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Democratic convention host committee lays off staff as coronavirus jeopardizes event

The Milwaukee committee is cutting its staff in half as many wonder if the parties' conventions should still happen this summer.
Image: Stage hands affix the DNC logo to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia
Stage hands affix the DNC logo to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The host committee for the Democratic National Convention is reducing its workforce by more than half, officials told NBC News on Thursday, laying off some staffers and reassigning others in response to the coronavirus crisis, which has raised questions about whether either party should still hold the mass gatherings this summer.

The Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee, which is responsible for raising money, recruiting volunteers and liaising with the local community, is reducing its 31-member staff to just 14 people.

Six staffers will be laid off, but continue to get health insurance coverage through August. Another 11 staffers will be offered jobs as organizers for the Democratic party or with the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC), a separate entity that is responsible for the official content of the convention itself.

"The entire nation is facing the unprecedented challenge of responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and unfortunately, the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee is no different," the host committee's CEO Raquel Filmanowicz, said in a statement.

"In this climate of uncertainty, we must adjust our plans to match the new reality we’re facing as a nation," Filmanowicz added. "As we work to help our staff transition through this difficult time, we remain steadfast in our commitment to hosting a successful and safe Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this August."

Democrats have already delayed the quadrennial event from July to August in response to the COVID-19 crisis. But as lockdowns are extended and death tolls increase nationwide, some wonder if it will be safe even by then to bring thousands of the nation's most powerful people together in one room.

“We may not be able to put 10, 20, 30,000 people in one place, and that’s very possible," Joe Biden, who is expected to be nominated for the presidency in Milwaukee, said in a recent interview with ABC News.

But the party is still for now planning to hold an in-person convention— even as Biden and others have floated the possibility of a "virtual convention."

The conventions serve as multi-day televised pep rallies for the parties, but there is little actual business to conduct other than formally nominating Biden and President Donald Trump as each party's standard-bearer in the November election.

Republicans are moving full steam ahead with their August convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, thanks to Trump's insistence that he will not cancel it and that he has "no contingency plan" for an alternative.

But on Wednesday, Republicans turned what was supposed to be a walkthrough of their convention site for the media into a teleconference briefing, since attending in-person was out of the question. Officials insisted they could protect public health during the event, even if delegates have to wear masks or keep their distance from each other inside the arena.

The conventions cost millions of dollars and officials typically tap local corporations and wealthy individuals, but fundraising has been a challenge during the crisis.

The Democratic National Committee, which oversees the DNCC, has moved to Zoom to host virtual fundraisers and is planning to host one to two events per week featuring Chairman Tom Perez and other prominent party figures.

"The Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee has played an instrumental role in helping us prepare for a historic convention this summer and we are grateful for the contributions of everyone on their team," Joe Solmonese, the CEO of the DNCC, said in a statement. "We are committed to doing everything we can to support the employees who are transitioning as the Host Committee makes adjustments to continue their important work in light of this unprecedented global pandemic."