Politicians, donors and party officials, especially seniors at higher risk of complications from the disease, now face a difficult choice between a personal risk to their health and a potential backlash from the president and his supporters. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 78, indicated Tuesday he will attend the convention, but two other top Senate Republicans, Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley, 86, and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, 80, are taking a pass.
They are joined by two of the most senior Republican women in the Senate. Maine’s Susan Collins, 67, said though a spokesman that she avoids attending the party convention in years when she is facing reelection. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, 63, also has no plans to attend, according to a spokesperson, nor does Utah’s Mitt Romney, 73.
Collins, Murkowski and Romney have criticized Trump on occasion, making their presence potentially uncomfortable at an event that will largely be a tribute to the president. But Grassley made it clear his decision is motivated solely by fear of contracting the coronavirus.
“I’m not going to go because of the virus situation,” Grassley said Monday on a conference call with reporters.
Trump himself signaled Tuesday some flexibility regarding the convention. “When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good. And now all of a sudden it’s spiking up a little bit and that’s going to go down,” the president told television host Greta Van Susteren. “It really depends on the timing. . . . We can do a lot of things, but we’re very flexible.”
Unlike the Democrats, who have settled on a virtual convention for Aug. 17-20, the GOP is pressing ahead with plans for a three-night mass gathering the following week that will put up to 15,000 people in one venue in a city wracked by increasing viral infection.
For some, going is a way to show their support for Trump. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), 64, avoided the nominating convention in 2016 as part of his public rejection of Trump’s candidacy, saying at the time, “I can watch it on TV.” But the senator’s spokesman T.W. Arrighi said Graham, who is facing a contested election in a Trump-friendly state, would be there this time.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), 50, who is also looking to win another term in November, has signaled she plans to be in Jacksonville, as has Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), 66, who credits Trump with helping him win election in 2018.
“We will kick off the 2020 campaign to #KeepAmericaGreat!” Braun tweeted Tuesday.
The emerging split comes as the party is moving to quell concerns about the health risks.
Convention planners have announced the goal of conducting daily coronavirus testing for anyone who enters the secure perimeter at the event, though they have not yet made clear how testing more than 10,000 people would be accomplished or how long it would take to get results.
Also unclear is what action would be taken if any delegates test positive for the virus. Convention organizers are working with a private medical firm to provide the testing.
The gathering was originally set to take place in Charlotte, but GOP leaders decided to move its marquee events to Jacksonville after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) declined to commit to lifting certain public health restrictions, given the ongoing threat of the pandemic.
While planning for Jacksonville is still underway, party officials have said they will abide by whatever local health restrictions are in place from Aug. 24 to 27, when official events are expected to be held.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers large in-person gatherings where it is difficult to maintain social distancing, and where attendees must travel from outside a local area, to be the “highest risk” for spreading the coronavirus. The agency strongly recommends the use of face coverings at large events and encourages those over the age of 65 or with certain medical conditions to “limit your interactions with other people as much as possible.”
“The higher the level of community transmission in the area that the gathering is being held, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spreading during the gathering,” reads a CDC fact sheet.
Jacksonville has emerged in recent weeks as one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots.
The weekly count of admissions for coronavirus-like symptoms to health facilities in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, has spiked to more than 700 from about 100 in early June, according to state health records. The county has registered an average of 472 positive tests a day over the last nine days, compared with 23 a day for the first nine days of June.
As a result, Jacksonville is one of three cities that the Department of Health and Human Services designated Tuesday for a testing “surge,” aiming to make more tests available in hard-hit areas.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former state Republican Party chairman who courted the convention, has recently mandated the wearing of masks while indoors and in public spaces where people cannot be socially distant. Curry himself has self-quarantined after coming into contact with someone who tested positive, though he said he tested negative after the exposure.
The state of Florida has also shut down the consumption of alcohol at bars statewide, a development certain to transform the tenor of any political event if it remains in effect next month.
A Republican familiar with the convention planning said organizers are well aware of the uptick in cases and there is growing concern that the situation may get worse, but GOP leaders are determined to hold the convention and have visited the city over the past week to solidify the plans.
There will probably be far fewer journalists, the Republican said, and far fewer parties. But Republicans are still planning a VIP area across from the arena where members of Congress, senators and governors can decompress.
In contrast with Democrats, who have encouraged delegates to participate virtually in former vice president Joe Biden’s convention in Milwaukee, Trump has made clear that he wants a large spectacle and has previously suggested that he wants a filled arena. But those plans have been complicated by the infection spreading through his own advance team, which traveled to Oklahoma and Florida to set up events for him and Vice President Pence.
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has been hospitalized with covid-19 complications after he attended the Oklahoma rally for Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top Trump campaign fundraiser and the girlfriend of Trump’s eldest son, tested positive for the virus after traveling to South Dakota for another Trump event, forcing several Republican officials she met into self-quarantine.
One longtime Republican operative, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said there was far less enthusiasm for this year’s event as a result of the grim news about the virus.
“As far as the donors go, I don’t have a lot of them that are interested in going because of the health reasons,” said the person, who has attended GOP conventions for decades. “Why take the chance? You have made it this far.”
Local officials have said they still have several weeks to determine what preventive health measures will be in place when Republicans gather in the city. In the meantime, Curry and more than 200 of the city’s firefighters have been self-quarantining after being exposed to people who tested positive for the virus.
The Jacksonville events will follow meetings between Aug. 21 and 24 in Charlotte, where the official business of the convention will still be conducted, albeit in a pared-down manner. The national party has decided not to approve a new platform for 2020, though the Trump campaign is expected to release a separate statement of purpose.
After the Charlotte events, the Republican National Committee plans to fly 336 members and delegates down to Jacksonville, while others in attendance will have to arrange their own transportation, according to GOP planning documents distributed to party officials.
The shift to a much smaller arena in Jacksonville has forced the party to narrow the list of invitees who will be offered entrance into the hall. A fact sheet distributed by the party in late June said that “due to space constraints,” new RNC members and alternate delegates will not be permitted a guest in Jacksonville.
Paul Kane and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.