Seeking a city willing to allow a large-scale event amid the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans have tentatively settled on Jacksonville, Fla., as the new destination for the premier festivities of the Republican National Convention in August, according to three Republican officials briefed on the plans.
The details of the arrangement are still in flux and RNC aides are scrambling to determine whether the northern Florida city has enough hotel rooms to accommodate the quadrennial event, which typically kicks off the final stretch of the presidential campaign.
Republican officials were in Jacksonville on Monday looking at the city and the surrounding areas.
The convention’s more routine and lower-profile meetings still would take place in Charlotte, the original host site for the convention, according to two officials. Those smaller meetings are intended to honor the RNC’s contractual obligation to hold its convention in North Carolina and shield the party from lawsuits for moving the large events elsewhere.
The highly unusual decision to seek an alternative location for the convention’s marquee events — including speeches by President Donald Trump and others — stems from Trump’s desire to accept his party’s nomination before an enormous crowd.
North Carolina officials have declined to promise a packed arena for the Aug. 24-27 event, as public health officials are urging Americans to avoid big gatherings, wear face coverings and practice social distancing. The coronavirus epidemic has killed more than 110,000 Americans so far.
The president was dissatisfied with North Carolina’s position, given his desire to address a large, enthusiastic crowd. “I don’t want to be sitting in a place that’s 50% empty,” Trump told Gov. Roy Cooper (D) late last month in a phone conversation about the convention, according to two people familiar with the call, who, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personal conversations and planning.
“We can’t do social distancing,” Trump said on the call.
Cooper pushed back, asking Trump whether that wasn’t a risk to the health of the convention’s participants, who could number close to 20,000. The president responded that he was not worried about an outbreak at the convention, because the biggest impact of the coronavirus is on those who are older or have underlying conditions.
Cooper, a Democrat who is up for reelection this year, has asked Republican officials to provide a plan for maintaining safety protocols at the convention. Party leaders have said they would use testing and would aggressively sanitize rooms and buses used to transport officials, but they have not offered specifics.
The Republican governors of Georgia and Florida, meanwhile, have been courting GOP and White House officials since it became clear that North Carolina and the party were not seeing eye to eye. Trump has spoken to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about putting the event in Florida.
Aides to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Curry previously served as Florida’s Republican Party chairman.
“Mayor Curry has been actively and energetically pursuing this convention, and the Republican Party of Duval County has been actively promoting Jacksonville as the single best city in America to host a convention,” said Dean Black, the Duval County Republican chairman.
Republican officials have also been considering several other locations for the convention, including Orlando, Nashville, Dallas and Savannah, Ga.
Jacksonville remains under an emergency order that restricts some businesses from opening. Bars, and restaurants can operate at 50% capacity, according to the city’s website. Retail stores, gyms and fitness centers can reopen completely as long as social distancing protocols are followed, according to the website.