SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- President Donald Trump will speak at the Mount Rushmore national memorial tonight before the first fireworks show there in years.
The event, with 7,500 tickets issued, will feature a patriotic display at a monument known as "the Shrine of Democracy." 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.
American Indian 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.
Tribal leaders in South Dakota plan to protest the event today.
A July Fourth event at the site is pouring salt in a wound, said Ricky Gray Grass, a leader of the Oglala Sioux's executive council. "The whole Black Hills is sacred. For them to come and carve the presidents, slave owners who have no meaning to us, it was an insult."
The U.S. government acknowledged the Great Sioux nation's jurisdiction over the Black Hills in two treaties, in 1851 and 1868. Federal officials took over part of the area after gold was discovered there, and a 1980 Supreme Court decision rejected the Sioux's claim that the land had been stolen 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 will run $350,000, with the state bearing the cost.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem 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 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 past two weeks. 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.
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."
The National Park Service's assessment concluded that after consulting with several tribes as well as experts and the public, "it is the superintendent's professional judgment that there will be no impairment of park resources and values."
Ian Fury, the governor's spokesman, said firefighters will have a 20-person crew on-site , along with extra fire engines.
Event organizers are monitoring the fire conditions leading up to the event and will make a decision today about whether the fireworks would be safe.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Groves of The Associated Press; and by Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears and Teo Armus of The Washington Post.