases and local public health officials urged the campaign to reschedule the event, over fears close contact between attendees – who will not be forced to wear face masks – could lead to more deaths.
On Saturday, the Trump campaign confirmed that six staffers working on the rally had tested positive for Covid-19. The campaign said “quarantine procedures were immediately implemented” and “no Covid-positive staffers or anyone in immediate contact” would be at the rally.
The day before, Trump promised a “wild evening” for his supporters and used Twitter to threaten “protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” that they would “not be treated” in the same way they have in other parts of the country.
Trump’s decision to hold a mass rally in Tulsa has drawn outrage from the local black community as well as others who have poured on to the streets in protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
Counter-rallies are expected in the city and brief verbal disputes between protesters and Trump supporters, dozens of whom have been camped out for days to gain entry to the event, have occurred sporadically in recent days.
Large fences, road blocks and heavy police presence surrounded the arena on Friday evening. On Saturday, armed militia members and bikers gathered outside the venue.
William Dunbar, 33 and from Tulsa, carried an assault rifle and a handgun. He told the Guardian he was there to “prevent any agitators looking to do property damage and cause bodily harm in our city” and was co-ordinating with around 50 other “armed patriots”. He also said he was there to protect “protesters and rally-goers alike”.
The rally was set to take place within a mile of the historic Greenwood district, the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst episodes of racist violence in modern American history which still haunts the city. It was also set for the day after Juneteenth, a national day of commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US.
The city celebrated Juneteenth with a large rally in Greenwood on Friday evening, with a few thousand attendees. The event was headlined by the veteran civil rights campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton.
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In an interview with the Guardian before he took to the stage, Sharpton, who was escorted by three police officers, said he had received death threats.
“I wanted to be here, and no threat would stop me from speaking today,” Sharpton said. He echoed local criticism that holding a rally a day after Juneteenth was racially insensitive.
“He [Trump] believes that America was great when it was for white males, white women couldn’t even vote. Blacks were enslaved. Latinos were not welcome. Yet he grew up in the shadows of the Statue of Liberty and I think that is a glaring contradiction that shows the lack of character of this man.”
Trump was expected to talk about the wave of protest and national reckoning on race and police following the death of Floyd in late May during his speech.
On Thursday, amid fears of unrest, Tulsa mayor GT Bynum issued a curfew which was later rescinded after Trump intervened. “Enjoy yourselves – thank you to Mayor Bynum!” the president tweeted after the curfew was withdrawn.
Related: Republicans insist Trump Tulsa rally won’t spread coronavirus – despite local concern
The move came shortly before the Oklahoma supreme court ruled against a lawsuit requesting that all rally attendees wear face masks and maintain social distancing. Although the campaign will supply masks and hand sanitiser, a number of attendees have indicated that they do not plan to use them.
Tulsa’s city health director, Dr Bruce Dart, has said publicly throughout the week that he wants the event to be postponed, noting the likelihood of coronavirus spread during the rally as cases in Oklahoma continue to drastically spike to new highs over the past few days.
The Trump campaign has made attendees sign waivers accepting they will not hold the president or the campaign responsible if they contract the virus.
Earlier in the week a senior campaign official, Marc Lotter, told the Guardian that “at-risk” individuals should stay away from the rally and watch it on television. Federal guidance states at-risk groups including those over 65, residents of care homes and those with underlying conditions.
Despite Lotter’s warnings, Trump has issued no such statement and the invite for the online campaign event makes no reference to at risk groups.
At the BOK Center on Saturday, Trump lawyer Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, told the Guardian: “We hope that people are going to stay socially distanced, are going to wear a mask, [use] hand sanitiser and be respectful of each other.
“It’s not a legal requirement, it’s people’s own free choice. But we hope everyone will be peaceful and happy and have a great rally and social distance”