- President Donald Trump is set to appear at a fireworks display at Mt. Rushmore before a crowd of 7,500 people.
- Masks will not be required for attendees, and social distancing will not be enforced, according to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
- Health experts expressed concern that the event could put the community at risk due to the threat of the coronavirus spread in the large gathering.
- A former superintendent of the memorial and a local wildfire expert also said the fireworks could spark a wildfire in the surrounding forest if there are particularly dry conditions on the day of the event.
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As cities across the US cancel Independence Day celebrations amid mounting concerns of surging coronavirus cases, a fireworks display at the Mt. Rushmore national monument is still happening according to schedule — without mandatory face masks and social distancing.
President Donald Trump is also set to appear on Friday for the first fireworks display at the national monument since 2010. Tickets were capped at 7,500 attendees in order “to ensure a safe and successful event,” according to the event website.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem told Fox News that social distancing will not be enforced and masks not required for the attendees. Masks will be provided for those who want to wear one.
“In South Dakota, we’ve told people to focus on personal responsibility,” she said during an appearance on Fox News. “Every one of them has the opportunity to make a decision that they are comfortable with. So we will be having celebrations of American independence, we will have a large event July 3.”
“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,” she continued. “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.”
While it is less likely for the coronavirus to spread outdoors than in an indoor venue, evidence shows there is still risk in being exposed to others in a close space for a prolonged period of time without any facial covering.
There are more than 6,800 confirmed coronavirus cases in South Dakota — which is one of the least populated in the country — and 93 deaths, according to data from a case tracker from Johns Hopkins University.
The number of hospitalizations for individuals with coronavirus-like symptoms have remained steady in South Dakota, according to an analysis by ProPublica.
Nonetheless, Dr. Benjamin C. Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told the AP that the event could put the health of the surrounding community at risk. Pennington county, where Mt. Rushmore is located, has 518 confirmed cases and 16 deaths.
“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.”
Cheryl Schreier, who previously served as superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial from 2010 to 2019, also condemned the move to host a fireworks display at the national monument, citing health safety concerns and potential wildfire risk on the surrounding forest.
“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,” Schreier wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
“I urge them to reconsider this event for the health and safety of us all,” she added.
Event organizers are still monitoring the event for prime weather conditions and will ultimately make a decision on whether or not to host the event on Friday, as particularly dry conditions could raise the risk of a wildfire in the area.
In an environmental assessment conducted by the National Park Service ahead of the event, the agency concluded that the fireworks display “would not significantly damage the memorial or forests around it,” the AP reported.
But Bill Gabbert, a former National Park Service fire management officer who used to oversee the national monument, told AP that the conditions are dry due to a moderate drought in the area.
“I think it’s insane to explode fireworks over flammable material and ponderosa pine vegetation,” Gabbert said in an interview with The Post.