Hours before President Donald Trump took the stage last Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for his first rally in the COVID-19 era, arena workers were busy labeling thousands of seats with “Do Not Sit Here Please!” stickers to promote social distancing, part of a new safety protocol at the arena known as VenueShield.
Campaign staff quickly radioed over to an executive at ASM Global and asked the arena to stop labeling the seats. In fact, “they also told us that they didn’t want any signs posted saying we should social distance in the venue,” says Doug Thornton, executive vp for ASM Global, who oversees nearly 100 arenas across five continents for the venue management company created by the 2019 merger of AEG and SMG.
Thorton said ASM was simply following the company’s new VenueShield program, developed with doctors, industry experts and infectious disease specialists to prevent the spread of coronavirus at ASM’s 325 venues worldwide. The event was general admission-only meaning all seats were first come, first serve. The stickers were a mandatory component of VenueShield, ASM continued stickering every other seat when something unexpected happened: “The campaign went through and removed the stickers,” says Thornton.
A video created by a third party and reviewed by Billboard shows Trump staffers methodically walking the aisles of BOK Center and peeling the three-inch square stickers from thousands of chairs ahead of the “Make America Great Again” rally. (Trump’s campaign did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment.)
The sticker episode concluded an anxiety-filled week for BOK Center staff wherein hundreds of Trump campaign workers inside the building inconsistently followed basic safety protocols like wearing masks and social distancing. Several days before the event, ASM asked the campaign to submit a safety plan in writing, but the campaign never fulfilled the request.
While the Trump campaign undermined arena mitigation efforts to protect attendees from the coronavirus, it did take steps to limit its own liability by requiring rally attendees to sign away their rights to sue if they contracted COVID-19.
“We know that eight Trump campaign staff members that were here tested positive for the coronavirus and we know that two of them were intermingling with the people in the arena,” said Tulsa Police Department corporal David Crow during a Tulsa Public Facilities Authority meeting Tuesday. “Obviously, we know that that event probably triggered some type of broader infection.”
Now much of Trump’s campaign staff, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, is in “quasi-quarantine” over concerns about being exposed to the virus, according to The Daily Beast. ASM has offered to test all of its staff on Saturday, regardless if they worked the rally. So far there have been no reports of staff members exhibiting symptoms.
It’s unclear if anyone who attended the event contracted the virus, but mobile-phone location data firm SafeGraph released a study with John Hopkins University showing that the majority of rally attendees came from states where COVID-19 cases were on the rise.
“In a public health crisis like this we need to make sure we are following the advice of medical experts and we are not doing things for politics, or doing things to impress people or whatever last Saturday’s performance was all about,” Crow said.
While organizers faced criticism for staging a rally during a pandemic, Thornton says ASM had no legal basis to stop the event. The state’s Republican governor, its nine state supreme court justices and Tulsa’s Republican mayor signed off on the event and said it had a legal right to move forward — although mayor G.T. Bynum later said he would have supported ASM Global if it had canceled the rally, prompting mayoral aide Jack Graham to resign in protest.
“The mayor’s lack of leadership could have killed someone, that’s a redline for me,” Graham tells Billboard.
The campaign paid $573,705 to rent the building for what was “the first event with any measurable crowd in an arena since the pandemic,” explains Thornton. The 60-year-old Shreveport, Louisiana, native is a lion of the venue world, famously sheltering thousands of evacuees in the New Orleans Superdome at former mayor Ray Nagin’s request through four apocalyptic days in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. Thornton would go on to lead the stadium through a massive reconstruction effort completed less than two years later, kicking off a new era in the Big Easy.
Trump in Tulsa was not Katrina in New Orleans, but the two shared some common themes — a President in denial, an unprecedented historical disaster in the making and a recalcitrant mayor in Bynum, who initially supported the rally but sought to shift part of the blame after assessments estimated 100,000 people would descend on Tulsa. Worried about the potential for civil unrest and rioting, Bynum enacted a curfew “following consultation with the U.S. Secret Service based on intelligence they had” two days before the rally, only to rescind it a day later after Trump personally intervened, according to a statement from the Mayor’s office.
