COVID-19 and Florida's governor could tank Trump's renomination festivities

The same restrictions that drove the GOP convention out of North Carolina are in place for Jacksonville.
Donald Trump
Donald Trump smiles as he addresses delegates during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.Patrick Semansky / AP file

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By Corky Siemaszko

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the deadly pandemic sweeping through his state could help decide whether President Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech next month at the Republican National Convention to a packed crowd — or to a lot of empty seats.

Florida is operating under an executive order DeSantis enacted to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which requires all big sports venues to operate at no more than 50 percent capacity, the governor's spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, confirmed.

That includes VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, the 15,000-seat venue where Republicans intend to gather Aug. 24-27 to hold the hoopla-packed part of Trump's nomination for a second term.

Lenny Curry, Jacksonville's popular Republican mayor, said recently that the city is keeping close tabs on the crisis to see whether it's safe to have a mass gathering like the GOP convention at the end of August.

However, it's the "governor's call" on whether it's safe to lift the 50 percent mandate, Curry spokeswoman Marjorie Dennis said Monday via email. "Mayor would not have to sign off."

Aguirre Ferré didn't immediately reply when asked whether DeSantis was planning to rescind the order in time for the convention.

Florida shattered its single-day record Sunday with 15,299 new coronavirus cases, eclipsing a daily record set by New York state by 3,000.

Florida has recorded 282,435 cases and 4,380 deaths, according to an NBC News tally. And the two-week death total is up by 90 percent over the previous two weeks. There were 487 deaths June 15-28 and 927 more June 29-July 12.

Jacksonville is getting the convention because Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, concerned about the spread of COVID-19, wouldn't guarantee Trump a full house at the venue in Charlotte where the renomination was supposed to have been held, saying the event should be scaled back.

In stepped DeSantis, a loyal Trump ally, with the offer to help the president and bring some much-needed tourist dollars to Florida by holding the splashiest parts of Trump's renomination in Jacksonville.

That was before Florida began breaking records for new coronavirus cases and after the governor extended his executive order mandating that large indoor gatherings remain under 50 percent capacity.

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Now DeSantis faces a difficult decision: possibly anger Trump by keeping the mandate in place or face blowback from Floridians increasingly concerned about the spread of the virus.

"I wouldn't want to be on that call to Trump," said Mitch Ceasar, Florida's former Democratic Party chairman. "Florida is now the epicenter of the virus both nationally and internationally, and I say that sadly as a Florida resident."

Trump, in a recent interview, said he's willing to be "very flexible."

"We're always looking at different things," Trump said on Gray Television's "Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren."

"When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good," the president said. "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."

Several people who live near the Jacksonville arena have filed a lawsuit to stop the Republican National Committee from holding the convention in their neighborhood, calling it a health risk and noting that a number of people became infected after Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because they didn't wear masks or practice social distancing.

Curry left open the possibility of asking the RNC to move the convention out of Jacksonville "if we have "widespread community spread and the ICUs are full and hospitals can't handle it."

Susan McManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida, said moving the convention isn't likely, because that would be "hitting big Republican donors twice in a negative fashion."

While the concerns that the convention could become a disease incubator are very real, Florida has already lost billions of dollars because of the pandemic, she said. DeSantis has to come up with a way to keep the event in Florida while ensuring that people are safe.

"I think if Trump's people are pragmatic, and that's a big if, they have to be aware of the position the governor is in," she said. "This is the season where the tourists come in and spend money, and the state's budget has already suffered as a result of the pandemic. Florida is really in a bad place."

So the triumphant multiday extravaganza that Team Trump envisioned might have to be scaled back, featuring social distancing and mask-wearing, McManus said.

DeSantis and Trump "both have strong personalities," McManus said. "I still think there's going to have to be some give and take to make this work. An all-or-nothing solution doesn't benefit either of them."

The president wore a mask in a public setting Saturday for the first time since the crisis began. Before that, he had resisted even as other Republicans had begun wearing them.

Trump still hopes to pump up the pageantry and deliver an acceptance speech before an adoring crowd at a venue that has played host to soldout concerts by performers like Rihanna, Garth Brooks, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, The Associated Press reported.

But the script of the convention is already different from those of previous galas. Key events like the roll call of states to renominate the president — a highlight of any convention — will be conducted by proxy votes in Charlotte. And a half-dozen prominent Republican senators, at least two of whom expressed concerns about COVID-19, have already said they aren't going to the convention.

The Republican National Committee didn't respond to questions about how the arena would be retrofitted to allow for social distancing.

There has also been a proposal to move the convention to an outdoor venue, like TIAA Bank Stadium, to minimize the risk of transmission.

"This seems very unlikely because of the heat and humidity and high chance of thunderstorms in north Florida in the summer," said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. "In addition, while an outdoor venue is certainly safer in terms of the potential for transmitting the virus, it would probably greatly reduce the fever pitch of the event compared to the acoustics of an indoor venue."

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And forget about a totally virtual convention.

"President Trump seems to have very little use for the idea of a totally online convention, and it would provide very little in the way of exciting the base," Jewett said.

RNC spokesman Mike Reed told the AP that the party is keeping all its options open, for now.

"The convention is still a month and a half away, so there is time to adjust and make the most appropriate decisions regarding venue options and an array of health precautions that will allow us to have a safe and exciting event for all," Reed said. "We will continue to coordinate with local leadership in Jacksonville and in Florida in the weeks ahead."