Few face masks, no social distancing and virus skepticism outside Trump's Tulsa rally site

Lauren Egan

TULSA, Okla. — David Riniker says nothing scares him: not the cancer he was diagnosed with two years ago, and not attending an indoor campaign rally for President Donald Trump here amid a surge in coronavirus cases in Oklahoma.

“I don’t fear anything. If today is the day I die, today is the day I die," said Riniker, 62, who drove to Tulsa from his home in Arkansas earlier this week to attend what he said was his first political rally since Ronald Reagan was running for office. "I'm not paranoid, I'm not afraid."

Riniker brought a homemade mask that his neighbor had given him and said he would wear it "if the need arises," but doubted it would come that.

"I'm not stupid," he said Friday, on the eve of Saturday's rally. "I'm not going to jump in a den of snakes and sit in front of someone who is coughing uncontrollably. But I do have a mask just in case."

David Riniker in line for President Trump's rally in Tulsa, Okla. (Lauren Egan / NBC News)

In conversations with dozens of Trump supporters lined up outside a convention center in downtown Tulsa to attend the president’s campaign rally on Saturday, many said they were not worried about contracting the illness and did not plan to follow strict precautions during the event. Many supporters also cast doubt on the severity of the outbreak and said that, regardless, they had a right to choose to put themselves at risk.

“I think [the coronavirus] has been hyped up more than it is.There’s flu, there’s cancer, there’s COVID-19,” said Mary Legan of Claremore, Oklahoma, adding that she brought a fanny pack full of hand sanitizer and masks for her and her husband, Ken. Neither were sure if they would wear masks the whole time while inside the arena, commenting on how uncomfortable they can be, especially when it is hot out.

Mary and Ken Legan sit in line for President Donald Trump's Saturday rally in Tulsa, Okla. (Lauren Egan / NBC News)

“When you’re in your 70s, you can't go hide in your basement. You don't have that many more years,” Legan said. “If Trump felt comfortable having it here, then I’m comfortable.”

Trump has faced criticism for holding the Tulsa event, the first campaign rally in months, as the country continues to face the coronavirus. The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday denied a request by some Tulsa businesses and residents to order the Bank of Oklahoma Center, the arena the rally is being held in, to enforce federal recommendations for preventing the spread of the coronavirus at the event.

The Trump campaign has said it will have coronavirus-prevention measures in place, including temperature checks for attendees on their way in and hand sanitizer stations inside. Masks will also be available for all attendees, but won't be required.

Even some health care workers who said they had experienced the impact of the coronavirus firsthand were undeterred.

“I’m a nurse. I’ve worked ER for 15 years, and if we want to come to a rally, it's our decision," said Sheri Todd from Park Hill, Oklahoma. "I’ve had friends who had it; they were sick for a couple of weeks. But it's still our choice.”

"As far as I know, I’m still an American," said Tom Todd, Sheri's husband and a retired welder.

"This is a free country and I can do what I want. If I want to wear a mask, I wear a mask. If I don’t, I don't. If I get sick, I get sick. That's my choice," Tom continued, adding that he thought the number of coronavirus deaths was being "padded."

Sheri agreed: "Some of these numbers aren't real."

Jill and Trish, two childhood friends who asked not to be identified by their last names, said they had always talked about meeting up at a Trump rally and finally decided to do so due to what they believed to be a disparity in reporting on the recent Black Lives Matter protests compared to Trump's announcement that he would hold a campaign rally.

"We didn’t hear anything about the coronavirus for two weeks while the looting and protesting was going on and none of them were wearing masks," said Trish, who traveled into town from Springfield, Illinois. "And now that Trump is holding a rally it's all we hear. The hypocrisy is unbelievable."

Jill and Trish said they were not worried about catching the virus and would not wear masks inside. The two women said they regularly avoid going to grocery stores or other public places back home that require a mask.

“I’m not going to live my life in fear. I want to get back to the normal — not a ‘new normal,’ but the old normal," said Jill, who lives in Orange County, California.

But for the Trump supporters already gathered outside the convention center more than a day before the president's rally, the "old normal" never seemed to have left. Strangers huddled together under tents when it started to rain. Some invited newly made friends to their nearby hotel rooms to shower and dry off. People passed around pizza and doughnuts. Others lent out blankets and chairs.

There were few masks in sight.