Published On: Thu, Jul 9th, 2020

Jacksonville prepares for Republican National Convention amid COVID-19 spikes


When the Republican National Committee announced in mid-June that it had chosen Jacksonville to host President Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, had about 1,900 reported COVID-19 cases.

Just over three weeks later, Jacksonville — like the rest of Florida — is seeing record numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and Duval County has surpassed 10,000 cases as the state has reopened and testing capacity has increased. On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services Department added Jacksonville to a list of hotspot jurisdictions that “are seeing significant increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations,” and said it will be offering federal help for increased testing in the area over the next five to 12 days.

Though much could change in the coming weeks before the late August convention, the state’s landscape is not what it was when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis welcomed the convention to the Sunshine State. 

In May, he was among the first governors to announce his state would reopen, despite the misgivings of experts who questioned whether it was too soon and polls showing the public, too, harbored mixed feelings about reopening. White House guidelines said states must see a downward trajectory in a two-week period in either the number of cases or in the positivity rates. In the two weeks ahead of its May 4 Phase One reopening, Florida saw days of declining new cases but not a consistent downward trajectory, according to data from the Florida Division of Emergency management.

When DeSantis decided to reopen the state, the president, his campaign and Republican officials praised Florida as a “great success” and accused Democratic governors of staying closed to stifle the economy.

At the end of April, Mr. Trump called DeSantis’ coronavirus response “great.” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh in May said Florida “is a great success” and senior adviser Lara Trump said DeSantis had done “a great job” in reopening.

At this point, Florida has had over 200,000 COVID cases, the third most of any state, behind California and New York. While New York’s infection rate has flattened, California and Florida are still rising. It remains to be seen whether Florida’s rate of infection will still be rising by the time the convention begins on August 24.

The campaign has more recently been qualifying its praise for DeSantis. “Florida has done a much better job as compared to other large states like New York, which has a smaller population,” Murtaugh told CBS News on Tuesday.

This week, Mr. Trump told Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren that the details surrounding the convention are “flexible.”

“When we signed in Jacksonville and again, we wanted to be in North Carolina — that almost worked out but the governor didn’t want to have people use the arena essentially and we sort of — I said, ‘Too bad, too bad for North Carolina,'” Mr. Trump said in an interview clip released Tuesday. “And then we went to Florida and when we went when we signed a few weeks ago it looked good, and now all of a sudden it’s spiking up a little bit, and that’s going to go down. It really depends on the timing. Look, we’re very flexible, we can do a lot of things, but we’re very flexible.”

In June, DeSantis said Florida could potentially host the convention, assuming that mitigation measures like face masks and testing would be in place. The Florida governor was an early proponent of moving the Republican National Convention to his state after the RNC and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper failed to agree on safety precautions to host the event in Charlotte. At the time, he also mentioned there was room for flexibility, depending on the COVID-19 situation at the time of the convention. 

“I think that we probably are going to be able to pull it off,” DeSantis said during a press conference on June 3. “But you know what? If it gets closer and you need to call an audible, I mean heck, [the president] has the CDC at his disposal.”

The RNC has not disclosed how many attendees the party is planning to host in Jacksonville, but convention officials have told CBS News that attendees will be tested and have their temperatures checked daily. Officials are not yet sharing the type of tests that will be used or who is paying for them.

CBS News confirmed on Tuesday that at least five Republican senators do not plan to attend. Senators Chuck Grassley, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney will not be going.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn did not rule out the possibility that it would be unsafe to hold the event. He told CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I think it’s too early to tell. We’ll have to see how this unfolds in Florida and elsewhere around the country.” 

In response to Hahn’s comments, the RNC told CBS News that “the RNC is committed to holding a safe convention that fully complies with local health regulations in place at the time.” With less than 50 days until the event, the RNC added that it plans “to offer health precautions including but not limited to temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing.”

RNC and city officials have committed to expanding COVID-19 testing within the city of Jacksonville ahead of August’s convention, but it remains unclear who will foot the bill. Currently, there are just over 30 testing sites in the city, with three additional sites added Wednesday. The city of Jacksonville has enacted a mandatory mask requirement and Mayor Lenny Curry said Tuesday his team is taking appropriate actions to respond to the present situation.

“We are currently under a statewide executive order by the governor. Facilities cannot participate in anything over 50% capacity. That’s where we are right now,” said Curry. “We’re just going to continue to evaluate as we move towards that date. In the meantime, the immediate focus is slowing, stopping the spread, protecting our healthcare hospital systems, and protecting the vulnerable.”

Florida state GOP Representative Anthony Sabatini, who has filed lawsuits against Florida counties that have ordered face mask mandates, told CBS News that he plans to attend the in-person convention in August. While the Lake County lawmaker thinks that face masks are “silly” and ineffective, he said there’s nothing wrong with implementing temperature checks for convention attendees.

“If Trump held a rally tomorrow, it would be lines, miles around the block,,” said Sabatini, who added that he expects convention attendance to be at full capacity. “The maximum allowed amount of people, that’s how many people will be there because people are excited about Trump in Florida.”

The Democratic National Committee is taking a more cautious approach, scaling down its convention so that not every delegate has to travel to Milwaukee, to participate. The DNC delayed its convention from the third week in July to August 17-20 so that it would have more time to make decisions about how to hold a convention amid the a pandemic that is also causing economic stress.



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