Republicans expected to move part of convention to Florida from Charlotte

Posted June 10, 2020 9:02 a.m. EDT
Updated June 10, 2020 6:28 p.m. EDT

— Republicans expect to move part of their national convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Fla., a shift planned after President Donald Trump told officials in North Carolina that he did not want to use social distancing measures aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus, according to three senior Republican sources.

The decision could change, the Republicans cautioned, but as of now, officials are on track to announce the new location as early as Thursday.

"Several cities are still being considered. No final decision has been made," a GOP source told WRAL News, quoting a Republican National Committee official. "Convention officials are touring Phoenix, Savannah, [Ga.,] Dallas and Jacksonville this week, and we have been in conversations with several other potential locations."

Jacksonville has been Republicans’ top choice for days, after Trump told North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, that he needed an answer about whether Charlotte could accommodate the convention in August with a promise that there would not be social distancing.

Jacksonville is the most populous city in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is an ally of Trump. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is a former Florida Republican Party chairman.

Once they decided to uproot the convention, Trump’s aides and Republican officials had wanted to relocate to a state, and a city, controlled by Republicans. Jacksonville also may have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the gathering, people familiar with the discussions said, and it is a comparatively easy drive from Charlotte.

What exactly the convention will look like remains unclear. Conventions normally last for four days, with thousands of party officials, delegates, donors, members of the news media and others coming together for speeches and votes.

"All convention business will remain in Charlotte. But because of the restrictions presently in place by the governor, the president’s acceptance of the nomination – the celebration – will have to take place elsewhere," the GOP source quoted the RNC official as saying.

The convention and all the events around it are expected to bring in between $135 million and $200 million.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said the convention would provide a big boost to businesses that have struggled with pandemic-related shutdowns and the recent protests that caused damage in parts of Charlotte.

"This convention was really an opportunity, particularly for those small businesses – restaurants, hotels, other folks in the hospitality industry – in the Charlotte region to really get a bump," Moore, R-Cleveland, said. "Now, because of the governor’s decision, they’re not going to have that opportunity, and that’s very unfortunate."

North Carolina lawmakers had proposed to require the state to allow a full-scale convention in Charlotte, but they said Wednesday that they have dropped that idea, saying it's now too late.

Whether any of the convention other than Trump's acceptance speech is held in Jacksonville remains to be seen.

"Though there have been some conversations about business meetings being held in our city, nothing has been confirmed to us," CLT Host 2020 Inc., the committee set up to host the convention in Charlotte, said in a statement. "This decision is in clear violation of the agreements made with the City of Charlotte, the County of Mecklenburg, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the Charlotte Host Committee. Unfortunately, this action most directly impacts our hospitality and tourism partners, small businesses and vendors counting on the economic impact of the promised events."

Charlotte officials said they still want to work with the RNC to keep the whole convention in town.

"The City of Charlotte remains willing to work in good faith to complete its contractual obligations under the terms of the two convention agreements," officials said in a statement. "The city has not been officially informed of the RNC’s intent to relocate the convention. Considering the media reports of the RNC’s apparent unilateral decision to relocate a substantial portion of the convention to Jacksonville, an immediate discussion with the RNC and our partners regarding contractual obligations and remedies resulting from this apparent decision is required."

New reported cases of the coronavirus are on the rise in both North Carolina and Florida, and Mecklenburg County is among the "hotspots" the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials are watching.

Cooper has repeatedly told Trump that it was too early to make any promises about social distancing, and state health officials said the Republican National Committee and the host committee in Charlotte provided a requested plan for safely holding the event.

An initial plan called for thermal scans of all delegates entering the arena and plenty of hand sanitizer, but no mention was made of anyone wearing masks or any social distancing guidelines.

"We once again call on Governor Cooper to provide the RNC the assurances that they need to move forward with the convention in Charlotte," North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley said in a statement. "He is the only person who is blocking an event which would bring $200 million to our state economy, and we urge him to reverse course before it is too late."

North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Austin Cook called Trump "delusional" for demanding a full-scale convention with limited safety precautions in the middle of a pandemic.

"Governor Cooper has made it clear that no political event is worth risking the public health of the Charlotte community and the lives of more North Carolinians. Evidently, President Trump’s calculus is different," Cook said in a statement.

Jacksonville is among the dozens of cities and towns where protesters have called for changes in the treatment of black people by law enforcement. On Tuesday, Curry walked with protesters who were demonstrating outside City Hall. Early Tuesday morning, city officials took down a confederate statue there.

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