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Trump rally called ‘dangerous move’ in age of coronavirus

WASHINGTON — After months away from the campaign trail, President Donald Trump plans to rally his supporters this coming Saturday for the first time since most of the country was shuttered by the coronavirus. Trump will head to Tulsa, Oklahoma — a state that has seen relatively few COVID-19 cases.

But health experts question the decision, citing the danger of infection spreading among the crowd and sparking outbreaks when people return to their homes. The Trump campaign itself acknowledges the risk in a waiver attendees must agree to absolving them of any responsibility should people get sick.

What makes it high risk?Trump’s rally will be held indoors, at a 19,000-seat arena that has canceled all other events through the end of July. Scientists believe the virus spreads far more easily in crowded enclosed spaces than it does outdoors, where circulating air has a better chance of dispersing virus particles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the highest risk events for transmission of the coronavirus this way: “Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.” The CDC recommends cloth masks in places where people might shout or chant.

Trump’s rallies typically draw tens of thousands of supporters. They usually stand outside in line for hours before passing through airport-style security and cramming into an arena, where they sit side by side or stand shoulder to shoulder. The rallies are typically raucous, with much shouting, cheering and chanting. Some people dance and jeer at reporters. Sometimes protesters are met with violence before they are removed by security.

Many attendees are older, which would put them at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19. It’s not unusual for several individuals in the crowd to require medical attention when the temperature rises.

The rallies also typically draw supporters from surrounding towns and states. Some die-hard fans travel across the country from rally to rally like groupies for a band.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, called the upcoming Trump rally “an extraordinarily dangerous move for the people participating and the people who may know them and love them and see them afterward.”

Trump supporters coming from neighboring cities and states could carry the virus back home, Jha said. “I’d feel the same way if Joe Biden were holding a rally.”

Oklahoma cases low, rising

In its final phase of reopening, Oklahoma now allows public gatherings of any size as long as organizers consider social distancing. Participants at any large gathering should stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart and wear a cloth face covering when distancing is a challenge, the state health department said.

The state has a relatively low death rate compared with the rest of the nation, but new cases are rising. In Tulsa, there were 71 new cases Friday and the number continued to grow over the weekend. The Tulsa Health Department already was investigating an outbreak linked to an indoor gathering of a large group of people.

Citing the spike in cases, Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, said he wished the rally would postponed to a later date “when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today.”

“I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic,” Dart said in an interview Saturday with the Tulsa World. “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.”

Dart said the risk of spreading the virus increases with higher numbers of people congregating for longer periods of time.

Oklahoma health authorities said that anyone who attends a large public event should get tested for COVID-19 shortly afterward.

Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Trump rally meets every criteria for the riskiest type of event.

“I would certainly recommend that people wear masks and try to keep as much distance as possible,” Payne said.

Julie Fischer, an associate research professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said the event could have wide repercussions for the country.

“With a little bad luck, that scenario could end in the seeding of community outbreaks of COVID-19 across the U.S.,” she said.

Masks and precautions

The Trump campaign has declined to respond to repeated questions about whether it will require attendees to wear masks, socially distance or take other measures to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

Trump has made clear that he believes empty seats are bad optics. “I can’t imagine a rally where you have every fourth seat full. Every — every six seats are empty for every one that you have full. That wouldn’t look too good,” he said in April.

Trump also insisted that the marquee event of the Republican National Convention — his acceptance of his party’s nomination for reelection — be moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after North Carolina’s Democratic governor refused to promise he would not impose restrictions.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, said Trump’s rallies will be coordinated with public health authorities to maintain safety.

“As far as the virus is concerned, we have two choices: we can allow it to dominate us, or we can learn as much as we can about it and we can learn how to live with it in a safe, prescribed manner,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I think the second option is the one that’s going to be adopted.”

Why now?

Trump has been eager to resume the rallies that are the centerpiece of his campaign. The president revels in his large crowds. The events let him vent and gauge the kind of rhetoric that will appeal to his ardent political base. They also help his campaign expand its voter databases and will serve as a contrast to Democratic challenger Biden, who has suspended campaign events because of the virus and hasn’t attracted the same size of crowds.

But the decision to pull the trigger now was driven, in large part, by the mass anti-racism protests that have taken place across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Campaign and White House officials say the protests — and the limited public health outcry they generated — gave them cover. If it was OK for tens of thousands of people to march through the streets, demanding racial justice, why can’t Trump rally his supporters, too?

Of course, the protests were held outside, with many participants wearing masks.

