Republican conference in Jacksonville to be downsized as coronavirus surges in Florida

Organizers for the Republican National Convention announced a severe cap on the number of people who can attend the event in Jacksonville, Florida, next month.

The move comes as coronavirus cases skyrocket in the state, forcing the group to rethink its planning to account for measures to avoid spreading the disease to attendees and employees. 

The event, scheduled to take place between Aug. 24 and Aug. 27, will now be held in both indoor and outdoor venues, and the number of people allowed to attend will be slashed by thousands, according to a letter from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel sent to delegates Thursday morning. 

“Admittance to the convention venue for the first three days of the convention celebration in Jacksonville (August 24, 25, 26) will be limited to regular delegates only,” McDaniel said in the letter, meaning that only about 2,500 people would be in attendance those days.

“For the final day (Thursday, August 27) when President Trump will publicly accept the nomination, we plan that each delegate, their guest, and alternate delegates will be permitted to attend,” the letter continued.

That would mean about 6,000 or 7,000 people would be able to attend on the final day. The news of the scaled-back convention was first reported by The Washington Post. 

The convention typically attracts tens of thousands of people over the course of multiple days. Event organizers had been adamant about hosting a packed convention on a scale similar to those in the past, when the world was free of Covid-19. 

President Donald Trump has been eager for the convention to have cheering crowds as a way to uplift his flagging campaign. His Democratic rival Joe Biden has opened a wide lead in the race, according to most national polls, and in swing states including Florida.

But the pandemic appears to have succeeded in scuttling Trump’s plans. 

The scale-back is just the latest shift to a convention that has seen drastic and unusual upheaval over the last few months. The biggest move was the unconventional change in location, to Jacksonville from Charlotte, North Carolina, following a deadlock over how to execute the event.

The RNC pulled out of Charlotte after Trump clashed with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who expected organizers to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

Officials in North Carolina asked Republican organizers repeatedly to come up with a plan to maintain social distancing. The RNC instead promised to conduct temperature checks and hand out masks, but gave no indication that social distancing or even wearing those masks would be enforced. Strict adherence to social distancing, as requested by North Carolina officials, would have likely meant drastically slashing the number of people in attendance, which the GOP signaled would not be in the cards.

But the decision to move to Jacksonville has come with its own set of challenges and concessions.

Florida is one of dozens of states that has seen sudden spikes in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in recent weeks. With Covid-19 cases now rising there, organizers have been forced to face the reality of the virus and its potential impacts.

First the RNC raised the possibility of hosting the convention at least partly outdoors instead of at the indoor VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena as expected. 

Moving the event out of doors in August, when the weather in Florida can be hot, humid and potentially extreme, could add unknown elements to an already difficult transition.

Past convention organizers told CNBC after news broke of the venue change that they were skeptical the GOP would be able to pull off a robust event on such short notice. 

Planning a convention is a large undertaking that involves tens of millions of dollars, dozens of pages of legal contracts, intense arena renovation and whole-city adjustments to prepare for the flood of people who attend. 

And while McDaniel’s letter from Thursday says that attendees will have “available COVID-19 testing,” “on-site temperature checks,” “available PPE,” and “aggressive sanitizing protocols,” it does not specify how or whether attendees will be asked to practice social distancing. 

In stark contrast to the Republican plan, the Democratic National Convention, slated for Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, will be a nearly all-virtual event in Milwaukee. Delegates have been told to stay home due to health concerns, and the Democratic National Committee has said it is reevaluating how many people will be allowed on the convention floor.

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