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Trump campaign, Democrats joust over Tulsa rally turnout

The Trump campaign on Sunday sought to blame concerns about protesters for the lower-than-expected turnout at the president’s rally in Tulsa, even though the campaign itself had raised expectations about attendance by touting the number of people who had signed up for tickets online.

Reporters on site also saw little evidence of attendees being blocked from going to the event.

In the days leading up to Saturday night’s rally — President Donald Trump’s first since March — the president’s re-election campaign repeatedly touted figures suggesting that as many as 1 million people had signed up to attend. But the crowd did not fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center, with swaths of upper-level seating empty, and plans for a presidential speech in an outdoor overflow area were abruptly canceled as few attendees filled the space.

There were just under 6,200 people in the arena, the Tulsa Fire Marshal’s Office said Sunday. Trump’s campaign rallies have typically attracted more than 10,000 people, and some have drawn two or three times that many — although the president has a habit of inflating his crowd numbers to cast his popularity as even greater.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp argued that turnout was lower than expected because Trump supporters were afraid of protests outside the venue turning violent.

People were concerned about the demonstrations, Schlapp said, “and so, we saw that have an impact in terms of people coming to the rally.” Pressed by host Chris Wallace on the fact that the Trump campaign itself had raised expectations about high attendance numbers, Schlapp replied, “There were people and families that couldn’t bring their children because of concerns of the protesters.”

Schlapp also emphasized that the online reach of the event was “far and wide,” saying that more than 5.3 million people viewed it on the campaign’s digital media channels. The White House similarly fell back on claims about online viewership in January 2017 when faced with questions about the low crowd numbers for Trump’s inauguration.

Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, issued a statement Sunday morning pushing back against reports that some TikTok users and K-pop fans had sought to sabotage the rally by reserving tickets they didn’t plan to use.

The campaign had weeded out “tens of thousands” of bogus cellphone numbers ahead of the rally, Parscale said, but “these phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking” for possible crowd size.

“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of COVID and protestors, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” Parscale said. He added that the episode “makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals.”

Outside the rally venue Saturday night, one group of protesters blocked one of three entrances for about 15 minutes — but by that point, most people had already entered the arena’s outer perimeter.

By the time Trump took the stage, there had been tense verbal confrontations outside but no reports of violence. Civilians carrying military-style rifles and pistols wandered amid the crowds, claiming they wanted to keep people safe, while Tulsa police and National Guard troops restrained and separated opposing sides.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to former vice president Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, sharply criticized the Trump campaign’s decision to hold the rally amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The sign-up page for the rally, for instance, contained a disclaimer noting that attendees “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign or venue liable should they get sick. Fears that the rally could accelerate the spread of the virus were underscored when six members of the Trump campaign advance team tested positive.

Trump’s “debacle of a rally last night will long be remembered,” Sanders said on “Fox News Sunday,” arguing that the “most damning thing” was the president’s statement that he had asked members of his administration to slow down coronavirus testing to keep case numbers down.

A White House official told The Washington Post that Trump had been joking.

“This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make him look good,” Sanders said, describing Trump’s rally remarks as “the admission of the president that he slowed testing for his political benefit.”

Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates also skewered the president over his rally turnout.

“Donald Trump has abdicated leadership and it is no surprise that his supporters have responded by abandoning him,” Bates said in a statement.

And despite the White House’s claim, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took the president’s remarks about coronavirus testing at face value, accusing him of seeking to obscure the extent of the pandemic’s spread.

“Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives,” Pelosi said in a statement Sunday. “The President’s efforts to slow down desperately needed testing to hide the true extent of the virus mean more Americans will lose their lives.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, accused the Trump campaign Sunday of showing “no concern for what it means for people to be gathering in large numbers.”

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” she called the rally an embarrassment and said she hoped the lower-than-expected turnout was a “preview for November.”

“Finally people are recognizing that this man is a danger to our country, a danger to our democracy and that he should not be the president of the United States of America. ... I just hope that this is a good sign that the country is moving on from him,” Bottoms said.

Some administration officials on Sunday defended the Trump campaign’s decision to hold a rally during the pandemic.

“I think what we saw, particularly in Tulsa, when you talk about the president’s rally, is a state in a Phase 3 reopening. And so activities like this are allowed,” acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf said during an interview on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” Wolf added that it was “a personal choice that people are making on the face coverings and where you are within that phase.”

Oklahoma has recorded an increasing number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with more than 10,000 cases and 368 deaths as of Sunday morning. There had also been a spike in cases in Tulsa, which led the local health department director to initially ask that the rally be postponed.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied a request that everyone attending the indoor rally wear a mask, and few at the event in the evening appeared to be wearing them.

PHOTOS: Supporters for renaming Stonewall Jackson Middle School march on school board

Students, parents and others marched on the Kanawha County School Board Saturday evening calling for Stonewall Jackson Middle School to be renamed.

