WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump will begin his July Fourth celebrations with a trip to Mount Rushmore on Friday despite concerns about gathering a large crowd during the novel coronavirus pandemic and criticism from Native Americans about the visit.
Trump will view a fireworks display with thousands of people at the South Dakota landmark, which depicts the images of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The site has not had fireworks since 2009 because of environmental concerns. Trump advocated for a resumption of the display, and the state says the surrounding Black Hills National Forest has “gained strength” since then and that fireworks technology has advanced.
It will be the Republican president’s latest event with large crowds, defying health experts’ recommendations to avoid big gatherings amid recent spikes of COVID-19 cases across the country.
Some 7,500 people are expected to attend the outdoor event. Masks will be available but are not required.
South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem told Fox News earlier this week that those who had concerns could stay home and said “we won’t be social distancing.”
Cheryl Schreier, superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial from 2010 to 2019, admonished Noem and Trump for defying social distancing guidelines for an event she warned carried risks of spreading disease, triggering wildfires and contaminating groundwater.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote in a column published in the Washington Post.
Trump won the reliably Republican-leaning state in 2016. He has been criticized for holding large events with little social distancing in Oklahoma and Arizona in recent weeks. On Thursday he predicted a “fireworks display like few people have seen.”
Native Americans, who reportedly plan to protest during the trip, have criticized Trump’s visit for increasing the risk of spreading the virus and for celebrating U.S. independence in an area that is sacred to them.
“It’s like if he tried to go and have a fireworks display celebrating independence at the Vatican,” Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, was quoted saying in the Washington Post.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) tweeted at one point that Trump had disrespected Native Americans and that the event was “glorifying white supremacy.” It later deleted the tweet.
Both Washington and Jefferson, revered for their roles in the founding of the nation, were slave owners.
Representatives of the DNC did not respond to a request to explain the reasons for the deleted tweet.
“Instead of living up to the most basic responsibilities of his office this Independence Day, Donald Trump is still downplaying the virus, calling for a slowdown of testing, bucking social distancing guidelines, and showing Americans why we can’t afford four more years of him in the White House,” the DNC said ahead of the trip on Thursday.
Trump will hold another celebration for the July Fourth holiday on Saturday in Washington.
Reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Grant McCool and Chizu Nomiyama