President Donald Trump’s demand for a full-capacity Republican convention in August is putting pressure on North Carolina health officials — and local Republicans — as coronavirus cases surge in the host county and statewide.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's administration has refused to give in to the pressure, though, responding with a letter demanding a written safety plan from organizers of the Republican National Convention, slated for August in Charlotte. Even local Republican officials have noted Trump doesn't have the power alone to cancel the convention contract. The convention, with over two years of planning, is scheduled to start in 90 days.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen's letter asks Republican convention planners to provide a written COVID-19 safety plan “as soon as possible,” noting Trump's tweets amount to an “accelerated decision-making timeline.”
Cohen noted that she and Gov. Cooper talked by phone with RNC planners Friday, during which they discussed the need to plan for convention alternatives depending on the arc of the outbreak.
“The status of COVID-19 infections in our state and in the Charlotte area continues to rapidly evolve, thus, it will be important to have several scenarios planned that can be deployed depending on the public health situation,” Cohen wrote in the letter signed Monday and released Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Mecklenburg County had at least 3,400 COVID-19 cases — more than twice the next-highest county — and 73 deaths, also the most in the state, according to state health officials. A third of the cases were tallied in the past two weeks.
Statewide, there were 24,000 cases as part of an upward trend that included 1,100 new cases Saturday, the state's worst daily increase yet. Nearly 800 people have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, giving the state the 21st highest death count.
Trump thrust North Carolina's outbreak into the spotlight Monday when he threatened on Twitter to pull the August 24-27 convention out of Charlotte if Cooper didn't immediately agree to a full-capacity gathering. Pre-pandemic, Republicans estimated the convention would draw 50,000 visitors.
Cooper has gradually eased business restrictions, but entertainment venues, bars and restaurants remain closed under his current order that also caps indoor gatherings at 10 people.
On Tuesday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox News Channel that Cooper owes the GOP firmer answers.
“It’s just the governor. He has to work with us. Every state we talk to says we want to nominate the president here, but this governor is up for re-election and hasn’t given us the reassurances we need,” she said, adding that other states have inquired about hosting.
Republicans in Georgia say they're ready to host the convention if North Carolina falls through.
But Charlotte-area Republicans noted the GOP would have to break its contract to move the convention elsewhere.
“I don’t know exactly what legal authority the president has over the party and therefore, whether he is in a position to give them an order to seek the cancellation of the contract," City Councilman Ed Driggs, a Republican, said in an interview. "He’s not a party to the contract himself.”
Sarah Reidy-Jones, Vice Chair of Mecklenburg County Republican Party and Convention Delegate, said in an interview that she believes the convention will remain in Charlotte because of all the work and planning done over the past two years.
“I’m not so concerned about the tweet. He doesn’t have the authority to change the convention,” she said.
She said that while she “doesn't envy” Cooper or local officials on their decision-making, she also doesn't want friction over the convention to turn into a rallying cry for Democratic donors. Cooper, who was narrowly elected in 2016, faces a challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest this year.
Driggs said he's heard mixed feelings from constituents about holding a convention — scaled back or not — during the pandemic.
“There’s a full spread of opinion," Driggs said. “So I get e-mails saying, ‘call it off, call it off,’ and I get others from my own supporters saying ‘stand firm, stand tall.'”
Mike Mulligan, a 66-year-old registered Republican in Charlotte, said he agrees with Trump that North Carolina should hold a full convention, or risk losing it to another state. Mulligan, who retired from the financial services industry, said he would be comfortable with attending convention events even though, at his age, he's in a high-risk group. He said he thinks a full convention can be held if they screen attendees for symptoms.
“The economy can’t withstand losing the RNC,” he said. “With proper screening, I think they can pull this off.”
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