The debacle that unfolded in Oklahoma, where sparse crowds forced Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to cancel pre-rally appearances and ignited an unpleasant news cycle for Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, has raised the stakes for the Jacksonville convention, where hundreds of Republican delegates, party leaders and MAGA devotees will send Trump off to battle against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
Four officials involved with the planning said they feel additional pressure to ensure the president is pleased with the format of the convention, and with its turnout, after witnessing his displeasure with the partially empty arena in Tulsa.
What’s more, a recent surge of Covid-19 cases in Florida is threatening to complicate the onerous planning process organizers are already facing after moving most convention programming — including Trump’s primetime renomination speech — from Charlotte to Northeast Florida due to coronavirus restrictions on large social gatherings in North Carolina. Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, recently saw its highest one-day increase in coronavirus cases since the global pandemic began.
Trump aides and Republican officials are putting extra attention now on conditions on the ground in Florida, including a surge in coronavirus cases across the state and the risk of new restrictions on public gatherings in the coming weeks. They’re evaluating more scenarios that could wreck existing plans and force changes over the next two months, in order to avoid surprisingly low turnout or other embarrassing political fallout right after Democrats hold their convention with a far more cautious approach.
The sudden spike in confirmed cases has heightened the concerns among residents of Florida’s most populous city about hosting convention activities that could draw in thousands of people from outside the state. Seventy-one percent of voters in Duval County said they are very or somewhat worried about Covid-19 transmissions occurring at the GOP convention, according to a University of North Florida-Public Opinion Research Lab poll released Wednesday. Another 61 percent indicated they are concerned about protests during the event, while 66 percent agreed the convention is likely to infuse Jacksonville’s economy with significant cash.
Before the president rallied in Tulsa last weekend, local health officials warned residents who are more vulnerable to health complications if they contract the novel coronavirus to stay home. Meanwhile, campaign officials asked rally attendees to sign a liability waiver to prevent lawsuits against the host venue and Trump’s reelection operation if they became ill with the deadly virus.
A GOP official said it’s possible GOP convention attendees will be asked to sign a similar disclaimer before arriving at the 15,000-person VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, though this person stressed that nothing has been decided yet and planning is still in an early stage.
“There will be safety precautions in place that will be adapted based on the situation at the time of the event,” added a RNC spokesperson. “These include but are not limited to temperature checks, available PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], aggressive sanitizing protocols, available Covid-19 testing, and regular phone calls and coordination with federal, state and local health officials.”
The convention is also likely to be treated as a National Special Security Event, resulting in a wide perimeter around the site itself and an outsized presence of local and federal law enforcement officials. Organizers are expecting demonstrations outside the convention, particularly as widespread anti-racism protests continue to grip the nation, but do not anticipate that protesters will interfere with the event itself — a claim Trump campaign officials made in the aftermath of the president’s visit to Oklahoma to explain away the underwhelming crowd size.
“Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevent people from entering the rally,” Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said in a statement following the Tulsa rally. The campaign didn’t say how many people were turned away; reporters on the ground disputed that protests at the entries prevented rallygoers from ultimately entering.
One Trump campaign official expressed relief that the Republican National Committee — as well as a nonpartisan host committee in Jacksonville — is handling most logistics for the convention so that the president’s reelection team will be “spared” if the event does not go as planned, or if it fails to quench Trump’s craving for a gigantic crowd of adoring supporters.
After being told 1 million people requested tickets for the Saturday night rally in Tulsa, only to be greeted by a crowd that the Tulsa Fire Department estimated at 6,200, Trump spent his flight back to Washington grilling aides about the humiliating turn of events.