WASHINGTON — With coronavirus cases in Florida surging, the Republican National Committee announced Thursday morning that it would limit attendance at the Jacksonville convention in August.
The RNC raised expectations last month that President Donald Trump would accept the GOP nomination on Aug. 27 before a packed VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in downtown Jacksonville. But RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced in a letter to convention delegates Thursday that attendance for Trump's speech would be limited to delegates, a single guest for each, and alternates — a crowd of roughly 7,500, equal to about half of the capacity of the indoor VyStar arena.
"When we made these changes," McDaniel wrote, referencing the move to Jacksonville, "we had hoped to be able to plan a traditional convention celebration to which we are all accustomed. However, adjustments must be made to comply with state and local health guidelines."
Now, the convention's featured events may not be held at the VyStar arena at all. Trump is tentatively expected to give his speech at Daily's Place, a 5,500-person, 90,000-square-foot outdoor amphitheater with a roof, according to a source familiar with convention discussions. Those discussions include ideas intended to allow a larger crowd to view Trump's speech.
The first lady and vice president are also expected, as of Thursday morning, to give their speeches on Aug. 25 and Aug. 26 at the same venue. McDaniel, in her Thursday letter, said admittance to the convention venue would be limited the first two days only to the party's roughly 2,500 delegates.
Sources familiar with convention planning have stressed in recent days that details remain fluid.
McDaniel's letter did not specify whether Trump's speech would be held indoors, as originally planned, or at an outdoor space, as discussed by the Trump campaign and RNC officials amid Florida's coronavirus outbreak. The Trump campaign directed questions about the convention to the RNC. Spokepersons for the RNC were not immediately available to provide comment on the changes beyond McDaniel's letter, which also said, without giving any details, that there would be temperature checks and testing offered at the convention.
Convention events will also be held at other downtown venues, according to a memo released Thursday by the 2020 Jacksonville Host Committee. Those events, which include social gatherings, will likely be held in smaller rooms inside the various stadiums and arenas in the Jacksonville area, according to a source.
"We continue to plan to host programming each day leading up to President Donald Trump's speech accepting the nomination on Thursday, August 27. We expect there to be evening programming each night, along with some daytime events and festivities. We plan to utilize a number of indoor and outdoor venues in this multi-block radius of Jacksonville, including the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, TIAA Bank Field, Daily's Place Amphitheater, 121 Financial Ballpark, and several others," McDaniel wrote.
McDaniel's announcement adds some clarity to a week of murkiness about how Trump would celebrate his reelection nomination — a choice complicated by the Republican National Committee's decision to move most of its convention events from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville and Florida's spiking coronavirus outbreak.
At the time the RNC announced the move, on June 11, Trump and the RNC objected to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's resistance to guarantee a "full-fledged" convention celebration at Charlotte's 19,000-person Spectrum Center. Meanwhile, the scale of infections in Florida was comparatively modest, with only about one in 20 tests coming back positive statewide. Jacksonville, in particular, also was experiencing a relatively mild coronavirus outbreak, one reason the hastily formed Jacksonville Host Committee announced plans to focus convention events on Aug. 25, 26 and 27 around the 15,000-seat VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena downtown.
But Florida reported more than 14,000 positive COVID-19 cases Thursday, and a record 156 deaths. There were 831 positive cases reported Thursday in Duval County alone, where the government representing the sprawling Jacksonville metro area has imposed an order requiring masks indoors when social distancing can't be observed. The state, meanwhile, is limiting capacity to 50% at entertainment venues.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed reports that the RNC might move its signature events outdoors.
"There's consideration being given to having the convention in an outdoor setting and also putting the kind of measures in place that put the health of all of those participating, our delegates, visitors and anyone else that's present," Pence said.
Third-party agreements are still being negotiated between an events manager for city-owned venues and either the RNC or the Jacksonville Host Committee, according to an email sent Wednesday night by the city's chief administrative officer to Jacksonville City Council President Tommy Hazouri.
McDaniel's letter, which referenced the need to respect local health restrictions, stressed that the convention would be held with precautions in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"We plan to implement a variety of health protocols in order to ensure a safe event. This plan includes but is not limited to on-site temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols and available COVID-19 testing," the letter to delegates said.
An immediate question facing the RNC is whether to credential party bosses and lawmakers who would typically attend the convention but appear to be kept from viewing the president's acceptance speech by the new rules that McDaniel sent to delegates on Thursday.
Republican governors, senators and members of the House of Representatives would usually be allowed in. State party staff and consultants are also generally credentialed. The more Republican a state, the more credentials it usually receives for big donors, a person involved in the planning of a state delegation told McClatchy. Battleground state parties typically receive more credentials, too.
Republican senators such as Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Roberts of Kansas have already signaled they would not attend. A spokeswoman for Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has said he would attend.
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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, told Fox News' Martha MacCallum Wednesday night that he expected to go: "I plan to attend. Obviously, we'll wait and see what circumstances look like at that point."
McDaniel's letter signaled that many extra credentials would be nixed this year. It also put alternative delegates in the position of having to decide whether they want to spend thousands of dollars traveling to an area which might result in them being advised to quarantine for 14 days afterward.
"Who in their right mind would be willing to go down there and then quarantine for two weeks, particularly if you're an alternate," the person involved in planning for a state delegation said.
(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Alex Daugherty and Michael Wilner contributed to this report.)
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