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Cooper Says Plan For Smaller RNC With Masks 'A Necessity' In Charlotte As GOP Mulls Other Cities

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Spectrum Center

As tensions mount over whether the 2020 Republican National Convention will actually be held in Charlotte during the coronavirus pandemic, North Carolina's governor is telling organizers they need to plan for a scaled-down event with face masks.

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, meanwhile, says the GOP is ready to "begin visiting" other cities and states for possible venues. 

Gov. Roy Cooper's letter to Republican National Committee and RNC officials on Tuesday is the latest in a back-and-forth between organizers and state officials over COVID-19 safety restrictions and the three-day event that's set to begin Aug. 24 at the Spectrum Center. The renewed debate over the convention jumped into high gear May 25 when President Trump tweeted that the RNC could leave Charlotte because Cooper, a Democrat, was "still in shutdown mood."

On Saturday, organizers wrote to Cooper asking for his assurance by Wednesday that a "full convention" could take place and that bars, hotels and restaurants could operate at capacity or they would "immediately need to begin making modifications" for the event.

Cooper on Tuesday said he wouldn't provide that guarantee. 

A "full convention" would include about 19,000 delegates, staff, volunteers and other attendees. None of those things are permitted in full under North Carolina's current COVID-19 restrictions, which are in place until at least June 26.

"We had appreciated your earlier acknowledgments that a successful and safe convention would need to be scaled back to protect the health of participants as well as North Carolinians," Cooper wrote Tuesday. "Unfortunately, it appears that has now changed."

Cooper said he still wanted "a safe RNC" in Charlotte but that planning "for a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings is a necessity."

McDaniel responded, tweeting that the GOP still wants to hold the convention in Charlotte but that "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 a relocated RNC.  

RNC organizers last week submitted plans for temperature checks, coronavirus testing at the convention, increased cleaning -- but no mention of requiring face masks.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen wrote back, asking for more details about health screenings, social distancing plans and clarity on expected crowd sizes.

The state is in a limited version of Phase 2 of a three-part reopening plan. The earliest that will end is June 26, and until then there's a 10-person limit on inside crowds.

As of Tuesday, North Carolina Health and Human Services was reporting that 29,889 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed by testing and that 921 people had died from COVID-19. The department estimated that 18,860 people had recovered as of Monday — about 64% of confirmed cases at the time. 

Could The Convention Really Move?

Vice President Mike Pence has said that Florida, Georgia or Texas could host. RNC spokesperson Rick Gorka said Tuesday that the GOP will make a site visit to Nashville, Tennessee, this week and is also considering Las Vegas.

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Credit Jennifer Lang / WFAE
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There's been a good bit of effort put into preparing for the 2020 RNC at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.

But few cities have said they want to host. One exception is Jacksonville, Florida, where Republican Mayor Lenny Curry has offered the VyStar Arena as the main venue.

Two years ago, the GOP invited seven cities to Washington to discuss the convention. Those cities expressed interest but only Charlotte submitted a formal bid.

While the Republican National Committee has threatened to move the convention, Gorka, the committee spokesperson, said last week that Charlotte will still be the host site – either with 19,000 people inside the arena or 100.

Republican Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs, who supports bringing the convention here, said the two sides are far apart.

"I saw that letter from the RNC and I thought there is still a big gap," Driggs said. "It really is a tough situation. You talk about a rock and a hard place. I don't see any satisfactory way out."

If the convention does move, it would create headaches for local political and business leaders.

The city of Charlotte has already started buying security equipment for the convention. It has a contract with the Department of Justice to be reimbursed, but Trump, as a businessman, has a history of unpaid bills.

Driggs said the city would go to court if it's not paid back.

And several Charlotte companies have donated millions of dollars to the local host committee, which is required to raise $70 million for the convention. It’s unclear what happens to that money if the event leaves Charlotte.

Earlier on Tuesday, several Republicans held a news conference outside the Spectrum Center, urging Cooper to allow a normal convention.

Dan Bishop
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
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Charlotte Republican Dan Bishop makes a victory speech after winning a special election for the 9th U.S. House District in September 2019.

Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop of Charlotte said that if colleges and universities are preparing for students to return to school, there should be a way to have thousands of people inside the Spectrum Center.

“They’ve got a plan to deal with that,” Bishop said. “To me, that implies the number of people isn’t necessarily the obstacle.”

Glenn McCall, a convention co-chair, was asked whether the GOP would consider outdoor venues. He pointed to the Spectrum Center and said that’s the only building under consideration.

In April and May, McDaniel said the GOP was willing to follow Cooper’s health mandates. She said it was possible that people inside the arena could practice social distancing and wear face coverings.

But President Trump did not want that.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention, set for July in Milwaukee, was postponed until August and officials have said it could be largely virtual

Economic pain

The uncertainty around the convention comes as the city's tourism and hospitality industries are suffering.

Last month's revenue at the downtown DoubleTree hotel was $125,000, compared with $800,000 a year ago, said general manager Bill DeLoache.

He wants the RNC to come but is worried the two sides are too far apart.

"It was very disheartening, and I finally quit listening to the news because neither side really seemed to want to make it want to work," he said.

Democratic city council member Malcolm Graham says most emails and phone calls he receives from constituents are against hosting.

"People are now voicing concerns not only about the public health, but they're voicing concerns about the public safety — some of the inflammatory comments from the president over the past couple of days, rioting in the streets Charlotte," Graham said.

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