But even if ASM Global had wanted to cancel the rally, Thornton didn’t think the company had the legal authority to block the President from using the publicly-owned arena. Oklahoma state law was clear, Thornton says?: Since the state had entered phase 3 of its reactivation plan, full capacity events like the Trump campaign rally were allowed, and the city’s public safety agencies had already signed off on the event.
“We would never make a call on an event like this without contacting the local officials, to get their approval,” he explains. “An ASM executive even reached out to the mayor’s office and asked, ‘Are you OK with us going forward with this?’ Their response was, ’Yeah, proceed to the fullest extent that the President has requested,’” Thorton says.
By that point, news of the event had been picked up by the national media, with outlets seizing upon a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the city.
“There were some increases in the reported COVID cases that occurred after we signed the contract,” Thornton says. “And then the next day Dr. Bruce Dart came out with his concerns.”
Dart, the head of the Tulsa Public Health Department indicated the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was spreading faster than many had expected.
“I have concerns about large groups of people gathering indoors for prolonged lengths of time,” Dart said in a June 13 public statement asking the Trump campaign to postpone the rally.
Around the same time, ASM was seeking authorization that the rally complied with state guidelines. The next morning, Gov. Kevin Stitt formally acknowledged in a letter that the Trump campaign could lawfully stage a rally at full capacity and noted the event was “consistent with the guidance for Oklahoma’s Open Up and Recover Safely plan.”
The next day, Oklahoma experienced its largest uptick in cases — 222 new cases for a total of 7,848 — with about one-third of those coming from Tulsa. Next came a lawsuit filed by attorneys Clark Brewster and Paul DeMuro, representing several immunocompromised residents asking for an emergency injunction to reduce the capacity in order to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines. Wanting to stay neutral, ASM Global didn’t file any opposition to the injunction request or enter an appearance before the court.
The motion was denied and the plaintiffs appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which then ordered ASM Global to appear in court and respond to the injunction request. Attorneys for ASM filed “a factual response to the plaintiffs’ application,” according to a statement and noted that a letter had been sent to the campaign asking staffers to provide a safety plan to ASM in writing. Deciding the event wasn’t violating any laws, the court’s nine justices unanimously denied the injunction request.
To Thornton, the order from the governor’s office — which wrote the guidelines shutting down and reopening the state in response to the COVID-19 crisis — coupled with the Supreme Court order, was an explicit indication that the building had a legal obligation to allow the Trump campaign to stage a full capacity rally at the BOK Center.
The Secret Service projected more than 100,000 people would attempt to access the event and an overflow rally area the campaign was calling “Disneyland,” potentially gridlocking downtown Tulsa in impossible traffic and cutting the arena off from reinforcements. But the social unrest never materialized, neither did the large crowds — Thorton estimates only about 10,000 attendees and another 1,800 staffers with ASM Global, media, the Secret Service and the Trump campaign actually showed up.
Meanwhile cases of COVID-19 in Tulsa are rapidly increasing. On Thursday, 438 new cases were reported in the state, a 70% increase over the previous day, which set a record with 259 new cases. Mayor Bynum told the Tulsa World newspaper he is now considering making mask use mandatory in public and temporarily banning all events with more than 250 people, while Thorton says ASM won’t stage or book any new events at the BOK Center until the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority approves new guidelines for dealing with COVID-19.
ASM is not finished with Trump — the Republican National Convention has been moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, where ASM manages all seven city-owned venues including VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena where much of the televised program will take place. A recent poll by the University of North Florida poll showed that 58% of residents oppose holding the convention in Jacksonville.
“We’re going to be working with the same Trump campaign staff that we worked with in Tulsa,” Thornton says. “And I suspect there’ll be more rallies between now and the end of the year. If we’re going to do an event, we’ll need to continue to have conversations with our clients and the people who own our buildings and work through any governance issues.”