President Donald Trump will hold an invitation-only event at the Rochester International Airport on Friday, city officials confirmed Thursday night.
The event, at approximately 5 p.m., will be limited to 250 people and not open to the public, in order to comply with statewide COVID-19 guidelines, according to a statement issued by city officials.
“The priority of the City and RST continues to be the health and safety of our residents and visitors,” City Administrator Steve Rymer wrote in the statement. “We will continue to work with the various agencies to help ensure a safe arrival, departure and visit from President Trump.”
The city's announcement came hours after a rally in Dodge Center was called off.
The agreement between the City of Rochester and the Republican National Convention:
The rally appeared on radar screens Wednesday morning, when the Trump campaign announced the president would hold a late-afternoon rally at the Rochester airport. City officials, concerned about the potential size of the rally and its adherence to state guidelines for crowd sizes, were working out details for the rally Thursday morning when they were told of the change.
Air Force One would still land in Rochester, but the rally would take place in Dodge Center.
In the meantime, McNeilus Steel sent a letter to its employees saying the company would host the president Friday afternoon and that 25,000 people were expected.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, things changed again, and the rally was taken out of Dodge Center.
When reached by email to ask if she had heard the rally was no longer being held in Dodge Center and if it would move back to the airport, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton wrote: "We’ve been told the same just a short time ago —awaiting word from legal about what they are thinking now."
JJ Francis, owner of Sominn Machinery Sales in Dodge Center, said he was told by Secret Service personnel that the rally was being moved back to Rochester.
Francis said Secret Service was planning to use his building in the parking lot of McNeilus Steel as its headquarters and were running phone lines through the building. Suddenly, personnel were removing the lines and equipment out of the building. He said he was told they were heading back to Rochester, where the rally is now back on.
"The Secret Service took all of their stuff out of my building and said they were following the governor's mandate," he said. "We can't do it. It's going to be in Rochester for 200 people."
Francis said he called the governor's office to find out what happened but was told that the office didn't know anything about it.
He said he thought the whole thing was "ridiculous."
"If you want to go and stand outside and see the president and see whoever else is out there ... it's an election," he said. "We want to hear what he's got to say."
Walz spokesman: “The governor’s office has not been in communication with the Trump campaign today.”
Walz spokesman: “The governor’s office has not been in communication with the Trump campaign today.”— Brian Bakst (@Stowydad) October 29, 2020
Courtney Hagen, who works at the Casey's General Store on the north side of town, said when it comes to a presidential rally and COVID-19 restrictions, people should be able to make up their own minds whether to attend.
"I think it should be everyone's choice if they go or not," she said.
John Stiles, spokesman for the Minnesota Attorney General's office, said the state does not have the authority to cancel a public event, adding that the AG's office enforces Gov. Tim Walz's executive orders. Usually that means calling event organizers regarding events that might violate the executive order and asking for a COVID-19 preparedness plan and advising planners of statewide restrictions.
Stiles said the City of Rochester, airport officials, and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, and from the Republican National Committee spoke Wednesday. RNC officials said they would provide a COVID-19 preparedness plan Thursday morning.
"We've not heard from them," he said, adding that the office later learned from social media and an internal email from McNeilus Steel that the event had been moved. By 5 p.m., the office hadn't received a plan for the rally at the Rochester airport.
"It's been very one-sided communication," Stiles said. "We're getting our updates from Twitter like everyone else."
Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a statement saying the office has worked with organizers of more than 80 events across the state since the order was issued.
"COVID-19 is not a political statement, it is a deadly virus and the cause of a global pandemic," Ellison wrote in the statement. "As Attorney General charged with enforcing our executive orders, I take very seriously my responsibility to stop it from spreading and cannot exempt anyone, regardless of their political views, from complying with requirements to keep all Minnesotans safe from it."
If an event violates the guidelines set in the executive order, the attorney general's office would then open a civil investigation and could eventually file a complaint against the parties holding the event. That hasn't happened, and the office hasn't initiated any actions related to the planned rallies.
A Post Bulletin photojournalist was in the area of McNeilus Steel shortly before 3:20 p.m. Thursday documenting workers putting up banners and decorating bleachers with patriotic bunting. About 10 minutes later, after hearing the rumor that the rally was no longer being held at the Dodge Center company, he returned and saw bleachers getting torn down and banners being taken down as well.
With a little over 24 hours before President Donald Trump is scheduled to touch down at the Rochester International Airport, the planned rally has been moved to a Dodge Center business.
McNeilus Steel Chief Operating Officer Glenn Sylvester confirmed to Minnesota Public Radio that the campaign event will now be held at McNeilus Steel.
When the campaign initially announced that the campaign event would be held in Rochester, city officials raised concerns whether the campaign visit will adhere to the state health guidelines that would limit the size of the event.
MPR reporter Catharine Richert tweeted that in an interview Sylvester said they would enforce social distancing requirements as best they can, but wouldn't say if they would cap the event at 250 people as state rules requires.
In an all company email sent to McNeilus staff that has been shared on social media, Sylvester wrote that the expectations were for 25,000 people to attend. He also noted that employees would be paid for the day and were encouraged to attend the rally.
The Post Bulletin sent an inquiry to the Trump campaign’s press office about ticketing and whether the event would stick to the state’s health guidelines limiting events to 250 people.
Deputy National Press Secretary Courtney Parella responded “Americans have the right to gather under the First Amendment to hear from the President of the United States, and we take strong precautions for our campaign events, requiring every attendee to have their temperature checked, providing masks they’re instructed to wear, and ensuring access to plenty of hand sanitizer. We also have signs at our events instructing attendees to wear their masks.”
Richert tweeted that Rochester Mayor Kim Norton "said the city had been in negotiations with the Trump campaign to sign a contract to adhere to the 250 person limit at the airport. But a day before the event, Norton said she understood the campaign was looking for a venue that would allow a larger crowd."
Rochester officials said it was their understanding that the President would still land and depart from the Rochester International Airport.
Not everyone in the Med City is excited for the visit.
Minnesota Senate candidate Aleta Borrud posted on her campaign Facebook page that she is hosting a “Protest Trump's Presence in Rochester!” event downtown Friday.
Attendees are invited to rally at the intersection of 12th Street Southeast and Broadway Avenue, meeting on the north end of Aldi/Dollar Tree parking lot, at 4 p.m. Those in attendance are asked to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.