GOP convention COVID-19 precautions yet to be decided, Jacksonville mayor says

Lenny Curry said a decision on how to protect convention attendees and others around the event will be made closer to Aug. 24, when the festivities are scheduled to begin.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry
Published June 12, 2020|Updated June 12, 2020

Precautions to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus in Jacksonville during Republican National Convention festivities will be in place this August, but it’s not yet decided what that will require, the city’s mayor said Friday morning.

Mayor Lenny Curry, speaking to reporters during an early-morning video conference called just hours after the Republican National Committee announced Thursday night that it would move President Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech from North Carolina to Florida, said the city of 900,000 is still monitoring state and local data around the virus. He said a decision on how to protect convention attendees and others around the event will be made closer to Aug. 24, when the festivities are scheduled to begin.

“Clearly, the RNC wants a large event with a lot of people. I want that too,” Curry said.

Jacksonville courted the convention even before Trump made it publicly known over Memorial Day weekend that he was considering moving the Republican Party’s 2020 summer gathering out of North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was balking at demands to hold a “full-fledged” event at a 19,000-seat arena in Charlotte. On Thursday, the RNC announced that Trump would accept the party’s nomination at Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, a 15,000-seat venue just off the north bank of the St. Johns River in the city’s downtown.

A number of details about the coming event remain unclear, including whether other convention events besides Trump’s speech would be held in Jacksonville. The RNC’s executive committee voted Wednesday to hold much of its convention business in Charlotte in a scaled-down manner.

“I’m not going to get ahead of the RNC,” Curry said. “They’ll have additional announcements coming in the days ahead. My expectation is a majority of the events, hotel rooms and stays, economic activity, and events around the convention outside of basic business ... we’re going to get a majority of the economic development.”

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the RNC, said Friday in an interview with Fox & Friends that Curry and Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been willing to work with the party in a way that North Carolina and Charlotte weren’t.

“We’re obviously going to put safety checks in place to make sure the convention-goers are safe. But we’re going to have a packed arena,” McDaniel said. “Governor Cooper of North Carolina refused to work with us. It became very apparent that he was not going to give us guidelines so that we could hold our convention.”

Jacksonville was among a handful of cities visited by RNC officials in recent days. Savannah, Nashville and Orlando were among other cities under consideration. An RNC source told the Miami Herald Wednesday that the party had all but selected Jacksonville, but Curry told reporters that he didn’t know for sure until he saw reports Thursday night that the city had landed the event.

Curry said a host committee still being formed will raise “tens of millions of dollars” to foot the bill to bring the convention to town, including public safety costs. He said the committee is still being formed, but stressed that the city of Jacksonville isn’t spending money on the event.

Curry also pushed back on questions about whether Jacksonville’s hotel stock would be sufficient for the thousands of delegates heading into the city in about 10 weeks. The city ran out of rooms when it hosted the Super Bowl in 2005. But Curry and McDaniel say the larger Jacksonville metro area has more than enough hotel rooms to accommodate the expected crowds.

Michael Corrigan, the president of Visit Jacksonville, said in a statement that the tourism booster agency was “able to secure a 10,000-hotel room commitment in just 48 hours to convince the RNC that we were eager and capable of hosting this event.”

Curry also said he doesn’t believe the civil unrest gripping the country will prevent the city from hosting the event safely, though he did not address a question about whether his announcement Tuesday that the city would take down all remaining Confederate statues was related to the coming convention festivities. The last date of the convention, Aug. 27, falls on the 60th anniversary of an attack on peaceful black lunch counter protesters, and a commemoration is scheduled that day a few blocks from the arena where Trump is expected to give his acceptance speech.

Curry acknowledged that the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is a concern. Trump supporters planning to attend a June 19 rally in Tulsa have been asked to sign a liability waiver.

But McDaniel said “we haven’t gotten there yet” when asked on Fox whether attendees would need to sign a disclaimer, and Curry said the pandemic shouldn’t keep the city from safely hosting the event.

On Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported 1,698 new cases statewide, the highest total reported in weeks. In total, Florida has confirmed 69,000 cases and 2,848 deaths. But Curry noted Friday that the city’s outbreak has been less severe than other areas of the state, such as South Florida. Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, reported 47 new cases Wednesday, but Curry said the rate of infection is less than 3%.

He said hospitalizations have been down in Jacksonville, and said the cit “flattened the curve” weeks ago.

“I took this pandemic seriously on the front end. I continue to take it seriously,” Curry said. “I monitor the science. I monitor the hospitalizations. We always adapt our reaction.”