Sam Newby was excited at first when the Republican National Convention decided to head to his city.
But the Republican vice president of the Jacksonville City Council, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 back in March, has grown more worried as the late August convention fast approaches. There weren’t many cases in the area when the move was first announced, Newby said, but he warned that “now it's really starting to spike.”
“In a normal situation, I would be glad for the RNC to come here, I would be the first one to be there,” Newby said.“But with the spike of it, and I know what it can do, that's why I'm concerned about it coming to Jacksonville.”
Trump’s drive for a Jacksonville convention is on a collision course with the rampant spread of the coronavirus in Florida. The public health situation in the state has continued to grow worse in recent weeks, setting up the tense spectacle of the GOP holding its marquee event next month in a state that has become an epicenter of a resurgent COVID-19.
“At this point, with the numbers going up, it's going to really be tough,” Newby warned in an interview.
Only adding to the tension is that Trump likely needs to win Florida if he hopes to get a second term in the White House. And Newby isn’t alone in his concerns.
“I don't want to see another Tulsa here," said Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat who serves as president of the Jacksonville City Council, referring to the president’s June rally.
In Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, new cases in the county rose last week according to state health department data. And Leo Alonso, an emergency medicine doctor in Jacksonville, described an alarming scene in the city describing the spread of the coronavirus as dramatic in recent weeks. He’s now worried that Duval County is becoming a hot spot.
“This is really a bad time to be talking about having a convention here,” said Alonso, a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare.
As Florida’s coronavirus situation continues to concern officials in the state, some prominent Republican party elders have made clear that they won’t be heading to see the president’s in-person nomination speech.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley won’t head to the convention due to the coronavirus, according to The Des Moines Register. And four other GOP senators including Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) are also skipping the convention according to The Washington Post.
Trump and the GOP decided to move his acceptance speech to Jacksonville after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declined to promise him a packed arena due to continued concerns over COVID-19 infections in the state. After states like Florida, Tennessee and Georgia moved to try and bring the convention to their states, Jacksonville won out.
Having both a GOP governor in Ron DeSantis and a Republican mayor in the city gave the party a buffer from the fraught political tensions that emerged during the pandemic over the size of the convention itself when it was scheduled to be held in North Carolina. But following the state’s spike in cases Trump hedged on his push in a recent television interview, according to The Miami Herald, saying “we’re very flexible,” when it comes how the Jacksonville convention will turn out.
Democrats have already moved for a downsized convention for former Vice President Joe Biden’s nomination, providing a stark contrast to the uncertainty surrounding what Trump’s mega-event will look like late next month.
Plans now call for the president’s speech to be held late next month at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, according to the party’s announcement of the moved event. The city’s host committee told reporters this week that "everyone attending the convention within the perimeter will be tested and temperature checked each day,” according to CNN.
The RNC did not respond to a request for comment this week asking how many people they expect to attend the Jacksonville portion of the convention. But the party did say in a statement that they are “committed to holding a safe convention that fully complies with local health regulations in place at the time.”
“The event is still almost two months away, and we are planning to offer health precautions including but not limited to temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing,” RNC spokesperson Mike Reed said in the statement. “We have a great working relationship with local leadership in Jacksonville and the state of Florida, and we will continue to coordinate with them in the months ahead.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast this week, Hazouri, the Jacksonville City Council president, lamented the lack of details he knew about the convention. That feeling was also backed by the council’s GOP vice president, who said council members haven’t gotten much information.
“They're not communicating with us about what they're doing. And I don't think it's particularly something that they're hiding. I think it's more that they don't know themselves what the RNC is doing,” Hazouri said.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry emphasized to reporters in a briefing Tuesday that the convention is “many many weeks away.” He also pointed to a statewide executive order by Florida’s GOP governor that he said means "facilities cannot participate in anything over 50 percent capacity."
“We are acting appropriately right now,” Curry said. “We'll act appropriately at that time.”
Later on in that same briefing, the mayor’s chief of staff downplayed the city council’s involvement in the upcoming convention. The city also put in place last week a “mandatory mask requirement,” that applies to both indoor and public locations, according to the announcement.
Opposition to the convention has already become clear, with News4Jax reporting earlier this week that a large group of African-American pastors had signed on to a letter calling on the city to “reconsider” holding the RNC.
Even though the RNC’s marquee event will no longer be held in Charlotte, Mark Brody, North Carolina’s national GOP committeeman said he isn’t that concerned about heading to Jacksonville next month to see the president’s speech.
And while the president’s June Tulsa rally deeply troubled some officials, Brody said he is still expecting the president’s nomination speech to be a major event. He predicted that “we’re going to fill the stadium,” even though he doubted that people who are seriously at risk would turn out for the event.
“This is a historic one-time event,” Brody said. “I think people are going to be able to take that chance.”