WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and Republicans press ahead with organizing a two-city nominating convention complete with all the trappings of past conventions, Democrats and their nominee Joe Biden are taking a more measured approach, underscoring the difference between both parties in responding to the coronavirus.
Republican National Committee leaders recently announced plans to relocate a portion of the convention’s events from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after North Carolina officials refused to agree to Trump’s demands to relax social distancing requirements to allow for a crowded arena on the night he accepts the party’s renomination. The convention is scheduled for Aug. 24-27.
Trump is now set to deliver his Aug. 27 acceptance speech in Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, which holds up to 15,000 people. The selection of Florida — a swing state Trump narrowly won in 2016 but where he has been trailing Biden in recent polls — comes as the state continues to see a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases.
Florida officials on Friday announced a record 3,800 new coronavirus cases were reported a day earlier, shattering the state’s previous one-day record. There have been more than 85,900 confirmed cases of coronavirus reported in the state since the start of the pandemic. More than 3,000 Floridians have died of the virus, according to state data.
Those figures alarm public health experts, who have been warning that Florida could be the next U.S. epicenter of the disease, and have been urging Trump to reconsider his plans for crowded indoor campaign events, including his convention address.
“The best way that you can avoid — either acquiring or transmitting infection — is to avoid crowded places, to wear a mask whenever you're outside. And if you can do both, avoid the congregation of people and do the mask, that's great,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease official, told ABC News earlier this week when asked whether the RNC should reconsider it’s convention plans.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, appearing on Fox News Sunday said chanting and shouting among supporters in a packed arena could lead to aerosolized transmission of the virus.
"Would I want my loved ones in a setting like that? Absolutely not," Osterholm said. "And it wouldn't matter about politics, I wouldn't want them there."
More than 100 Florida doctors issued an open letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a staunch Trump supporter, urging him and RNC officials to require eventgoers to wear masks and practice social distancing. The physicians also called for increased testing in the Jacksonville area, the placement of hand-sanitizing stations throughout convention events and frequent cleaning of areas used by convention attendees.
“COVID-19 is making a second surge in Florida, proving that this pandemic is still with us,” the letter, organized by the Committee to Protect Medicare, stated. “The rising number of cases coinciding with easing of social distancing measures indicates that COVID-19 is capable of returning aggressively when we let our guard down. By requiring strong health and safety measures during the convention, Gov. DeSantis and the RNC can do their part to help protect all Floridians and save lives.”
GOP convention organizers have not responded to questions about what measures, if any, will be put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among eventgoers.
Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, appearing on Fox News recently, declined to say whether convention attendees will be forced to sign a waiver similar to one put in place by the Trump campaign for his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that protects the campaign and event venue from any liability should rallygoers catch the virus.
“We haven’t even gotten there yet,” McDaniel said, adding that the party wants “to put the safety of convention-goers first and foremost.”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who has attended at least eight past GOP conventions, said he initially was looking forward to attending the Charlotte convention, noting that his daughter recently moved to the area. But he said he is now undecided on the scaled-back events in North Carolina. King said he will "probably not" attend any events in Jacksonville.
“Thousands of people in a closed arena raises health issues, so I really haven’t decided,” King said.
Asked what measures would make him feel more safe attending the convention, King said: “I would hope there's some type of social distancing. I hope that everyone is required to wear a mask, I think they should do that. There’s still two and a half months, so there’s still time.”
King noted the difficulty of practicing social distancing recommendations such as not shaking hands or keeping 6 feet apart at an event built around networking and energizing party stalwarts ahead of the election.
“It almost goes against the whole instinct of a convention,” King said. “Also my experience with conventions, if the arena has a capacity of 25,000 [or] 20,000, whatever the number is, on the night when the acceptance speech is given, there’s at least another 5,000 to 10,000 more people crammed into the hall. So literally you're on top of each other.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a staunch Trump supporter, plans to attend the convention events in Jacksonville, according to his spokeswoman. Asked what social distancing measures, if any, Zeldin believed should be put in place at the convention, his spokeswoman Katie Vincentz said: "It is our understanding that coronavirus precautions are being taken."
The Democratic National Convention was moved from July to August to give organizers more time to plan around the coronavirus.
Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez told reporters recently the party still plans to hold convention events Aug. 17- 20 at the Fiserv Forum arena in Milwaukee, but how many attendees will be allowed into the arena and whether Biden will deliver his acceptance speech in Milwaukee are uncertain.
"Unlike Donald Trump, we are actually going to listen to the public health experts as we come to Milwaukee because we believe it's really important to have a safe, exciting, inspiring convention in Milwaukee and I'm confident we can do that,” Perez said. "What we have done is provide flexibility to our convention planners so that they can continue to consult with those public health experts and make the right decision."
The DNC’s rules committee recently adopted rules allowing convention delegates to cast their votes remotely to cut down on travel, and some party leaders have been pushing for the convention’s prime-time speeches to take place with speakers broadcasting from different parts of the country.
“Even though I know there’s a risk of not having a traditional convention, I think it’d be much more impactful watching Joe Biden give his acceptance speech in front of Mount Rushmore, or in front of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, or another historic site to articulate the vision and the ideas he represents for the country,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from Great Neck.
Zimmerman, a prominent Democratic campaign donor who has attended the party’s conventions since the early 1980s, said he has been advocating “strongly” for a “virtual convention.”
“We can certainly vote virtually on key issues on our phones if need be. There's more at stake,” Zimmerman said. “By having a virtual convention, and by using our imagination we show the country that we value public safety and health over cheap political stunts.”