“Any large gathering, whether of protesters or ralliers, is dangerous,” Jha said. But infection is less likely at an outdoors moving march than at a crowded event in an enclosed space, he said, citing the air flow.

The waiver

The Trump campaign, in recognition of the risk, has tried to protect itself from lawsuits with waiver language on its registration website.

“By clicking register below, you are acknowledging that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present,” the campaign advised those signing up for the rally. “By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.” liable for illness or injury.

Soon-to-be city manager Bradley Ford charts Waco's course amid COVID-19 strife

Bradley Ford will soon step into Waco’s city manager role, taking on a pandemic, economic upheaval and a national reckoning over racial injustice, and his colleagues feel Ford is up to the task.

The Waco City Council voted last month to promote Ford from deputy city manager after Waco City Manager Wiley Stem III announced he would retire later this summer. Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said Ford’s strategic approach and his work on large development projects, including one to build up a stretch of city-owned Brazos riverfront near Interstate 35, impressed him long before the pandemic forced everyone in city government to rise to the occasion, Ford included.

Deaver said Stem turned much of the city’s pandemic response over to Ford after promoting him from assistant to deputy city manager in February.

“There are so many issues the city’s had to work through in terms of reopening facilities and workforce issues,” Deaver said. “All of those things, Bradley’s been involved in.”

Originally from Odessa, Ford moved to Waco in 2017 with his wife, Deanna and their three children, Madison, 10; Macie Kate, 12; and Micah, 8. While he used to do woodworking in his spare time, there has been less and less time for that. Now, his main hobby is teaching himself how to use data visualization software.

“Sort of nerdy, but it’s something I like to do,” Ford said.

After living in Brooklyn with his wife briefly, he moved back to Texas and started working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Texas at Tyler. After graduating, he took his first city government job offer as a planner for the Fort Worth Police Department and began working on a master’s degree in city and regional planning at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It was a great experience,” Ford said. “I was in their research and planning division, which spent a lot of time with data analysis and working directly with the chief of police there and really learned a lot about modern-day policing from Fort Worth.”

Ongoing mass demonstrations in the name of George Floyd have renewed public outcry for police reform or abolition. Ford said he sees Waco as a leader in race relations, because of the training he received when he first joined the organization and because of the city council’s choice to prioritize racial equity. But that doesn’t mean conversations about police reform should go dormant, he said.

“That’s been evident since the day I started when very early on it was an expectation that I would attend race equity institute training, which I did,” Ford said. “I was really blown away by the realities of race and the structural, institutional setup that has caused, for significantly bad outcomes for people of color.”

He said the Waco Police Department long ago adopted the eight policies called for by the national 8 Can’t Wait campaign.

“Are there additional things we can be doing, additional conversations we could be having? Absolutely. Should we be having them? Absolutely, but I also think we have to recognize where we’re starting from is a very different place than some other communities across America that are starting, frankly, further back,” Ford said.

Ford said for difficult conversation, he always turns back to the data.

“As I talked to people about race, whether it’s internal or external to Waco, I talk about unemployment rates, I talk about education rates, I talk about mortgage denial rates,” Ford said. “It really challenges us as a local government.”

In Waco, he is focused on recruiting a wide variety of industries and investing in workforce development.

“We don’t want to see people left out of the next version of the economy, so how can the city partner with entities like Prosper Waco so, A, our employers have plenty of talent locally, but B, our local population can find employment without having to go to Dallas or Austin?” he said.

While the pandemic and subsequent economic emergency will be temporary, they will have long-term effects on how businesses make decisions, he said. The city also has a daunting number of capital improvement projects ahead of it. The Lake Brazos Dam needs work, the Riverfront project is only just getting underway, and there is still water and sewer work to be done in parts of town where development has been rapid.

“I think the financial strategy that comes after a fallout in a recession is hard,” Ford said. “We’re planning to make choices down the road that help stabilize our budget. It’s a delicate balance, because we know on the other end of our revenue streams are a group of citizens and a group of businesses that are also struggling.”

Ford, whose background is mostly in economic development and planning, credits fellow Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson with helping him understand health and housing issues facing the city.

“I am supportive of the council decision to select Bradley as the next city manager,” Emerson said. “I believe he and I have worked well together over the past two years. I look forward to supporting him in his new leadership role as we serve the citizens of Waco.”

Emerson said Ford has not changed much in the three years they have worked together. He remains as focused on data as he was when he was interviewed for the assistant city manager position.

