BEMIDJI -- The news of President Donald Trump’s Sept. 18 campaign visit to Bemidji was a surprise for many and required local government entities to begin a fast-moving planning process.
That work included several meetings with federal officials, including members of the Secret Service. According to City Manager Nate Mathews, the communication began quickly.
“We were involved in the planning of the event in the sense that early on, when it was announced, the Secret Service communicated very thoroughly with law enforcement on security needs,” Mathews said. “A lot of the logistics came to us from Police Chief (Mike) Mastin. We did hold some meetings with senior department heads and Chief Mastin about what to expect, what to think about and how we can help pull off a safe and smooth event.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, or challenge, to plan for an event like this,” Mastin said. “We didn’t know what to expect, all week long we had mixed messages on attendance and didn’t really know what to expect on Friday. It was a challenge.”
Along with the president’s visit to the Bemidji Regional Airport, the day also saw a pair of protests in the city. One was by Indivisible Bemidji alongside Bemidji Avenue and the other, by Our Revolution, took place at the intersection of Paul Bunyan Drive and U.S. Highway 71. Additionally, for the campaign event, land west of the Sanford Health campus was used for vehicle parking and loading buses of attendees to take to the airport. According to Mastin, this was one of the more challenging parts of the day.
“We’d been planning for crowds and just making sure people were safe there -- we hadn’t really thought of the mass exodus that would happen at the end of the evening. We had good weather and walking to the parking wasn’t that far, we hadn’t anticipated so many people would choose to walk rather than wait for the buses.
“Once we knew the campaign wanted to use the land west of the hospital grounds for their parking area, we had a meeting with Sanford Health officials to discuss the logistics with maintaining emergency services,” Mathews said. “In that, we also had discussions with the Trump campaign on how they wanted buses to flow.”
“Originally they said it would hold 1,500 (vehicles), but I’ve heard personal estimates of between four and five thousand cars in that parking lot. I don’t know for sure, we weren’t counting cars,” Mastin said. “I think everyone expected a large crowd and planned accordingly, and it seemed to work out pretty well.”
Mathews called the day an all hands on deck experience, but noted that campaign staff helped in drafting a blueprint that helped with traffic control.
“The Trump campaign listened very close to us and heard the concerns that we had,” Mathews said. “I think it went very well considering the large amount of people who came into the community over a short period of time.”
According to Mathews, the city has yet to estimate the total cost of overtime hours for staffing during Friday.
“We did have a lot of extra help, including with people from the street department,” Mathews said. “But, we haven’t calculated that.”
At the Bemidji Regional Airport, Assistant Director Kyle Christiansen said much of the preparation was coordinated with Air Force One personnel and the Secret Service.
“Wherever the president travels, there’s what’s called a ‘temporary flight restriction,’” Christiansen said. “We had one here basically during the time of the event, where during that time the airport was essentially closed. We did have our two MedEvac personnel still able to operate, but it wasn’t like other times when people with a plane can come in.”
Despite the restrictions, commercial flight schedules remained the same.
“It was smooth working with the Air Force One team and Secret Service during that time, because they didn’t want to affect our commercial flight that was scheduled to depart that afternoon,” Christiansen said. “It did end up leaving at 4 p.m., and they were helpful in assisting with that. We also had our regular morning departure and our evening arrival come in at normal times. We were very satisfied with how things went.”
Bemidji Aviation Services
According to Bemidji Aviation Services staff, they did not keep track of the number of people in attendance at the event. Estimates from those who were at the event have ranged from a few thousand to close to 10,000.
Bemidji Aviation Services have directed crowd size related questions to the Trump campaign, who, at the time of publication on Friday, had yet to respond to requests for comment.
Tracie Walter, vice president of Bemidji Aviation Services, said from her perspective, the event went off without a hitch.
“I felt that it was very well organized and smooth,” Walter said. “We saw no problems.”
Walter mentioned that the campaign handled most of the logistics, and said the event tear down and clean up was swift.
“I felt it was well organized, and they did a good job,” she said. “They told us what they were going to do, and they did it.”
With a month to go in the election cycle and potentially more campaign events in Minnesota, Beltrami County Public Health Director Cynthia Borgen said it’s important for residents to keep coronavirus precautions in mind.
“As we’ve been asking people all along, they should be cautious when attending large gatherings,” Borgen said. “When you attend an event with a lot of people, there are most certainly going to be some with COVID. The best thing for the community is for those who do attend big events to lay low for those two weeks after.”
According to Borgen, there is an upcoming testing event for the community, which can be helpful for those who attended last week's event.
“The Health Department has been doing some additional surge testing in different communities around the state and they’re doing some next week in Bemidji at the Armory, Tuesday through Thursday,” Borgen said. “This is a great opportunity for folks who have been at events and are a little concerned about their exposure. They can register and go to these testing events and find out if they have COVID-19.”
Residents can register for the testing at www.primarybio.com/r/bemidji. Testing will take place from noon to 6 p.m. and the armory is located at 1430 23rd St. NW.
Pioneer reporter Hannah Olson contributed to this story.