Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel had said earlier in the day that the party would begin exploring options outside North Carolina.
“We have an obligation to our delegates and nominee to begin visiting the multiple cities and states who have reached out in recent days about hosting an historic event to show that America is open for business,” she said in a statement.
The announcement, nearly two years after Republicans began planning the event in Charlotte, marks the latest political confrontation over how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. North Carolina Democrats say the scale of any convention has to depend on health conditions in the state, where coronavirus-related hospitalizations peaked in late May.
“As much as we want the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to be favorable enough for you to hold the Convention you describe in late August, it is very unlikely,” Cooper wrote Tuesday in a letter to Republican leaders. “Neither public health officials nor I will risk the health and safety of North Carolinians by providing the guarantee you seek.”
Cooper said the GOP is demanding a packed arena for the convention, as well as full restaurants, hotels and bars. Given the uncertain health situation, he wrote, a smaller event with social distancing and face coverings “is a necessity.”
The growing certainty that at least part of the Republican National Convention, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, will leave the Democratic-led state underscores the depth of the turmoil the pandemic has brought to the presidential contest. With about 150 days until the election, neither major candidate has been able to resume normal campaign activities, with offices shuttered and staff working remotely.
The Democratic convention is scheduled for the previous week in Milwaukee, and it is increasingly likely that the two events will showcase sharply contrasting approaches to the viral threat. While Trump has pushed for a massive rally and declines to wear a mask in public, Democrat Joe Biden has embraced wearing a facial covering and has emphasized following public health advice.
For their convention, Democratic leaders have discussed allowing remote delegate voting to cut crowd sizes and holding smaller satellite events in swing states to reduce travel.
Because of contractual obligations with Charlotte, Republicans still expect to conduct much of the convention’s official business in North Carolina, including votes on Trump’s formal nomination and the proceedings of the platform committee.
But the event’s televised centerpiece — including Trump’s speech to the large crowd that he has insisted on — is now more likely to take place elsewhere, for one or more nights.
North Carolina, which has voted Republican in every presidential election but one since 1980, is expected to be heavily contested this year. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is fighting to retain his seat, said Tuesday that he still expects the two sides to come to an agreement.
If the GOP convention did leave North Carolina, he added, the exit would have more of an economic impact on the state than a political one. “The politics of conventions never really work out the way a lot of people think,” Tillis said.
Republicans are exploring the possibility of moving the convention to multiple cities, according to two GOP officials, including Jacksonville, Fla.; Orlando; Las Vegas; and Nashville.
Trump has been personally involved in the planning, calling Cooper last Friday to talk about the event. He spoke by phone the same day with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) about moving the convention, according to a person close to the governor, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Meetings were held in Jacksonville on Monday to discuss potential logistics, including the number of available hotel rooms and venues that could host the president and thousands of supporters, said two Republicans in the state.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry reiterated Tuesday that he was encouraging the move.
“The opportunity to showcase our city to the world, while creating an economic impact of over $100,000,000, is one we welcome,” Curry said in a statement. “This chance for Jacksonville to shine is unparalleled.”
Republican officials have not said how they would handle the complications arising from splitting their convention, including security and the need for transportation or remote voting for delegates. The Charlotte City Council has already voted to accept a $50 million grant from the Justice Department to provide convention security.
GOP officials in Washington and Democratic leaders in North Carolina have increasingly accused each other of bad faith, with state officials demanding more clarity about plans for keeping participants safe and Republicans accusing Democrats of slow-walking any approvals.
“It is unfortunate the governor is dragging his feet on giving us any guidance as to how to move forward with plans to safely conduct our convention while generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the people of Charlotte and North Carolina,” McDaniel said in her statement Tuesday.
Cooper responded in his letter, “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.”
Some Charlotte officials continued to argue for a detente.
“My message to the RNC is please, on behalf of the 10,000 small businesses in Charlotte and the reeling hospitality industry, please stay at the table and operating in good faith to bring this to our city that needs this now more than ever,” said Tariq Bokhari, a Republican on the Charlotte City Council.
“And my message to Governor Cooper is please, on behalf of these same parties just caught in the crossfire, show a little flexibility here,” he added.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.