“Bradley is really sharp,” Emerson said. “He is very knowledgeable about planning and economic development. He has a keen eye for data and trying to tie data to outcomes.”

Before the council voted to hire Ford, members discussed holding a nationwide search but ultimately decided against it, Waco City Council Member Hector Sabido said. That process is time consuming and difficult under typical circumstances, and COVID-19 would have made it even more difficult.

“We also realized we had, and still have, some very capable, smart people in our city manager’s office,” Sabido said. “With Bradley, he has a strong economic development background, he’s an advocate of equity and inclusion and just an out-of-the-box thinker.”

He said Ford’s leadership in the local response so far to COVID-19 made him an even stronger candidate.

“We still had a city to run,” Sabido said. “We still had to get water out, pick up trash, do streets, do projects, do construction, and he was able to handle all that.”

Rethinking police: How Camden, NJ, reimagined its force

CAMDEN, N.J. — To Scott Thomson, changing the culture of policing in America is a relatively simple process.

It’s just not an easy one.

Thomson led a tumultuous police department makeover in Camden, New Jersey — a poor city of mostly brown and black residents just across the river from Philadelphia — in 2013.

After state officials disbanded the old department and started anew, Thomson transformed policing in Camden from the law-and-order, lock-‘em-up approach of the 1990s to a holistic, do-no-harm philosophy that’s put the long-maligned city in the spotlight during the national reckoning over race and police brutality.

While police elsewhere clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters outraged by the latest death of a black man detained by police, Camden officers marched calmly with residents and activists.

“Our actions can accelerate situations. What we should be trying to do is de-escalate them,” said Thomson, a past president of the Police Executive Research Forum who retired from the Camden job last year. “The last thing we want is for the temperature to rise, and for situations to go from bad to worse because of our failed tactics.”

But if the recent protest was peaceful, the county takeover of the Camden Police Department was cataclysmic. More than 300 officers lost their jobs. Only half joined the new force.

Along with the switch to community policing came a reliance on high-tech, city-wide surveillance, more patrols, and younger, cheaper, less diverse officers who often aren’t from Camden. Their average age today is 26.

“That is a very different vision of what a new police force looks like than we’re hearing from protesters, who want less policing,” said Stephen Danley, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden.

Ashly Estevez-Perez, 21, has spent most of her life in Camden, which is now about half Hispanic and 40 percent black. She remembers when children were rarely allowed to leave their front stoops given the threat of gunfire.

“The new police force came in, and you saw cars everywhere. ... Everyone was kind of taken aback,” she said of what some would call “over-policing.”

“Growing up in the city, I don’t see what other alternative works,” said Estevez-Perez, a recent Rutgers-Camden graduate.

Activist and entrepreneur Sean Brown, 37, who is black, said the surveillance solves the wrong problem.

“If we had economic justice in our community, where anybody who needed a job could get a job, we would be in a different space,” said Brown, who is raising two young sons in the city.

Once a busy manufacturing town, Camden in the past few years has added enviable luster to its commercial corridor as generous state tax breaks lured Subaru, American Water and the Philadelphia 76ers (who built a practice facility) to town.

They join earlier development that transformed Camden’s downtown and southern waterfront, including a concert venue. The estimated $3 billion in development attracts suburbanites and employs some Camden residents. But locals debate just how many.

“I don’t know one person who works in any 76er job, any Holtec (International) job, any Subaru job,” said teachers’ union president Keith Eric Benson. ”Neighborhoods have looked really similar today as they did 10 years ago.”

The police changeover followed state budget cuts that had forced Camden to slash municipal services in 2011. Nearly half of its 360 officers were laid off. Crime surged.

Then-Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., joined local Democratic power brokers in engineering a plan to eliminate the department, shed its costly union contract and create the Camden County Police Department.

Thomson remained at the helm.

Over time, his philosophy evolved from a “broken window” approach that famously saw the department cite people for failing to have bicycle horns to a friendlier approach that sends officers into the community to host barbecues, hand out ice cream and shoot hoops.

“I think we’re received a lot better than we used to be,” said Sgt. Dekel Levy, 41, as he helped distribute diapers to a steady stream of young mothers Thursday afternoon at Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden.

The neighborhood, long one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous, shows signs of progress. The state prison that dominated the nearby waterfront has been replaced with a park. Aging schools have been spruced up.

Crime rates have fallen — whether due to the police engagement, the increased investment, the booming Philadelphia economy or the national decline in violent crime.

