Days before he is scheduled to take the stage in Tulsa at the first “Keep America Great” rally since the novel coronavirus pandemic altered everyday life, President Trump and his campaign are already expecting a roughly 19,000-seat arena to be packed with supporters. But one notable public figure won’t be in attendance on Saturday: Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert.

© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens to President Trump and the coronavirus task force during a briefing on March 24. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“No,” Fauci responded when asked by the Daily Beast if he would personally make an appearance at the rally.

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“I’m in a high-risk category. Personally, I would not. Of course not,” Fauci, 79, said in an interview published Tuesday night. He added that in the case of Trump’s rallies “outside is better than inside, no crowd is better than crowd” and “crowd is better than big crowd.” It is unclear if Fauci had been asked to go or if he ever planned on attending.

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Saturday’s gathering, which is slated to be held indoors at the BOK Center, has alarmed health officials and local leaders in Tulsa. Some have worried that it could not only further inflame racial tensions as protests over racism and police brutality continue nationwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death but also contribute to the spread of the virus as Oklahoma sees a surge of new cases.

After Trump pushed back the event so that it would not be held on Juneteenth, an observance of the end of slavery in the United States, in a city that experienced a historic episode of racial violence, Tulsa’s top health official urged the president to again consider rescheduling. A group of Tulsa residents and business owners launched another effort to stop the rally Tuesday, seeking a temporary injunction against the company that manages the BOK Center “to protect against a substantial, imminent, and deadly risk to the community,” a lawsuit stated. A judge denied the request.

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Oklahoma has more than 8,600 reported cases of coronavirus and at least 363 deaths, according to most recent figures.

The danger of holding a raucous political rally, especially indoors, is equally apparent to Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In an interview last week, Fauci stressed that people should still refrain from gathering in big groups, regardless of whether it’s a rally inside an arena or a protest in the streets, and urged them to wear masks if they choose to do so. His comments coincided with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing guidance recommending that organizers of large events that involve shouting, chanting or singing “strongly encourage” attendees to use cloth face coverings.

Trump’s campaign also appears to be aware of the risk. The sign-up page for tickets to the rally includes a coronavirus disclaimer, which states that attendees “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign or venue liable if they get sick. Additionally, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale announced Monday that rallygoers will have their temperatures checked and receive hand sanitizer and a mask before entering.

On Tuesday, Fauci reiterated his concerns with such large gatherings, but stopped short of assigning blame for spikes in cases to leaders who have been criticized for not adhering to public health guidelines. Trump, for instance, has been notoriously resistant to donning a mask in public and has mocked others for wearing them.

“We’re talking about avoiding crowds, wearing masks,” Fauci told NPR, noting that he hasn’t spoken to Trump in two weeks. “That clearly has a positive effect, so when you pull away from that and you still have viral dynamics in your community, that’s not a good idea. So rather than blame one or the other, just listen to what I’m saying: It’s risky when you do that, so please avoid doing that.”

The Tulsa rally was not explicitly mentioned during the roughly 25-minute NPR interview. Instead, Fauci was asked about his thoughts on the ongoing protests.

Though he said he recognized the importance of the demonstrations, Fauci advised protesters to make a conscious effort to wear masks and ensure that they stay on.

“When people get animated, they start shouting, they start chanting, they pull their mask off,” he said. “Don’t do that. Best thing, don’t gather in crowds. But if you are going to, please wear a mask consistently. Keep it on. Don’t take it off.”

With a vaccine still months away from its earliest possible rollout, Fauci called on people to keep being mindful and follow official recommendations as coronavirus-related restrictions continue to ease nationwide.

“This is a global pandemic that we’ve got to get under control,” he said. “So something as seemingly innocent as, ‘Oh, what the heck, I just want to go in a crowded place, to go in a bar and go in a restaurant and not adhere to the recommendations. No big deal.’ Well, in the big picture of things, it is a big deal because you’re contributing to a risk of a very serious disease.”

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