MIAMI — President Donald Trump redirected the Republican National Convention to Florida after North Carolina's Democratic governor couldn’t “guarantee” a full venue in August because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But with coronavirus cases skyrocketing in Florida as Trump's poll numbers drop in his must-win battleground state, it looks like the president won't get his full-blown festivities there, either.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally, refused to say on Tuesday whether he would lift a rule mandating that indoor gatherings stay under 50 percent capacity — which would hold the Jacksonville convention to 7,500 people. Two octogenarian GOP senators, Lamar Alexander and Chuck Grassley, announced they wouldn’t attend the convention amid the pandemic, which has hit the elderly the hardest.
And Trump himself seemed to acknowledge that his plans for an all-out reelection bash will likely be crimped. He had the power to put his convention in the home of more politically friendly local officials, but Trump can't change the inherent problems in holding a political convention in the middle of a global pandemic.
"It really depends on the timing,” Trump told Voice of America late Tuesday, when asked about downsizing the convention. “Look, we're very flexible. We can do a lot of things. But we're very flexible.”
Republicans familiar with the convention’s planning privately said they hoped Florida's crowd limitation would remain in place because it’s good public policy as well as good politics, muting the criticism that dogged Trump two weeks ago when he struggled to fill a Tulsa, Okla., arena and then drew fire for a re-do rally in Phoenix that had little social distancing or mask-wearing.
“There’s some residuals about Tulsa. But we’re sure this event will be different,” said one Republican National Committee member familiar with the convention planning, who was not authorized to speak about the event. “But let’s face it, it’s not like the media is going to give us credit. It’s like the only time social distancing matters is if Trump is having a rally. Anti-cop protests get a pass.”
Trump’s softening tone took pressure off DeSantis. His reluctance to speak on whether the GOP convention would be subject to restrictions has underscored the sensitivities of trying to balance his political loyalty to the president with his duty to protect the public in a pandemic.
Since DeSantis last month welcomed the Republican National Convention to Florida, state coronavirus caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths have increased. DeSantis reversed himself and forbade bars from serving alcohol. Miami has almost completely retreated into another lockdown. And DeSantis has stepped up his warnings about social distancing, a message that’s harder to square with his embrace of an upcoming convention.
“Be very careful about avoiding crowds, avoiding close contact with people who are not in your household,” DeSantis said at a Tuesday news conference in Miami.
The comments drew a fierce rebuke from state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who attended the event.
“Trump says ‘jump’ and DeSantis says, ‘how high?’” Rodriguez said. “I absolutely think he’s a sock puppet. A sock puppet in good times is embarrassing. A sock puppet in a pandemic is deadly.”
As he walked out of the event, DeSantis would not respond to a question about whether he would lift his crowd-limit order for the convention — an issue raised earlier in the day at a different news conference by the Republican mayor of Jacksonville, where polls show DeSantis and Trump have taken a hit in public approval.
“I would just remind people that the convention is many, many weeks away in late August, and we are acting appropriately right now. We’ll act appropriately at that time,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told local reporters on Tuesday, when he brought up DeSantis’ social-distancing rules that remain in place.
“We are currently under a statewide executive order by the governor," said Curry, a former chairman of the state Republican Party. "Facilities cannot participate in any thing over 50 percent capacity. That’s where we are right now. So we are just to continue to evaluate as we move towards that date. In the meantime, the immediate focus is slowing, stopping the spread, protecting our health care hospital systems and protecting the volunteers.”
Curry last week issued a mask-wearing order ahead of the convention. The Republican National Committee is expected to release its convention safety plans in the coming days, and it announced this week in a memo that “everyone attending the convention within the perimeter will be tested and temperature checked each day.”
Republicans familiar with the event's planning say they're still drafting plans for a full convention, as Trump initially wanted, but they’re also discussing backup plans that could account for a 50 percent-filled arena in Jacksonville, which seats 15,000 currently.
“There’s no question we can sell this thing out, but the question is whether we really want to, given the circumstances,” said one Florida Republican, who was not authorized to speak for the convention but has participated in talks about it.
“The fact is no one knows what this is going to look like in late August. The president wants a full convention, but whether he’ll pressure DeSantis to do that if the numbers look this horrible is iffy.”
Trump said in late May he wanted a full convention, after conflict with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over the proposed event in Charlotte.
“Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed......full attendance in the Arena,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets before deciding to have his nominating speech in Jacksonville.
Some "official business" events will still be held in Charlotte, but the main event will now be in Jacksonville, which has created financial pressures for the party, The New York Times reported.
Spokesmen for the RNC and Trump campaign did not return emails for comment, nor would DeSantis’s press office when asked about whether he would waive the crowd-limitation rule in Jacksonville.
Coronavirus cases in Jacksonville have not increased at the levels seen in Miami, but it cut close to home for Curry, who said he’s in self-imposed quarantine because he was near someone who tested positive for Covid-19. Curry tested negative for coronavirus.
Curry’s decision to implement a mask requirement has drawn a lawsuit from a local business owner. The main attorney on the lawsuit is Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who is involved in similar lawsuits across the state including one in Leon County, home of the state capital of Tallahassee.
Curry indicated he’s putting his faith in mask usage to reduce coronavirus caseloads and avoid another lockdown that would only impose additional “economic pain.”
“As a city, we only have a few tools at our disposal,” Curry said. “The easy tools are wearing a mask and avoiding large crowds.”
But as for regulating the size of those convention crowds? Curry pointed to DeSantis for that decision.