President Donald Trump on Monday rejected pleas from Tulsa, Oklahoma, not to risk aggravating coronavirus risks by holding a rally there, announcing he wants to triple the crowd to 60,000 people.
"We have a 22,000 seat arena, but I think we're also going to take the convention hall next door and that's going to hold 40,000," he told reporters at the White House.
He was responding to criticism from the local Tulsa newspaper and a top public health official in the city about his election campaign rally, which is scheduled for Saturday and comes as Oklahoma is seeing a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
"This is the wrong time," the Tulsa World newspaper said in a bluntly worded editorial.
"We don't know why he chose Tulsa, but we can't see any way that his visit will be good for the city."
The newspaper pointed out that COVID-19 continues to spread and there is no vaccine.
"It will be our health care system that will have to deal with whatever effects follow," it said.
The arena that the Trump campaign has booked holds about 20,000 people, who would be packed closely together.
In a tweet Monday, Trump claimed that applications to attend the rally in the city, which has a population of less than half a million, were flooding in.
"Almost One Million people request tickets for the Saturday Night Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma!" he said.
He hadn't previously mentioned plans to pack a second, bigger venue. The former real estate tycoon frequently exaggerates numbers, regularly claiming that as many as tens of thousands of people are outside the arenas, unable to get in, when that is not true.
Trump said Oklahoma had done "really fantastic work" on fighting COVID-19. He said he'd predicted there would be "hot spots" and "we'll take care of the hot spots."
Trump has used the branded Make America Great Again rallies throughout his presidency to connect with his loyal base of right-wing Republican voters.
He often turns the events into extended performances where he tells jokes, crudely insults opponents and veers repeatedly off script with crowd-pleasing stories -- scenes unlike any other in top-level US politics.
However, the coronavirus pandemic forced Trump to shelve his rally schedule, putting a serious dent in his reelection strategy.
- 'Not during a pandemic' -
An initial plan to reopen the rallies in Tulsa this Friday, June 19, was criticized because this would coincide with the annual "Juneteenth" commemorations for the end of slavery in the United States.
With protests unfolding across the country against what campaigners call systemic racism against African Americans, Trump's campaign decided to put the rally off by a day.
Adding to the sense that the campaign was being insensitive in its choice of city and timing, Tulsa is the site of a notorious massacre of black Oklahomans by white mobs in 1921.
On Sunday, Tulsa's health department director Bruce Dart also called for a delay to the Saturday event, citing the coronavirus risk.
"I'm concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I'm also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well," he told the Tulsa World.
Dart said it was "an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic."
"I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn't as large a concern as it is today."
Trump himself has fought for weeks to play down the risks of coronavirus in a concerted push to get the country out of crisis mode ahead of the November election.
The president never wears a mask in public and mocks his Democratic challenger Joe Biden for his more cautious approach.
Trump supporters attending the Tulsa rally must agree to a disclaimer protecting the organizers from liability over people who might contract the virus.
The pandemic forced US President Donald Trump to shelve his rally schedule, putting a serious dent in his reelection strategy