WASHINGTON (AP) — As coronavirus cases spike, public health officials are pleading with Americans to avoid large crowds and hold more muted Independence Day celebrations, but subdued is not President Donald Trump’s style, and he aimed to go big, promising a “special evening” in Washington that could bring tens of thousands to the National Mall.
Trump’s “Salute for America” celebration on Saturday evening was to include a speech from the White House South Lawn that he said would celebrate American heritage, as well as a military flyover over the city and an enormous fireworks display that could pack people downtown.
The president kicked off the holiday weekend by traveling to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota for a fireworks display Friday night near the mountain carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In his remarks, he accused protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.”
In a presidential message Saturday on the 244th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Trump acknowledged that “over the past months, the American spirit has undoubtedly been tested by many challenges.”
His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, said in a statement that the U.S. “never lived up” to its founding principle that “all men are created equal,” but that today “we have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country.″
His participation in big gatherings comes as many communities have decided to scrap fireworks, parades and other holiday traditions. The goal is to try to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, which large gatherings could spur. Confirmed cases are climbing in 40 states, and the U.S. set another record Friday with 52,300 newly reported infections, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
For the Mount Rushmore event, GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, insisted social distancing wasn’t necessary and masks were optional. Trump spent little time in his Mount Rushmore address reflecting on pandemic, which has killed more than 129,000 Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that mass gatherings like the one scheduled for Washington present a high risk for spread of the virus.
Trump’s surgeon general, Jerome Adams, who has stepped up his call for Americans to wear a mask in public, sidestepped when asked during an interview Friday whether he would caution a loved one from attending such large gatherings. “It’s not a yes or no,” Adams told NBC’s “Today Show.” “Every single person has to make up their own mind.”
Trump has been aching to see the nation return to normalcy, and has been willing to push the envelope further than many states and big city mayors are willing to go.
Last month, he held his first campaign rally since early March in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is accustomed to jam-packed crowds, but the BOK Center was only about one-third full for the president’s first rally of the coronavirus era. Days later, he addressed a packed megachurch for a Students for Trump event in Arizona. Few attendees at either event wore masks.
Interior officials said they would hand out 300,000 face coverings to spectators who gather on the National Mall. Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said visitors would be encouraged to wear masks and keep a six-foot distance from one another. There was no indication that would be mandatory, despite the recommendations of health officials.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, who said she didn’t have the right to shut down the holiday spectacle because it’s on federal land, warned the federal government about the obvious dangers of such a large crowd. On Friday, she urged the city’s residents to be smart about how they spend the holiday. “Just because someone invites you to a party doesn’t mean you have to go,” Bowser tweeted.
Associated Press writers Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, and Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.