JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Last week, when President Donald Trump threatened to pull this summer’s Republican National Convention out of Charlotte because it wasn’t reopening its economy fast enough, Jacksonville threw its hat in the ring as an alternative city to host the GOP event.
On Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper rejected the party’s request for a full convention in Charlotte and told RNC officials that face masks and social distancing are “a necessity” to hold a convention during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
North Carolina faces an upward trend in its virus cases, with Mecklenburg County -- including Charlotte -- having more cases and deaths than any other county.
“The people of North Carolina do not know what the status of COVID-19 will be in August, so planning for a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings is a necessity,” Cooper said in the letter sent on the eve of a Wednesday deadline set by the GOP.
With that response not meeting Trump’s demands, party officials began looking seriously at alternative cities to hold their nominating convention. Trump said Tuesday that he is seeking a new state to host the Republican National Convention after host North Carolina refused to guarantee the event could be held in Charlotte without restrictions because of ongoing concerns over the coronavirus.
Trump tweeted the news Tuesday night, and Mayor Lenny Curry responded to the tweet, saying Jacksonville welcomes the opportunity to host the RNC.
The top locations RNC officials are said to be considering: Nashville, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Orlando, Jacksonville and venues in Georgia. The Washington Post reported that two party officials said meetings were held in Jacksonville Monday to discuss logistics, including the number of available hotel rooms and venues that could hold the president and thousands of supporters.
Curry said his team has been in touch with the RNC and, “at first blush, it looks hopeful.”
“My people have been in discussion with them,” Curry told News4Jax on Tuesday. “Look, I was the state chairman of the Republican Party of Florida when there was a convention in Tampa, so I recognize what it takes to put one of those things on. I’m hopeful, but that’s a heavy lift.”
Asked if the area has enough hotel space to accommodate the event given that cruise ships were brought in to accommodate Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, Curry said that the city is at a disadvantage, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
“Jacksonville knows how to get things done (so) yeah, so it could happen,” Curry said.
“They want to showcase that they’re open for business in Florida, and Jacksonville, they’ve been leaders in that,” said News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney. “COVID-19 -- fortunately for us, we have not been the hotbed of some other communities. So, a lot of advantages to come to Jacksonville, Florida for the RNC.”
The full-scale Republican nominating convention would include 50,000 delegates and nearly that many more media and support personnel.
Tuesday afternoon, the city released an official statement from the mayor:
“The City of Jacksonville would be honored to host a world-class event like the Republican National Convention. The opportunity to showcase our City to the world while creating an economic impact of over $100,000,000 is one we welcome. This chance for Jacksonville to shine is unparalleled."
Dean Black, chairman do of the Republican Party of Duval County, is “wildly supportive” of the idea.
“They need a home and here is where the red carpet would be rolled out by our governor, by Mayor Curry and by the Republican Party and Duval County like no other city in America," Black said. “It is a battleground city, a battleground state, a battleground county, and I think our chances are extremely, extremely good.”
What moving the convention could cost Charlotte
North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said the convention could generate $200 million for the regional economy and jobs, especially in the hospitality industry and in restaurants and bars.
“This is an economic shot in the arm that we desperately need in North Carolina,” he said.
Two Charlotte restaurant owners said they didn’t expect a huge hit if the RNC moves or is scaled back.
“I feel like it would be a small impact on our business,” Greg Zanitsch, who owns the Fig Tree near the city’s central business district.
When the Democratic national convention was held in Charlotte in 2012, he said an increase in business from visitors was balanced by the fact that his regulars stayed away.
“So, it was pretty much just a normal weekend. We didn’t see a big increase in business because of the convention,” he said.
But Zanitsch did say that he’d been hoping to recoup some pandemic-related losses to an Airbnb lodging rental through RNC visitors.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina, and Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, contributed to this report.