WASHINGTON — Leading members of the coronavirus task force warned White House officials about the health risks of holding large-scale indoor campaign rallies and advised against such mass gatherings, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, and task force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx both vocalized concerns internally in the last week about the safety of holding a rally on Saturday with as many as 19,000 people in an enclosed arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But President Donald Trump and his campaign advisers are proceeding with the event, which is expected to draw tens of thousands inside and outside the venue who will neither be socially distant nor required to wear face coverings. They claim attendees “assume a personal risk” and “that is part of life.”
It has been nearly two months since the last coronavirus task force briefing and four weeks since Birx answered questions about the coronavirus pandemic from the White House briefing room.
Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the group, and his top aides have at times flouted their own administration’s guidance, opting not to wear masks during trips in recent weeks.
While Pence and the president have tried to paint a rosier picture of the virus and project a return to normalcy, some members of the task force are eager to resume appearances from White House grounds and speak directly to the American people, per two people involved in the task force meetings.
There is no current plan to bring back the once-daily press conferences, according to a person close to Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, so he has found other outlets to offer his medical advice.
Fauci has consistently done media interviews with a range of outlets, which has annoyed the president, this person said. He has also repeatedly contradicted and undercut both Trump and Pence’s more optimistic messaging with science and data that suggests a second wave is indeed coming. Trump and Fauci have not spoken or met face to face in several weeks.
Earlier in the pandemic, the president praised Fauci and touted his expertise. But he has also publicly broken with him at times when he has felt challenged, tweeting Friday in response to safety comments Fauci made about resuming football.
“Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football. They are planning a very safe and controlled opening. However, if they don’t stand for our National Anthem and our Great American Flag, I won’t be watching!!!” Trump tweeted.
Asked whether the briefings will ever return, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Friday it was unlikely and that instead she will be the one to present new information after consulting with Birx.
The task force still meets weekly, behind closed doors, and is slated to gather on Friday.
When asked if he would personally attend the Tulsa rally, Fauci said “of course not” given his age and cautioned anyone going to wear a mask, though the Trump campaign says that will not be required.
This comes despite the Trump administration’s own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new guidance which classifies huge crowd setting as “highest risk,” especially when it’s not possible for people to be 6 feet apart.
The BOK Center has requested a more detailed safety plan from the Trump campaign, which as of 24 hours before the event had not yet submitted one. Campaign officials have warned individuals with pre-existing conditions or other factors that would put them more at risk for contracting and battling the virus not to attend Saturday’s rally, where supporters had to sign a digital waiver releasing the campaign and president of any liability if they get sick.
“There have been regular conversations between senior administration officials and the campaign about steps and precautions that can be taken,” one White House official said. “Nobody’s taking this lightly.”
Oklahoma has also seen a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, with a 100 percent spike in Tulsa County just this week, the highest in the state. One of the main reasons the campaign decided to hold the rally in the Sooner State is that it is now in phase three.
A White House official said members of the task force have been consulted and have offered input on how to safely hold rallies and noted that the Tulsa gathering is following guidelines the task force helped write for a phase three reopening.
As the White House attempted to pivot to a message of economic revival and re-opening, there has been inherent tension for members of the task force who want to continue to encourage Americans to follow CDC guidelines while satisfying the president’s public desire to move beyond the virus.
This week, Pence penned an editorial saying “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”
To drive home that message, the vice president spent time outside of Washington this week mingling with scores of people at events that were tailored to look and feel as much like pre-pandemic life as the places he visited allow.
Pence walked through a crowded restaurant where patrons weren’t wearing masks, including an elderly veteran whom the vice president posed side-by-side with for a photograph. Any signs of an ongoing pandemic were minimized.
The table where Pence ate lunch was socially distanced from the others in the restaurant, for instance. But to get there he had to walk essentially shoulder-to-shoulder with people who lined either side of a narrow part of the restaurant and members of the audience at his outdoor speech to workers at a manufacturing plant were seated 6 feet apart.
Almost no one in the audience wore a mask. Pence did interviews with local reporters who weren’t wearing masks. His staff and security detail didn’t wear masks. And the guides on his tour of a manufacturing plant weren’t socially distanced or wearing masks.
“Every single day, we’re one day closer to putting the coronavirus in the past,” Pence said in his speech.
White House officials maintain Pence and Trump can operate differently from others because they are tested daily. Aides who work closely with them are also tested regularly — a small group even daily — and reporters who travel with the vice president have coronavirus tests before each trip.
The president’s political aides are worried about the narrative that may emerge if there’s a significant spike in cases in Oklahoma following the rally, according to people close to the White House. That will also likely complicate the planning of future gatherings.
Next week, the president is headlining another large-scale event with thousands of students in a Phoenix megachurch. The state has seen a steady uptick in cases this week, with back-to-back records for single-day increases Thursday and Friday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.