The march began at Abundant Life Ministries, on 1534 Washington St. E., which is led by Bishop Wayne Crozier, one of the movement’s organizers.

The march ended at the school board building on Elizabeth Street, about a third of a mile away.

People opposing the name of the middle school, which is named for Civil War Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, also protested at Thursday’s school board meeting.

The board has scheduled a discussion, and perhaps a vote, on the issue for July 6.

Democrats, health experts decry Trump for saying he asked officials to 'slow down' coronavirus testing

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s Saturday night remark that he asked officials to “slow the [coronavirus] testing down” led to rebukes from experts and frustration from his own staffers, who say it undercuts their efforts to reassure Americans as the disease surges across the country.

The president’s comment, which came on the same day that eight states reported their highest single-day case counts, drew a chorus of criticism from congressional Democrats and public health officials, who worry that the president is more concerned with saving face than combating the pandemic.

“Looking at it as a scoreboard is the wrong way to think about it,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “To think of it as something you can manipulate or slow down based on what the numbers look like speaks to a complete misunderstanding of what an infectious-disease response should be.”

In his first campaign appearance since the virus hit the U.S., Trump called testing — which public health experts say is a crucial part of controlling the pandemic — a “double-edged sword.”

“Here’s the bad part . . . when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases,” Trump told his supporters. “So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

On Sunday, Trump’s chief trade adviser, Peter Navarro, called Trump’s comments “tongue-in-cheek.” Another White House official told The Washington Post that Trump was joking, a common defense from Trump’s aides after the president says something controversial.

Acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf offered a different explanation, saying during an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the comments were rooted in Trump’s frustration with the press.

“Instead of focusing on the actual progress that this administration has made in revamping an antiquated testing system and testing record millions of Americans, they’re focused just on the rising case numbers,” Wolfe said.

But behind the scenes, several senior administration officials involved in the coronavirus response expressed frustration with Trump’s comments, given the administration’s efforts to ramp up testing over the past few months.

One senior official described the coronavirus response as something of a political albatross. The person noted that administration officials and the vice president have been trying to convince the public that Trump is working tirelessly to stamp out the virus — and faster than ever before.

Trump’s comment on Saturday undermined that message.

“The president, or no one else for the matter, has ever told anyone to slow down testing,” said one person involved in the coronavirus efforts, who was not authorized to speak publicly about administration efforts. “He was joking, but it’s not helpful.”

Trump has long viewed the rising coronavirus numbers as a negative storyline for him because he believes he will be blamed for more cases, and he associates a rising number of cases with bad publicity.

He has also expressed skepticism to other administration officials that cases are being overcounted, two senior administration officials said. Trump grew particularly frustrated in April and early May, advisers said, that his administration was getting heavily criticized for being too slow to ramp up testing.

One administration official with knowledge of coronavirus discussions said Trump has been focused on the nation’s increased testing capacity — so he can brag about the increased numbers publicly.

In recent weeks, the president has also made a concerted effort to play down the virus and “move on” to other topics, the two officials said, such as the economy.

But the president’s comment in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night made moving on tough.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., condemned Trump’s remarks in a statement Sunday, saying the American people “are owed answers about why President Trump wants less testing.”

“Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives,” Pelosi said in a statement.

For months, Trump downplayed the threat of the virus and has grown impatient with a weeks-long shutdown that cratered the economy and resulted in more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs.

Even as the number of deaths per day remains at about 800, Trump has encouraged states to reopen, told Americans to resume normal life and flouted his own government’s advice to wear a mask while out in public.

Trump likes to say the pandemic is nearly over — even as the country confirms more than 20,000 new cases daily and the death toll lurches past 118,000 — calling outbreaks that arise “embers.” Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, penned an opinion article last week in The Wall Street Journal declaring that there was no coronavirus “second wave,” touted the administration’s progress in fighting the virus and characterized the media as overhyping the threat of a second wave of the virus.

Experts have disputed those comments.

“We’re still really early in this pandemic, and it is not helpful to create a mind-set that we’re almost done,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It’s part of what we’re seeing in terms of large outbreaks going on in Arizona, Texas and Florida, is people have gotten convinced the pandemic is over.”

Public health experts widely agree that the pandemic is likely to surge again in the fall and will pose an extraordinary challenge to the U.S. health-care system because the novel coronavirus will converge with the seasonal flu outbreak. Yet Trump continues to suggest otherwise and to complain about the few mechanisms his administration has to get the pandemic under control.

“Every expert agrees that testing is the bedrock of both surveillance — telling how the epidemic is progressing — and control — finding and isolating cases,” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “To deliberately scale back testing because it is giving a more complete picture of the epidemic is nothing less than public health malpractice.”

