In the midst of many unforced political errors by President Trump, his determination to hold an old-school, packed-hall convention in the middle of a pandemic is beginning to look highly symbolic. The very hint of health restrictions on his plans in North Carolina led Trump to abruptly move at least some major convention events — notably his acceptance speech — from the original Charlotte site to Jacksonville, to the great frustration of Republican planners and fundraisers. Then, as COVID-19 surged in Florida, public-health concerns in the new host city began to exceed any of those expressed by officials in Charlotte, as CBS News noted last week:
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.
Near the end of June, Jacksonville’s Republican mayor, Lenny Curry, issued a mandatory mask order for indoor gatherings, creating a conflict with Trump’s manifest desire for the kind of uninhibited, unmasked cheering he encouraged in holding his disastrous Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally on June 20. More recently, RNC planners have been quietly looking at outdoor venues in Jacksonville, presumably to evade the mask order while lowering coronavirus risks, as the Washington Post reported:
Republican officials have looked at the 121 Financial Ballpark, which hosts minor league games and seats about 11,000, and the TIAA Bank Field, which is home to the Jacksonville Jaguars and can seat more than 65,000. Both arenas are within a short walking distance of the VyStar Arena, an indoor facility that seats about 15,000. Republican officials recently toured both sites during meetings in Jacksonville, officials say.
These two options show the problems associated with an outdoor event intended to convey noise and excitement. If there’s any social distancing at all, the Minor League venue could produce a small and relatively quiet crowd, while the huge NFL stadium may be hard to fill if pandemic fears persist, which is likely. And as anyone who has been in that part of the county in late August can tell you, the weather could be an issue for an outdoor gathering: insufferably hot and humid, with frequent yet unpredictable downpours and thunderstorms.
For the very first time, Trump himself seems to be realizing he can’t just bully his way into the kind of celebration of himself he craves, according to the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller:
After months of insisting that the Republican National Convention go off as scheduled despite the pandemic, President Donald Trump is slowly coming to accept that the late August event will not be the four-night infomercial for his reelection that he had anticipated …
Asked whether he’d want to limit the gathering if the state’s coronavirus cases continue to rise, Trump replied that the decision “really depends on the timing.”
“We’re always looking at different things,” Trump said during an interview on Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren.”
“When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good,” the president continued. “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.”
He may have to be. A discouraging sign for the GOP is the experience of its Texas affiliate, whose plans to hold an in-person convention in another COVID-19 hot spot, Houston, have come to grief. First Houston officials, led by Mayor Sylvester Turner, withdrew permission for the Republicans to utilize the city-owned venue for their 6,000-person event. Then a trial judge and later the Texas Supreme Court rebuffed Republican claims that the cancellation violated their First Amendment rights.
While it is less likely that Jacksonville officials will similarly shut down the RNC, there could be a mutual agreement between the city and the party that holding a “celebration” that just draws attention to president’s poor handling of the pandemic is in no one’s best interest. Perhaps Trump can just deliver his acceptance speech from Mar-a-Lago with his hirelings whooping it up.