According to police department data, Camden’s annual homicide tally has fallen from 67 in 2012 to 25 last year; robberies from 755 to 304; and assault with a gun from 381 to 250. The city, with about 73,000 residents, spends $68 million per year on policing, far more than some comparable cities.

“There is no doubt that Camden is safer than it was in the austerity era. There’s a lot of doubt about whether that’s directly due to the new police force,” Danley said.

As Estevez-Perez marched in Camden’s Black Lives Matter protest May 30, Police Chief Joe Wysocki helped carry the banner at the front of the pack.

“I just felt I had to do it. George Floyd’s death was very difficult to watch, and it was horrifying what he went through,” Wysocki, who is white, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I think every cop that watched that — every good cop — had a knot in their stomach.”

Across the bridge, Philadelphia police in riot gear that day clashed with protesters as police cruisers were set on fire and storefronts vandalized.

“It’s a huge sigh of relief that the city of Camden was not devastated over the past couple of weeks,” said Sister Helen Cole, a Roman Catholic nun who runs Guadalupe Family Services.

Cole, the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer, has seen tensions erupt and the city set ablaze during nearly 30 years in Camden.

Today, she cheers officers who work with troubled teens and department figures that show a sharp drop in excessive force complaints — in the wake of a strict use of force policy — from 65 in 2014 to three last year.

“It’s not like officers are the enemy anymore,” Cole said.

Still, Brown, the activist and entrepreneur, laments that too few Camden residents make it onto the new force, which is 54 percent minority. Wysocki concurred, saying state civil service rules thwart his efforts. He hopes a recent salary boost, to $51,000 annually after training, will help with retention.

“The same political will that went to dismantling and rebuilding the police department has to go into these other issues — job development and housing, as well,” Brown said. “The momentum has to continue for us to get where we need to go.”

Waco courthouse officials laying plans to resume judicial proceedings

As the world awakens from its pandemic shutdown, reported COVID-19 cases appear to be on the uptick, making it more difficult for Texas judicial officials to predict when jury trials can resume and the courts can start functioning as before.

The Supreme Court of Texas has issued 17 emergency orders regarding the COVID-19 state of disaster, and with each order, dates to resume court activities have been postponed and more restrictions have been put in place.

Courts have been holding court proceedings via a teleconferencing app, with lawyers, defendants, judges and court personnel all logging in remotely from different locations. But those cases, at least in McLennan County’s two felony courts, have only involved a limited handful on one or two mornings a week, and the shutdown has taken a toll on court backlogs.

Senior judges around the state have been ordered to devise operating plans, with the assistance of public health officials, the Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration, and to submit those plans to their respective presiding regional administrative judges for approval before in-person court proceedings can resume.

Judge Ralph Strother, McLennan County’s senior state district judge, submitted the county plan to Region 3 Administrative Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, of Georgetown, on Thursday. The initial plan covers operating in-court proceedings for routine judicial matters, such as court hearings, pleas, sentencings and probation revocations. The county will have to submit a separate plan later to resume jury trials, which for now have been postponed at least until Aug. 1.

Court officials said this week that if coronavirus cases continue on the rise, that Aug. 1 date likely will be pushed back.

“Submitting this plan is just one of those hoops we have to jump through in order to operate in today’s environment,” Strother said. “I have said before I think a lot of it is overreaction and overdone out of pure fear, but we have complied with the requirements. We have not eradicated cancer. We have not eradicated heart disease. We can’t even cure the common cold. But yet we continue functioning, and that is my attitude about the whole thing. We do our jobs, take reasonable precautions and go on with life.”

Judge Matt Johnson said the operating plan significantly restricts court operations and requires all courts to stagger hearing times to limit the number of people in courtrooms and at the courthouse itself. The plan requires court personnel to have their temperatures taken daily, encourages them to wear masks, requires social distancing, limits the use of elevators and requires courthouse deputies to submit visitors to health screenings.

“Under the submitted operating plan, we will not be able to get back to normal operations anytime soon,” Johnson said. “I am greatly concerned about delaying trials for such an extended period of time and the impact the delays will have on court dockets.”

In preparation for resuming jury trials, Johnson, McLennan County District Clerk Jon Gimble and courthouse deputies toured the Waco Convention Center last month because it has more space and allows social distancing when large jury pools are summoned for trials. That venue remains a possibility as well as other locations, including The Phoenix Ballroom at 401 S. Third St., officials said.

Courthouse courtrooms and the larger courthouse annex visiting courtroom just do not have enough space to practice proper social distancing for a jury pool of 300 to 400 people, officials said.