Study underway on effects of moving rattlesnakes away from areas of high human use

After enlisting the aid of the public in gauging the range and identifying the population centers of timber rattlesnakes in West Virginia in a three-year survey, state Division of Natural Resources biologists are again seeking the public’s help in tracking rattlers in two snake-friendly state forests.

A statewide citizen survey of timber rattlesnake sightings launched in 2017 helped DNR biologists identify the locations of more than 400 individual rattlers by the time the survey ended late last year. From that data, biologists were able to determine the most likely locations for humans and rattlesnakes to cross paths.

As it turned out, Kanawha State Forest, near Charleston, and Coopers Rock State Forest, on the Monongalia-Preston County line east of Morgantown, are among the top spots in the state for people to encounter timber rattlers.

That research led a group of Marshall University graduate students to begin a translocation study, examining the effects of moving rattlers to reduce contact with humans — one of their top threats, in addition to habitat loss.

Last year, the Marshall grad students captured and attached miniature radio transmitters to the rattles of 30 rattlesnakes residing in the two state forests, and began tracking their movement to determine their home range.

This year and next year, two groups of rattlesnakes from each forest will be moved and monitored. One group at each forest will be relocated to a new site within their home range, while a second group will be relocated to a site beyond their home range. A third group at each forest will remain in place, and serve as a control population.

The idea is to see how well the snakes adapt to an unplanned change in territory, compared to the control group, and determine whether they will attempt to return to their home range. That information will help DNR biologists determine if rattlesnakes found in areas frequently traveled by people can be moved to more remote locations without harming the snakes.

“We have three groups of snakes that we’re watching and what we learn is going to be very beneficial to our understanding of how movement affects rattlesnakes,” said Elizabeth Johnson, one of the Marshall grad students involved with the project. “So, if you’re at Kanawha or Coopers Rock state forests and see a rattlesnake, let park employees know about it and they will do their best to to catch that snake” for use in the study, she said.

The timber rattlesnake — the only rattlesnake species found in the state — was designated West Virginia’s official state reptile in 2008. Its population has been in decline for a number of years and it is considered a “vulnerable” species, subject to possible extinction, by state wildlife officials.

Habibat loss and encounters with snake-fearing humans are among the timber rattlesnake’s biggest threats. The timber rattler and the copperhead are the only two poisonous snakes residing in West Virginia.

“Every snake you see in your yard, in the woods or in a park fills a role in our ecosystem,” Johnson said. In the case of the timber rattler, helping control the small mammal population is one of its prime roles, she said.

“I know a lot of people are afraid of snakes, but I promise they don’t want to hurt you or your family,” Johnson said. “If you see a rattlesnake, it’s best just to leave them alone.”

Camden Park to resume full operations July 1

HUNTINGTON — Camden Park will get a late start this summer, but when the gates do open, patrons will ultimately be the beneficiaries of an extended offseason.

Jack Boylin, owner and operator of the park, said preparing the park for opening day can be a long process even without a pandemic, but the delayed opening for West Virginia’s only amusement park did have a silver lining. He said it allowed them to accomplish even more to help the attraction’s overall safety and visual appeal.

“There’s always some refurbishing work done on rides. Like the big project this offseason was replacing some of the woodworking on the Big Dipper. There’s general upkeep of other rides, on top of that, we’ve been able to do more painting than usual,” he said.

The park’s concession stand began offering curbside service in late April and the park recently opened its mini-golf course — which received new greens and updated landscaping — but plans to open all rides, restaurants and some shops to the general public beginning July 1.

The miniature golf course is open 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Outdoor dining is available at the Mound Builder Pavilion.

Masks are not be required inside the park, but are encouraged. Boylin said seating on some rides will be modified to enforce social distancing and queue lines will also be marked accordingly. Sanitizing stations will be available at multiple locations on the grounds.

Boylin added that people are likely to attend the park in family groups or with individuals they have already been spending time around, which he believes will make the logistics of seating them on rides “a little easier” when they open up.

“For example, with the Paratrooper or Log Flume, there won’t be any change in how they’re operated because you can seat them in family groups,” he said. “In the case of the Big Dipper, train, or other rides with a line of cars, we’ll be seating them in every other row.”

Indoor seating at the park restaurant will be limited in capacity and additional outdoor seating could be made available. Boylin said they are likely to combine the toy and candy shops to provide patrons with enough space to spread out safely. Park officials are also looking at mapping out a flow for pedestrian traffic.

“I think it’ll be easier for people to maintain distance if they are moving in the same direction and not all over,” he said.

During a normal season, the park would employ approximately 125 people working in two shifts. Because of the abbreviated season and other contributing factors, Boylin said the staff would be trimmed to about 75.

Before opening day, all employees will go through orientation to introduce them to new safety procedures and get them used to wearing masks, which are required for staff, around the park. Daily health screenings are being conducted for employees who enter the park.