July 10, 2020 / 6:02 AM / a month ago

Florida virus surge threatens Trump's convention plans

(Reuters) - As coronavirus cases surge in Florida, scepticism is growing that Republican National Convention organizers will be able to pull off the grand party President Donald Trump promised for his renomination.

Wealthy donors are reluctant to bankroll an event besieged by uncertainty and possible bad optics if large crowds are later linked to a rash of new infections, according to interviews with six Republican Party sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Organisers are considering moving the convention from the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, to one of two nearby outdoor stadiums to address concerns about the rapid spread of the virus indoors, two of the sources who are familiar with the planning told Reuters.

Trump himself has been reaching out to top campaign officials in recent days to seek advice on whether they think the Aug. 24-27 convention can go forward as envisioned, according to two of the sources familiar with the calls.

“It’s like building a plane while trying to take off,” one official said of the planning scramble.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee declined to comment.

The questions around the convention come as Trump trails Democratic opponent Joe Biden in opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, in part due to voter dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the pandemic.

The Democratic National Convention is being reimagined as a mostly virtual affair, though Biden is still expected to travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to accept his party’s nomination.

In a conference call on Tuesday, Trump campaign officials pressed staff and volunteers about the state of convention planning, hoping for a realistic assessment of where things stood.

“There were not a lot of great answers,” said one official who was on the call. “My sense is there is a lot of soul-searching going on right now within the campaign about how to proceed.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his family are joined by vice presidential nominee Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his family on stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

TULSA RALLY A CAUTIONARY TALE

Trump’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which drew thousands fewer than the campaign predicted, looms large in the internal discussions, the official said. No one wants to promise something they can’t deliver, the source said.

A Tulsa health official on Wednesday said the June rally likely contributed to a rise in coronavirus cases there.

Florida’s virus count has soared in the weeks since it was chosen to host the convention after Trump scrapped long-laid plans to accept the party’s nomination in Charlotte, North Carolina. That state’s Democratic governor wouldn’t commit to allowing large gatherings.

The 11,458 cases recorded in Florida on Saturday marked the state’s highest single-day total and among the most on record by any U.S. state.

Five Republican U.S. senators said this week they would skip the convention. Doctors and clergy have signed letters in opposition of the event going forward.

A group of local residents and business owners filed a lawsuit in state court on Wednesday, asking a judge to declare the convention a threat to public health and to force organizers to limit attendance and require masks and social distancing.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said on Wednesday that Trump was looking forward to going to the Florida convention.

“We’re still moving forward with Jacksonville,” she told reporters. “It’ll be a safe event.”

Organizers say they would follow local health rules, which currently require face coverings and limit larger, indoor gatherings to 50% of capacity. The Republican Party also will require attendees to be tested for the coronavirus each day before they can enter the convention venue.

Most of the $40 million raised for the Charlotte convention was already spent on salaries, prepayments on contracts and other items before Trump relocated the event, according to two of the sources who were familiar with the fundraising numbers.

Fundraisers are struggling to persuade donors who have already contributed money for Charlotte to open their wallets anew while the convention format remains up in the air, the sources said.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks prior to signing an Executive Order on the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 9, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“It’s real hard. Things are rapidly changing on the ground every day. People and companies give money to host parties and other events, and they don’t want empty rooms,” a Republican National Committee source said.

The short timetable and lack of donor enthusiasm has forced Jacksonville organizers to target more modest fundraising goals, hoping to raise a fraction of the $70 million planned for Charlotte, sources said.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis

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