JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – As the start of the Republican National Convention grows closer, just 47 days away as of Tuesday, Jacksonville is gearing up for a large number of visitors.
And the convention guests won’t just be in downtown Jacksonville.
Jacksonville-area beaches leaders are preparing for an influx of people there, as well. It’s coming at a vulnerable time when coronavirus cases are spiking in the state and some businesses are closed.
“It’s going to be busy,” said Joe Ray, owner of the Eazy Treats Ice Cream Truck. “It’s going to be packed.”
He said he’s expecting a boom in the area as the thousands coming to Northeast Florida will be looking for places to go.
The nomination celebration and other events will be held at the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena, but smaller events could be spread out, including at beaches venues.
“The RNC coming here means a lot. It’s like a mini Super Bowl,” said Sonny Bhikha, who runs the Four Points by Sheraton Jacksonville Beach and three other hotels in the area.
Combined, his hotels have 321 rooms at the beaches. He’s committed 70% of the rooms to the RNC, telling News4Jax it’s not political for him, he’s filling a need in the area.
“We want our city to grow, our city to survive,” Bhikha said. “There are too many people that are suffering and not having jobs and all of that.”
Bhikha said planning committee members already toured his properties and asked for even more rooms. He reserved some for regular clients and vendors needing accommodations before, during and after the events. He said the RNC committee reached out to him through the visitor’s bureau.
There are safety concerns with the coronavirus pandemic, a contentious presidential race and national tensions.
“We are planning on bringing in officers from other jurisdictions, planning for protests and planning on having delegates/VIPs out here,” Jacksonville Beach Police Chief Gene Paul Smith wrote in an email.
“We are also conducting specialized training for the SWAT Team, Mobile Field Force (Civil Disturbance) and Active Shooter Training. The three beaches cities are also planning their response to the RNC together in one unified command team. This way we can mutually support one another the way only the beaches can. We are also coordinating with the City of Jacksonville using ‘one voice.‘”
He acknowledged everyone is on a time-crunch.
“We are preparing for the RNC,” Smith wrote. “Unfortunately, with only two months to go, we have no information on specifics. Usually, RNC/DNC is handled like a Super Bowl planning wise. The planning usually starts 12-18 months out, but (we) have only 60 days.”
“It’s completely safe to stay in this hotel,” Bhikha noted.
As for security, he said: “We definitely have to do that. We’ve already started plans for that.”
Other hotels, like One Ocean in Atlantic Beach, are also booking up, and venues could be soon. The Beaches Museum is on Visit Jacksonville’s list as a possible location for events. The executive director said the venue had not been booked yet but was preparing for the possibility of all that would come with hosting a high-profile political event.