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North Carolina officials push RNC to provide a detailed safety plan for convention

Trump and his family celebrate after he accepts the Republican nomination for President at the 2016  National Convention. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump and his family celebrate after he accepts the Republican nomination for President at the 2016 National Convention. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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President Trump called North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) Friday to argue for holding a normal Republican convention in the state, as talks have become fragile and GOP operatives have signaled they’re looking for an alternative location.

“When the President insisted on a full convention arena with no face coverings and no social distancing the Governor expressed concerns and suggested a scaled back event with fewer attendees,” said Cooper’s spokeswoman, Sadie Weiner. “They agreed to continue talking about ways to have a safe convention in Charlotte.”

The conversation came after North Carolina’s top health official told the Republican National Committee and convention officials they must provide a detailed plan about how they will safely conduct their large-scale event amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter is the latest in an escalating and increasingly public back-and-forth between top Republicans and North Carolina officials over the fate of the Republican convention.

“You indicated a desire from President Trump to hold Thursday’s nomination event with ‘people together in a crowd-like setting’ and without social distancing or face coverings for attendees,” North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen wrote Friday in her letter to RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and RNC Convention President and CEO Marcia Lee Kelly, referring to a conversation they’d had on Tuesday where the RNC officials had conveyed Trump’s wishes.

“Is this still the intent? You also mentioned testing for all participants before they enter the Spectrum Center for the Thursday event. Is this still a consideration? Would this be limited to Thursday night or would it apply to the other nights of the Convention?”

Such a gathering would violate rules set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urge people to stay at least six feet apart.

Cohen laid out other questions, too: How many people does the RNC expect inside Charlotte’s Spectrum Center? (The venue has a capacity of about 20,000.) How will those guests listen to speeches while socially distancing? How will the RNC screen attendees, and what will they do with people attending who test positive for the virus?

Friday’s letter came after RNC officials set a June 3 deadline for North Carolina officials to approve their planned in-person political convention in August.

The party said it envisions safety protocols including pre-travel health surveys through local health-care providers, daily health-care questionnaires, temperature checks of “all mandatory attendees prior to boarding sanitized, pre-arranged transportation,” antibacterial gel, “aggressive sanitizing” and food service guidelines for every restaurant.

Their demand echoed an ultimatum from President Trump, who has threatened to relocate the August event if North Carolina’s governor won’t guarantee that the state can hold a large in-person convention amid the pandemic.

“We had hoped to receive from Gov. Cooper concrete details on how to plan for our convention in Charlotte,” said RNC spokesman Mike Reed, whose group has been advocating for the state to provide specific guidelines about what an acceptable gathering would be.

He noted that the state plans to open public schools in mid-August.

“We should know how to proceed with an event on August 24th,” Reed said. “Instead, we do not have a commitment that provides clarity or guidance. Like the rest of the state, we will be ready and waiting for North Carolina leadership to offer clear guidance on how we should safely plan for the type of convention for which we originally contracted.”

North Carolina officials have said they are eager to keep working with the RNC to develop a plan. The state has approved other large-scale events. A NASCAR race held without spectators was recently allowed to go forward in the state, after race officials provided the state with a 41-page list of protocols.

The procedures included staggering entry and exit for teams and support staff to prevent large groups from gathering at choke points; new rules for celebratory behavior that bans handshakes, fist-bumps and hugging; and details about how lunch would be handled for staff.

Though people on both sides have privately said they hope the convention can go forward in North Carolina, top Republicans have increasingly begun to float the possibility of moving the event.

“We are being forced to look at other options,” McDaniel said in an interview on WBT’s “The Pat McCrory Show with Bo Thompson.”

“To be fair, we’re contracted with Charlotte, so we really want to make this work. But we have been approached by many other states who have been much more forthcoming, who have offered us plans, who have said, ‘these are the guidelines by which you can work under our state.’”

Several GOP governors have offered to hold it in their state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said this week that his team has been in talks with the White House about moving it to his state — though it’s unclear where it could be held.

RNC officials are considering Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Texas, according to a Republican with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal plans. Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami are potential cities for the convention in Florida, this person said.

McDaniel also hinted there could be a partisan reason for the difficulty in nailing down the details for the event. “I am frustrated because I was concerned it was going to get political, you know, it’s the Republican convention coming to a state with a Democrat governor,” she said.

“And I was worried about that and I really hoped it wouldn’t get that way,” McDaniel said. “But at this point, with the dragging of feet, with the inability to work with us to get us a plan, it does start to feel like this is political.”

North Carolina officials have denied there’s any partisan motivation.

“It’s okay for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday at a news conference.