Many of Donald Trump’s supporters were left stranded in frigid temperatures for hours late Tuesday night after the president delivered a speech in Omaha, Nebraska, and then flew home on Air Force One while the campaign struggled with transportation issues.
After the president departed, hundreds in the audience were stuck waiting hours in near-freezing temperatures, according to media reports, while the Trump campaign tells PEOPLE its buses struggled to navigate street “closures and resulting congestion” while slowly bringing people back to their cars about three miles away.
According to Omaha police, "there were 30 people contacted for medical reasons and a total of 7 people transported to area hospitals with a variety of medical conditions."
NBC News reports the Omaha Airport Authority could not determine whether the hospitalizations were a result of the cold weather.
A spokesperson for local Creighton University Medical Center tells PEOPLE its hospital treated five of the individuals, who arrived "with minor complaints.” The downtown hospital would not provide further information about their condition, citing patient privacy laws.
A pool report from Tuesday night’s event at the Omaha’s Eppley Airfield noted temperatures were about 32 degrees while Trump, 74, spoke to a crowd of around 6,000 supporters — some who wore masks, as a pandemic precaution, though most stood shoulder-to-shoulder.
“Is there any place you would rather be than at a Trump rally on about a 10-degree evening? 10 degrees,” Trump told the crowd during his speech, tightly closing his coat with his leather-gloved hands as a joke. “It’s cold out here, but that’s okay.”
Afterwards, video of the rally showed the president and a group of his staff — including Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and senior adviser Hope Hicks — walking back onto Air Force Once while dancing to the “Y.M.CA.”
In what was described by one reporter as a “chaotic cluster" soon after, police said "people flooded to the waiting buses," leading officers to request additional help from the city's transit authority.
The wait lasted as long as three hours for some, while others made the miles-long trek back to their cars. (Police say the shortest distance was a 2.5-mile walk and many "underestimated" the distance.)
"The foot traffic on Lindberg Drive slowed bus traffic and delayed bus trips considerably," a police spokesperson told PEOPLE.
The area wasn’t fully cleared until after midnight, more than three hours after the president left, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
"We were all parked over at Eppley," a local campaign volunteer, Kris Beckenbach, told the World-Herald. "We were 3.5 miles through darkness to get there. There was no direction given. I expected at the end of the rally somebody will say, 'Go this way and there will be buses waiting.' "
Beckenbach told the paper that buses didn’t return to the area for an “hour and a half,” though she didn’t blame the campaign for the wait. "How do you practice for that?"
Local members of the Democratic Party did blame Trump’s campaign, however.
State Sen. Megan Hunt criticized the event on social media while noting it was “freezing and snowy in Omaha tonight.”
"Leaving thousands of Nebraskans stranded in the cold captures entire Trump administration," said Jane Kleeb, the state's Democratic Party chairperson. "I hope those responsible for poor planning to feed Trump’s ego will be held accountable and that fellow Nebraskans turn out to vote to end this chaos."
When asked about the incident by PEOPLE, a Trump campaign spokeswoman touted the president’s crowd size and said the campaign had offered attendees amenities like “tents, heaters, generators, hot cocoa, and handwarmers.”
“Because of the sheer size of the crowd, we deployed 40 shuttle buses – double the normal allotment – but local road closures and resulting congestion caused delays,” Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign deputy national press secretary, said in a statement.
“We always strive to provide the best guest experience at our events and we care about their safety,” Zager said.
Beyond the freezing temperatures, video from the rally shows the thousands of supporters in attendance standing in close physical proximity. Federal health officials have continued to warn six foot distances between individuals is a key protocol to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The president, however, insists the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. is turning the corner even as cases surge in some states.
A spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department tells PEOPLE there was some communication with the campaign ahead of Tuesday's rally about safety protocols and that the event bypassed the state’s mask mandates because it was outside.
Nonetheless, “there’s always a concern these days anytime there’s a large gathering,” says Phil Rooney, the county health department’s public information officer.
Trump is scheduled to hold seven more rallies around the country between Wednesday and Friday, and more are still expected to be announced ahead of Election Day on Tuesday — a frenetic campaign pace against the backdrop of national and state polls showing the president trailing his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
On Wednesday, Biden called what happened at the rally “an image that captured President Trump’s whole approach to this crisis. … He leaves everyone else to suffer.”
When asked earlier this month about the president holding rallies despite the pandemic, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN: “We know that that is asking for trouble when you do that.”
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