Florida billed itself as a coronavirus oasis when it wooed the Republican National Convention: The pandemic seemed under control, and Republican state and city leaders welcomed a major televised event to show off the progress and cement votes for U.S. President Donald Trump in the nation’s biggest presidential battleground.
That pitch collided with the grim reality of the coronavirus and its explosive surge in Florida when Jacksonville, the convention’s new host, imposed a requirement on Monday that people wear masks indoors, precisely the mandate that the Republican Party had hoped to avoid for its celebrations.
The mask order is almost certain to rankle Trump, whose demands for a traditional, packed rally forced the move earlier this month to Jacksonville from Charlotte, N.C., in the first place.
The resurgence of the virus in Florida, where the number of new cases has been rising nearly every day, has turned the convention into an even riskier gamble. In a must-win state for Trump – and arguably a must-win city for Republicans – recent polls have shown that Jacksonville residents do not want the convention.
Masks will be required in indoor public places and in any other gathering spots where social distancing is not possible, Jacksonville officials said. It is unclear how long the mask order will be in place, but it would presumably apply to the 15,000-seat VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, where three nights of convention speeches, including Trump’s, are scheduled for Aug. 24-27.
The President has refused to wear a mask himself, even as the nation’s top doctors have emphasized that facial coverings are critical to slowing the virus. Vice President Mike Pence has recently worn masks in public, including over the weekend in Texas, and encouraged other people to do the same.
In a telling move, Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, a Republican, who had lobbied for the convention and resisted a mask requirement, was absent from Monday’s announcement. His spokeswoman said he had a prior family obligation.
“We are still two months out from that event,” he said last week. “In the meantime, we have to focus on what’s happening in the city and what we can control.”
His administration’s policy reversal came after a morning conference call with local hospitals. Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, is now averaging about 384 new cases of the virus a day. Two weeks ago, that figure was 32.
In a statement, the Republican National Committee said it would comply “with local health regulations in place at the time.”
“The event is still two months away, and we are planning to offer health precautions including but not limited to temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing,” the statement said.
Trump did not immediately respond to the announcement. But as he has pushed states to reopen their economies, he has shown an ability to bend local regulations to his will. Officials in Tulsa, Okla., rescinded a curfew ahead of the president’s rally there this month after Trump said on Twitter that he had discussed the curfew with the mayor, a Republican.
Democrats say Republicans want to use the convention to shore up votes in northeast Florida.
“Jacksonville – Duval County – is a swing city in a swing state,” said state Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Senate Democratic leader, who represents the city. “Duval County went blue in the last election. So it’s pretty obvious what this is about.”
In 2016, Trump won Duval County by a mere 5,968 votes, though Hillary Clinton never campaigned there. In 2018, the county voted for Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, for governor, though its surrounding suburbs remained deeply red.
Jacksonville’s broad television market includes Republican suburbs like affluent St. Johns County, home to St. Augustine – the type of place where Democrats hope to win over enough white, college-educated women to remain competitive in November. Former President Barack Obama won Florida twice in part by keeping vote margins close in Duval County.
In addition to dealing with virus this year, Jacksonville has also become a microcosm of how the nation has been forced to confront systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. African Americans make up nearly a third of Jacksonville’s population of 912,000 but have been historically excluded from power in local government.
That Jacksonville – a city perennially overshadowed by Miami, Orlando and Tampa that under normal circumstances might never have held a convention – gets its moment in the political spotlight while it grapples with the virus and the unfulfilled promises to its African American residents has raised the stakes for local leaders. What amounts to a massive campaign rally for a divisive president may only lead to more contagion and unrest.
“As far as the RNC is concerned, that took us a hundred steps backwards,” said Moné Holder, senior program director for New Florida Majority, one of the social justice organizations that participated in protests against police brutality. “The powers that be try to paint it as, ‘one city, one Jacksonville’ – I think that’s the quote the mayor likes to use – but it’s very, very divided, racially and economically.”
A online poll of 2,524 registered Duval County voters released last week by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida found that 58 per cent of respondents opposed hosting the convention, with 71 per cent concerned that it would lead to virus spread, and 61 per cent worried that it would result in unrest. Only 39 per cent approved of Trump’s performance in office.
But Trump has an affinity for Florida, his adopted home, and found an eager ally in Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who is said to have ambitions for higher office. DeSantis has talked about the convention’s “massive economic impact” as its chief draw.
Even the governor, however, hedged a bit when asked about the convention over the weekend, saying planning was under way during “a dynamic situation.”
“We always said, look, it’s a work in progress. We’re going to try to get to yes,” he said. “I think we’re going to be fine by then. It’s a couple of months away.”
On Monday, he maintained that local governments could act on their own but that he would not impose a statewide mask mandate.
Curry’s opposition to requiring masks had drawn rare public criticism from prominent members of the community, including Hugh Greene, who ran the Baptist Health hospital system for two decades before retiring last year. After Monday’s announcement, Greene said the convention should require facial coverings and social distancing.
“Anything that’s good for the citizens of Jacksonville should apply to those guests that come to the RNC, and we should make that clear in advance,” he said.
Florida has required visitors from states with high infection rates to quarantine for two weeks when they arrive. It is unclear if that order would be lifted before the convention.
The last time Florida hosted a Republican convention, in 2012 in Tampa, the party had to shorten it because of Tropical Storm Isaac, which later became a hurricane. When Jacksonville hosted the 2005 Super Bowl, it had to bring in cruise ships to supplement the scarce number of downtown hotel rooms.
Trump is expected to accept his party’s nomination on Aug. 27, 60 years to the day after one of Jacksonville’s darkest days, when about 200 white supremacists led by the Ku Klux Klan brutally beat young civil rights activists, most of them Black, with baseball bats and ax handles. One of the demonstrators on what became known as Ax Handle Saturday was Rodney L. Hurst, who was 16 and president of the Jacksonville NAACP Youth Council.
“We’re going to have the commemoration of Ax Handle Saturday this year with or without Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention coming to town,” said Hurst, 76.
In a move widely seen as politically expedient, two days before the party announced Jacksonville as its pick, Curry ordered that a prominent bronze statue of an anonymous Confederate soldier be taken down, a step the mayor had been previously unwilling to take.
Rep. Val B. Demings of Orlando, a contender to be Joe Biden’s running mate, said her parents tried to shield her and her siblings from racism when they were growing up in Jacksonville, but they experienced it anyway. While attending a newly integrated public school in sixth grade, Demings befriended a white girl.
“When she asked her mother about me coming over, her mother said, ‘I’m not going to have that N at my house,’” Demings said, referring to a racial slur.
The challenge of confronting the virus and Jacksonville’s racist history while a national political convention comes to town has troubled the city’s business elite from the start, said Nate Monroe, metro columnist for The Florida Times-Union newspaper, with the crush of new infections only intensifying those concerns.
“Lenny Curry is not a man known for changing his mind very often,” Monroe said. “I don’t know what could possibly derail the convention.”