President Trump will take part in an elaborate Fourth of July weekend complete with fireworks, crowds and military flyovers as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump will attend a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on Friday and deliver remarks from the White House on Saturday at the 2020 “Salute to America,” an event that will feature flyovers from the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels.
Trump, who faces an uphill reelection fight, has relished elaborate military displays and large crowds at official events.
But this year’s celebrations will take place against a different backdrop than previous years: A pandemic that has taken nearly 130,000 U.S. lives.
Health experts have expressed concerns that large gatherings could lead to spikes in COVID-19 cases at a time when the southern and western parts of the country are already experiencing significant surges.
All eyes will be on whether Trump, who has generally refrained from wearing a mask but endorsed them this week, does so as the virus threatens the country, the economy and Trump’s reelection.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said this week that social distancing would not be enforced when Trump and first lady Melania Trump attend Friday’s fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. The event has been laced with scrutiny because of the risk posed by both COVID-19 and wildfires.
“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one,” Noem said during an interview with Fox News on Monday.
“But we won’t be social distancing, we’re asking them to come, be ready to celebrate, to enjoy the freedoms and the liberties that we have in this country and to talk about our history,” Noem added.
Ian Fury, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said that those who applied for tickets to the event were told to stay home if they have symptoms or to consider avoiding the gathering if they are vulnerable. He said hand sanitizer would also be available and that attendees will see signs to follow CDC guidelines.
Trump, along with Noem and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, will deliver remarks to an expected crowd of roughly 7,500 people. In addition to fireworks, the event will also feature military flyovers.
The Mount Rushmore fireworks displays had been stopped beginning in 2009 as a result of the risk of wildfires, but Trump has moved to revive the display this year.
“We’re going to have a tremendous evening. It’s going to be a fireworks display like few people have seen,” Trump said at a White House event Thursday, looking forward to the event. “They’ve been wanting to do that for years, fireworks, they used to do it many years ago and for some reason they were unable or unallowed to do it.”
The National Park Service conducted an environmental assessment earlier this year allowing the fireworks to proceed and officials plan to complete a Go/No-Go checklist prior to the event. Fury also said fire resources had been deployed in the area to respond quickly in the event of fire.
Still, there are concerns among experts that Trump and South Dakota officials are ignoring the potential consequences in pushing forward with Friday’s celebration, particularly given the dry summer that could exacerbate the risk of wildfires.
“While cities and communities across the United States are canceling their Fourth of July celebrations to adhere to social distancing guidelines and protect their citizens, Trump and Noem are actively encouraging people to gather together, all in service of an event which poses clear risks to both visitors and the environment,” Cheryl Schreier, who served as superintendent of Mount Rushmore from 2010 to 2019, wrote in an op-ed.
Trump and the first lady will return to Washington on Saturday to host the Salute to America on the White House South Lawn and Ellipse. The military flyovers will take place before the fireworks and will feature vintage planes from the World War II era.
Onlookers will be able to watch the fireworks from the National Mall and officials plan to distribute more than 300,000 cloth face coverings to visitors, according to the Interior Department. Individuals are encouraged to practice social distancing and wear masks but are not required to do so.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed concern to the federal government that the planned celebration Saturday would not adhere to CDC guidelines on limiting crowds and maintaining social distancing as the District continues to ease back restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus.
“The president has said that we should follow our local authorities with masks, so that’s the decision — that he encourages people to follow those authorities,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this week of Bowser’s unease. “The CDC guidelines, I’d also note, say ‘recommended,’ but not required. And we are very much looking forward to the Fourth of July celebration.”
Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Department of Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary, argued that any organizers of large events should be mandating face coverings and social distancing in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“This Fourth of July, it’s just going to be safer to celebrate with your family at home,” he said.
Friday’s celebration in particular will mark the second consecutive year where Trump has ginned up controversy around his plans for an Independence Day celebration.
The president last year drew the ire of Democrats, local officials and a few Republicans by bringing in armored vehicles and military equipment for a Salute to America event on the National Mall. Critics cited the exorbitant cost and accused Trump of politicizing the armed forces to satisfy his desire for a show of military strength.
Trump enters the weekend of celebration with a fraction of momentum following a jobs report that showed the economy added 4.8 million jobs in June. The better-than-expected figure provided some relief for the president, who has endured months of difficult headlines amid a slew of national crises and seen his poll numbers dip.
Just four months from the general election, recent surveys show Trump trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden nationally and in key battleground states the incumbent president carried in 2016.
Trump is likely to garner a warm reception in solidly red South Dakota, where many local officials have expressed appreciation that Trump brought back fireworks to the famed monument. Fury, Noem’s spokesman, said that the state had received 25,000 applications for 125,000 tickets to the event, though 7,500 were ultimately given tickets through the lottery.