A Florida RNC could prove an economic bonanza — but may turn the state into a viral vector

Jacksonville is now the venue for President Donald Trump's nomination celebration at the Republican National Convention. Credit: AndrewAvitus via Wikimedia Commons

Moving the Republican National Convention to the key battleground state that is Florida could mean packing tens of thousands of delegates, alternates, party officials, staff, volunteers, and journalists into a hall while the COVID-19 pandemic remains in full flower.

That sounds like a risk worth taking to Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, and other party officials. DeSantis has been ardently lobbying to shift the party to Jacksonville, Orlando, or Miami, in whole or in part, in search of a potential $100 million economic boost.

“My view would be, it should be a default yes. And then, as we get closer, you can make determinations about how you do it,” he said. “If you need to call an audible, you can always call an audible” depending on conditions at the time.

Other observers, including Democrats and public health experts, aren’t so sure. And not just because of the pandemic. Mac Stipanovich, the former GOP lobbyist and political operative who left the party in outrage over President Donald Trump, noted the prospects for civil unrest over police brutality.

“I suppose the idea is that it will be some sort of economic jolt,” he said during a telephone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“But it’s doubtful to me that it would help Trump in Florida, because I would expect it to be more like the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 than a lovefest. Scenes of violence and chaos in the last two weeks around America appear to have damaged Trump’s standing with voters significantly. I don’t know why chaos in the streets of Jacksonville or Orlando would improve it,” he said.

“It’d be better that it happens in Birmingham than Jacksonville. He’s got a little more cushion in those red states.”

We’re talking about this because of President Trump’s impatience with Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who’s asked the Republican National Committee to deliver hard plans for safely holding the convention in Charlotte in August.

Trump and the RNC laid down the law to Cooper in a letter dated May 30. It said the party’s contract with Charlotte calls for a full convention involving 19,000 people and with restaurants and bars operating at full capacity to serve them.

As for safety, the party envisioned temperature checks, testing, “enhanced sanitation,” and making masks available “for those who request one.”

Additionally, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel had told reporters that officials would determine during late June or early July what specific safeguards it would impose, according to a CNN report.

“We do not think at this time we have to switch to an alternative plan, but of course, we will monitor circumstances and adjust accordingly,” she said. “We will not be holding a virtual convention.”

Cooper has characterized his talks with the RNC as no different from his conversations with other big operations, including the Carolina Panthers football team and NASCAR. That latter organization developed a plan to employ face masks and physical distancing to protect participants.

“Everybody wants to get back into action soon, but I think everybody knows that we have to take some steps to make sure that people are protected, because this virus is still going to be with us in August,” Cooper said last week, according to Phoenix affiliate N.C. Policy Watch.

“We have asked the RNC to present to us in writing their proposals. We’ve had discussions with them about a very limited convention all the way up. And we want to see in writing what their plans are.”

Representatives of the Republican Party of Florida clearly would welcome a move to Florida.

“What better place than Florida for the Republican National Convention? @RealDonaldTrump’s home state and the largest swing state,” the party said on its Twitter feed in late May.

The same feed contained this statement from state chairman Joe Gruters:

“The Republican Party of Florida would welcome the opportunity to host the Republican National Convention. Florida is committed to ensuring a safe, secure and successful event for President @realDonaldTrump and all attendees.” — Chairman @JoeGruters

State party spokeswoman Alia Faraj-Johnson added:

“Florida has made it clear that it would love to host the Republican National Convention and we would be ready to roll out the red carpet if Florida is selected. As the nation’s largest swing state, the president’s home state and a state that is proud of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is also one of America’s best governors — Florida would welcome the convention.”

National Democrats, meanwhile, have said they may test everyone entering the convention hall in Milwaukee for the coronavirus that causes COVID, according to local broadcaster WISN.

But even the conservative Daily Caller has published dire warnings about the GOP convention as disease vector. Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright, for example, said this:

“Packing 19,000 persons, from 50 states and DC, into an arena for four days during an ongoing pandemic would be grossly irresponsible. With most of the 19,000 participants, including the candidates, being over age 50 and thus at higher risk of infection, it would not be surprising to see hundreds of new infections, possibly including the candidates.”

In recent days, COVID-19 infections have been spiking in Florida, and the most recent figures from the state Department of Health show close to 65,000 coronavirus infections across the state. The death toll in Florida is 2,712.

Miami-Dade, Orange, and Duval are among the top 10 counties for the highest numbers of infections — all locations that DeSantis has mentioned for an RNC venue. Miami-Dade has the most infections in the state — nearly 20,000.

That said, Florida isn’t that far apart from North Carolina on the key public health data points for COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Florida has 302 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people, compared to 348 for North Carolina, the site chosen for the Republican convention, according to a New York Times analysis. As for coronavirus deaths, Florida has 13 deaths per 100,000, compared to 10 for North Carolina.

Republican Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman said the Florida Democratic Party wasn’t commenting on the prospect at this time, but passed along comments from national party leaders:

“Over 100,000 people have died, tens of millions are unemployed, and our country is facing civil unrest. And yet, Donald Trump is more concerned about holding a massive party for himself than leading our nation through crisis. He has abandoned the people of North Carolina while refusing to acknowledge the severity of this pandemic,” communications director Xochitl Hinojosa  said in a written statement.

“Donald Trump is about maximizing ego gratification,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said on Twitter. “This isn’t about you, Mr. President, it is about something much bigger than you. It’s about the public health and safety.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings (whose wife, U.S. Rep. Val Demings is a possible Democratic V.P. candidate), has made clear that he’s not in favor of bringing convention business to his area, according to a report by Florida Politics.

“Here we find ourselves, on top of a pandemic, we now have demonstrations, daily, day after day after day, where our first-responders are being tasked to deal with the present age that we live in,” Demings said. “Infuse, then, politics into the equation, with a political convention. I think it’s an ingredient for failure.”