SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When President Donald Trump speaks at the Mount Rushmore national memorial before the first fireworks show there in years, he’ll stand before a crowd of thousands of people who won't be required to socially distance or wear masks despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Friday night's event, with 7,500 tickets issued, will feature a patriotic display at a monument known as “the Shrine of Democracy" in a swath of country largely loyal to Trump. But it has also sparked controversy and concern. Public health experts say the lack of social distancing and enforced mask wearing could lead to a surge in the disease, while the fireworks risk setting the surrounding forest ablaze.
Native American tribal leaders and activist groups have also spoken out against the memorial, saying it desecrates an area they consider sacred and that the mountains on which it is carved were wrongfully taken from them.
Event organizers said this week that space was so tight they had to strictly limit the number of journalists who could cover it. The 7,500 people who received tickets will be ushered into two seating areas: A group of about 3,000 will watch from an amphitheater and viewing decks near the base of the monument, while the rest will have to bring lawn chairs to watch the fireworks from a gravel parking lot outside the memorial grounds.
Many without tickets are expected to crowd into other areas around the monument where they can get a glimpse of the president and the fireworks. The pyrotechnics alone will run $350,000, with the state bearing the cost.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally who has largely avoided ordering restrictions during the pandemic, said this week that the event wouldn't require social distancing or masks, though masks will be available to anyone who wants one. She cast it as a personal choice for attendees, telling Fox News: “Every one of them has the opportunity to make a decision that they’re comfortable with.”
Most of the thousands of attendees at Trump's June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, didn't wear masks or practice social distancing, though unlike the Mount Rushmore event, that one was held indoors, where experts say the virus is more likely to spread.
South Dakota has had declining rates of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations from the disease over the last two weeks.
But surges in cases in many Southern and Western states prompted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, to warn senators on Tuesday that the country is “going in the wrong direction" and needs to redouble efforts to get people to take precautions against infections, especially by wearing masks.
Dr. Benjamin C. Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told The Associated Press that events like the Rushmore fireworks don't just pose a risk to people who attend. The health of the entire community could be threatened if people unknowingly catch the virus at the event and then spread it at their homes and workplaces, he said.
“If we continue to have these events, we worry that it’s going to be a much more significant outbreak,” Aaker said. “We know that if that outbreak were to occur, it would not take very long to run out of (hospital) beds and to run out of personal protective equipment.”
Western South Dakota has seen less of the virus than other parts of the state so far, with 518 confirmed cases and 16 deaths in Pennington County, where Mount Rushmore is located. But Monument Health, which runs the largest hospital in the region, is preparing for a surge in cases due to the the influx of tourists, said Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice-president of medical affairs at Monument Health.
The pandemic isn't the only thing that has some locals concerned. Several former officials who oversaw the wildfire danger at Mount Rushmore have spoken out against the pyrotechnics display. Fireworks displays were canceled after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation had dried out trees near the memorial and in the national forest that surrounds it.
“Some people are very excited about it, they were sad to see the fireworks end,” said Cheryl Schreir, who retired from serving as the Superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Memorial last year. “But the people who truly understand the preservation and protection understand that this is not a good idea to light fireworks in the middle of a forest.”
Schreir said that testing by the National Park Service has also revealed that drinking water at the memorial has high levels of perchlorate, a chemical found in fireworks.
The National Park Service conducted an environmental assessment to study the potential impact of the fireworks and found that it would not significantly damage the memorial or forests around it. But it did note that in a dry year, pyrotechnics could start a large wildfire that would impact the entire ecosystem and landscape of the monument.
Bill Gabbert, a local wildfire expert who oversaw wildfire management at Mount Rushmore between 1998 and 2003, said conditions are dry this year and the region is experiencing a moderate drought. He described how in previous years, park officials would have dozens of firefighters on site who had to work through the night, scrambling up steep, rocky slopes to put out small fires from the fireworks.
Ian Fury, the governor's spokesman, said firefighters will have a 20-person crew onsite, along with extra fire engines.
Event organizers are monitoring the fire conditions leading up to the event and will make a decision on Friday about whether the fireworks would be safe. The National Park Service has also carried out controlled fires in the memorial grounds to burn off dry material. Organizers are working with a “Go/No Go” checklist, but the National Park Service has not released the checklist, citing security concerns.
Fury said that it's rained in the region in recent days, adding, “The team on the ground is feeling good about our ability to put on a safe and celebratory event.”