Trump campaign staffers’ Tulsa rally behavior raises coronavirus liability questions

Anyone foolish enough to have visited Donald Trump’s embarrassingly poorly attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma last weekend may have had to sign a waiver declaring that they would hold the Trump campaign harmless if they caught COVID-19 while sitting among the unmasked, MAGA-hatted true believers, however, if anyone had a change of heart after going and falling ill with the virus, their legal options may not be completely exhausted after all.

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After reports emerged this week that a number of Trump campaign staffers and Secret Service agents came down with the coronavirus after the president’s unfortunate decision not to cancel his rally  — despite the skyrocketing spread new cases of the disease in Oklahoma — comes even more disturbing news that campaign staffers deliberately removed stickers with warnings reading “Do Not Sit Here, Please!” that had been placed on every other seat of the BOK Center by the operators of the venue in order to promote social distancing at the event.

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Billboard magazine broke the news yesterday of the active measures by eager Trump campaign officials to make the venue look as crowded as possible to avoid further ridicule after the rally at the 19,000 seat arena only managed to attract a fraction of that number.

“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,” the music industry publication reported.

According to Thornton, the arena operator was faithfully executing the company’s new VenueShield program — a program developed with doctors, industry experts and infectious disease specialists to prevent the spread of COVID-19  at ASM’s 325 venues worldwide.

The seat stickers were an essential component of the program, and the BOK Center employees reportedly continued to place the stickers on alternating seats to comply with the protective measures. Soon, however, Thornton said something happened that the venue operators hadn’t planned for:

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“The campaign went through and removed the stickers.”

According to Billboard:

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“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.)”

Actively undermining the BOK Center’s virus mitigation plans was perhaps an easy decision to make after insuring that ticket holders had signed away their rights to sue if they contracted the disease while attending the rally, but the removal of the warning stickers by campaign staffers adds a level of complexity to the situation that could have liability lawyers salivating at the chance to test the validity of the waivers of responsibility in these circumstances.

“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 Crowduring a Tulsa Public Facilities Authority meeting Tuesday. “Obviously, we know that that event probably triggered some type of broader infection.”

“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.

Still, the event had been cleared by both state and city officials in advance, ASM’s Thornton emphasized.

“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.

The venue operator now knows that the president and his staff are willing to ignore any concerns about the health of attendees at his events, putting them in an uncomfortable position for the months ahead.

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ASM manages all of the venues in Jacksonville, Florida — another location where coronavirus cases have been spiking upwards rapidly — where Trump has had his acceptance speech for the Republican National Convention moved to after the original location in North Carolina refused to guarantee that social distancing requirements would be waived to allow the president to speak before the tightly-packed, ego-gratifying crowds that he so desires.

“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.”

With Vice President Mike Pence already having canceled upcoming campaign events in Arizona and Florida due to the spike in new COVID-19 cases as the U.S. sets records for new infections on a daily basis, it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will continue with its plans for additional rallies in the weeks ahead, but one should underestimate the president’s stupidity and venality at one’s own risk.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.

Original reporting by Dave Brooks at Billboard.

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Vinnie Longobardo

Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile, & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.

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