(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump kicked off his re-election campaign Saturday night before a Tulsa arena crowd whose size fell short of his predictions, in a city reeling from a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The 19,000-capacity BOK Center had plenty of empty seats during Trump’s speech, which came hours after the public-health threat of the event was underscored by news that six campaign staffers in Tulsa had tested positive for the virus.
Trump drew cheers when he blamed “some very bad people outside” after the campaign canceled plans for him and Vice President Mike Pence to address supporters in an overflow area. But a security officer said the group of roughly 100 demonstrators at the rally’s entrance hadn’t stopped people from attending.
After the rally, Tulsa police briefly confronted protesters, firing projectiles with eye irritants before backing off.
Earlier, two demonstrators on bicycles were struck by a truck. They appeared to be uninjured. Other protesters continued to march through the streets, and videos showed verbal confrontations between Trump supporters and protesters -- including one threat to use a gun.
The arena crowd, with large swaths of the upper level empty, didn’t match Trump’s promises from earlier in the week. “We expect to have, it’s like a record-setting crowd,” he said. “We’ve never had an empty seat, and we certainly won’t in Oklahoma.”
A number of his supporters started trickling out of the arena even before the president began speaking. Others were turned away, trying multiple gates just to learn that the event had closed to new entrants.
Some of those leaving said they had to get home to their children. Jody Tanner, 53, said he was worried about encountering protesters after dark. He and his daughter watched Pence speak inside the arena but caught Trump’s address from the overflow screen.
“We came here to support our nation, but we don’t want to get caught up in the protests,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Trump supporters who crowded outside the BOK Center dismissed the virus concerns, despite news of the Trump staffers testing positive. “It’s sad and it’s scary, but I can’t live my life in fear,” said Rocquel Ussrey, 26, who’s studying in Tulsa to be an esthetician. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to see a standing president.”
As the crowd gathered throughout the day, masks were rare. Stephen Nelson, 35, said he doesn’t believe government data showing a surge in Tulsa cases. A contractor for Walmart who lives in Rogers, Arkansas, Nelson said wouldn’t use a mask or take any other precautions during the rally.
Others were less confident. “I am concerned,” said Gabrielle Gilliam, 62, a retired office administrator for Edward Jones Investments who lives in Muskogee, Oklahoma. She wore a cloth mask around her neck that she said she would don if she’s permitted inside the arena. She said she might try to stay outside. “Out here in the open air, I’m OK.”
Inside the arena, few people wore face masks. Outside, the most cautious were some vendors sporting face shields as they sold Trump hats and T-shirts.
The Tulsa Health Department announced Saturday that the total number of confirmed cases in the county had risen by 6.6% to 2,206, out of 10,037 statewide.
The rally was supposed to signal that America is well on its way back to normal after weathering both the coronavirus outbreak and nationwide protests against police brutality. Instead, it’s led to new scrutiny of the president’s handling of both the pandemic and the nation’s divisive racial inequities.
Outside the BOK Center earlier Saturday, a Confederate flag flew overhead as a man with a megaphone and American-flag cowboy hat led chants of “We want Trump!”
Among the president’s supporters, John Kuhn, 31, was one of the few wearing a mask. He also wore a single glove that he said allowed him to open doors and touch other surfaces. “I read it stays on surfaces for 24 hours,” he said.
Kuhn, who’s training to be a physical therapist in Oklahoma City, said few other fans would wear a mask during the rally. He said they likely see Trump and Pence choosing not to wear protective gear and decide against it for themselves.
Joel Pritchard, a 21-year-old student at Heartland Baptist Bible College in Oklahoma City, said coronavirus fears are overblown.
“The coronavirus is a huge made-up deal,” he said. “Plus, I’m young.”
Rudy Hernandez, 53, stood on the fringes of the people gathered in the street. He said he would put on a mask in the arena. Hernandez, who was recently dismissed from his job at oilfield service company Halliburton, likes Trump because of what he’s done for the economy, which is currently in a recession brought on by coronavirus lockdowns.
“He is bringing us out of a hole that Obama made for us all. Drilling started up again. The economy was booming. 401ks were doing great,” Hernandez said. “If anyone can pull us back from what the Saudis and the Russians did to the oil market, it’ll be him.”
On Friday evening, just a few blocks from the rally site, hundreds gathered on Greenwood Avenue to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the U.S. The businesses along the avenue are what’s left of what was known as Black Wall Street, a thriving center of African-American commerce until White rioters burned it to the ground 99 years ago.
The Juneteenth celebrants listened to speeches and tried to ignore the bigger gathering ahead.
“We’re not going to take the focus off the history,” said Anissa Stewart, 24, who had come to the event with her cousin. “This is a celebration.”
Some participants said they were relieved the rally no longer directly clashed with Juneteenth. But many said the decision to hold a campaign event in Tulsa felt intentional, especially in the wake of recent police brutality against African-Americans.
“It’s pretty insulting,” said Daphne Woodward, 36.
Among those gathered at the campaign rally site was Bruce Carter, the leader of a controversial group, Trump for Urban Communities, that supported him in 2016. Carter said he’s not yet sure if the president will get his vote again.
Carter, 49, said he disagreed with criticism of the rally’s timing and location.
“The fact that the rally is taking place at the time that it is ends up being probably the best thing that ever happens to Tulsa’s Black Wall Street,” he said. “Now everyone knows what happened. And now they also have a defined understanding of June 19th.”
(Updates with post-rally clashes starting in fourth paragraph.)
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