Tampa’s MAGA meeting was jam packed. Masks (cough, cough) were optional.

Attendees stacked side-by-side against the wall as seats filled, leaving few options for remaining 6 feet apart. They peeled masks off to speak.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, speaks to a MAGA Meet-up in Tampa as Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, looks on.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, speaks to a MAGA Meet-up in Tampa as Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, looks on. [ Courtesy of Emma Vaughn ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020|Updated Aug. 20, 2020

TAMPA — Make America Great Again hats, “Black Voices for Trump” apparel and USA-themed masks filled the room for a MAGA Meet-Up in Tampa on Thursday afternoon.

A sign proclaiming “Welcome to Trump HQ!” greeted attendees as they shuffled in. It also asked them to wear a mask and comply with county safety guidelines.

Inside, however, compliance was optional.

Some attendees peeled off their masks to speak. Some wore no mask at all. Once the seats filled, the remaining participants stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall, leaving few options for those hoping to remain 6 feet apart.

Meanwhile, coughs continually rang out.

For 30 minutes, speakers energized the crowded room, juxtaposing the Trump administration with recent Democratic National Convention messaging, taking shots at former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and praising President Donald Trump’s “law-and-order” response to nationwide protests.

“We’re 75 days away from the reelection of Donald Trump,” said Florida House Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, referring to the Nov. 3 election countdown whiteboard hanging on the wall near the venue’s entrance.

The event was coordinated as a larger effort across the country to build enthusiasm for Trump and other Republicans on the ballot.

“Do you want a president who gets results?” said incoming Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. “Or, do you want a president that’s going to take them all away from you?”

Applause erupted throughout the speeches.

Sprowls called the Trump administration’s efforts a “stark contrast” from the messaging of the Democratic convention on economics and specifically taxes, and praised the current administration’s attempts to revive the economy amid the pandemic. “We’re starting the great American comeback,” said Sprowls.

Yet, local Democrats say events like Thursday’s MAGA Meet-UP are setting the country back in it’s COVID-19 response.

“I’m beginning to think that ‘MAGA’ stands for ‘Make America Grieve Again’,” said Tampa’s former mayor, Bob Buckhorn, who says he’s disappointed by the lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines given the coronavirus’ trajectory.

Optically, Thursday’s in-person event was diametrically opposed to this week’s Democratic convention, which is doubling as a tribute to social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.

Florida’s prominent Republicans remained focused on securing all of Florida’s delegates in November to re-elect Trump — and MAGA meet-ups will be a major piece of the campaign strategy.

As the largest swing state, “Florida is the big prize,” said Joe Gruters, Republican Party of Florida Chairman.

Scott Franklin, the ex-navy pilot who upset Republican Rep. Ross Spano in Florida’s 15th Congressional district in Tuesday’s primary, also spoke.