'Everything about this is unprecedented': GOP grapples with its convention amid pandemic

'Everything about this is unprecedented': GOP grapples with its convention amid pandemic
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The GOP is struggling with the format of its party convention next month amid spiking coronavirus in Florida, where the official renomination of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE will take place, with experts warning the risk level may be high even if additional precautions are put in place.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) announced Thursday it is restricting attendance to the convention in Jacksonville, Fla., to just regular delegates for the first three days, amounting to about 2,500 people, and expanding the crowd for the night Trump accepts the nomination to about 6,000 or 7,000. As of the now, the convention will include a mix of indoor and outdoor events and will have on-site temperature checks of attendees, personal protective equipment and “aggressive” sanitizing protocols and COVID-19 testing.

A day earlier, Vice President Pence indicated the RNC may move the convention entirely outdoors.

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The adjustments come as the GOP scrambles to comply with health guidance in a state that is one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 hot spots while also maintaining some sort of crowd for an optics-sensitive president who thrives on raucous rallies and cheering supporters. The GOP had moved the convention to Jacksonville after Trump feuded with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) over what an in-person convention could look like at its originally planned location of Charlotte amid the pandemic.

“Everything about this is unprecedented,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump putting TikTok ban on hold for 45 days: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Biden VP possible next week; Meadows says relief talks 'miles apart' Pompeo: Trump taking action on Chinese software firms 'in coming days' MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 White House bid. “I think the goal for both candidates needs to be keeping their delegates safe. For the Republicans, I think that clearly means limiting the number of people who can attend and then taking every other common sense safety precaution like holding it outside.

“I think a lot of these delegates tend to be older or more at risk, so you need to make sure they feel safe or you could end up with attendance problems.”

The convention, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, will come as the Trump campaign seeks to ramp up the president’s appearances across the country after months of coronavirus-related distancing.

Trump's eagerness to hit the campaign trail, however, has already garnered negative headlines after at least eight campaign staffers tested positive following a rally last month in a Tulsa, Okla., arena that was only filled to about a third of its capacity.

Trump was furious over the fallout from the rally, which reportedly played a role in his Wednesday decision to demote Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE from his position as campaign manager and makes the stakes of the optics surrounding the convention that much higher.

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“They also have to be mindful of, as we saw with the inauguration, as we saw with Tulsa, regardless of the size of the room, if the room is empty that’s a bad look. And Donald Trump does not want bad looks,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC communications director.

The GOP will have to contend with burgeoning health concerns surrounding the event, with experts saying that a large gathering, whether indoors, outdoors or both, will inevitably help spread the pandemic.

Florida reached a new single-day high for coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, reporting 156 fatalities, bringing the state’s total to 4,677. The state also reported 13,965 new positive COVID-19 cases, bringing its total up to 315,775.

“At a time like this, from a public health point of view, it doesn't make a lot of sense,” said Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health at the University of South Florida. 

“I'm all for the fact that we’re going to have to learn how to live with [COVID-19]. We need to think of all of the approaches, all of the behaviors that we need to implement on a day-to-day basis to manage with [COVID-19], because it will likely be with us a year or more,” Levine added. “So I’m all for that, however, there are activities that are more risky and one of them is large gatherings, particularly indoors.”

A convention-style setting also poses unique risks of spreading the coronavirus given the nature of the event, with attendees spreading more air droplets as they shout their support for Trump and other Republicans.

“Yelling, screaming, shouting, singing, crying, all of those things expel a lot more virus through droplets and through aerosols. And then when you’re all in a single spot, it accumulates and people end up getting a lot more of a dose of virus from your neighbor,” Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Hill.

Experts said while the restrictions announced Thursday will make the convention marginally safer, it is not nearly enough to completely manage the spread.

“I think what is being proposed as I understand it is going from extremely high risk to moderately high risk,” Jha said.

When asked what he would advise the GOP to do, Jha said the party should “limit the number of events, keep it a relatively short convention, hold all the events outside, further reduce the number of people you’re bringing together, maintain social distancing, have absolute enforcement of mask rules, I think they should test everyone upon arrival and tell people that when they go home they should quarantine themselves for some period of time, ideally 14 days.”

The most foolproof way to reduce risk is to not have anyone infected with COVID-19 show up, though that could be a difficult feat considering many asymptomatic, infected people may not realize they have the virus. 

“You could require delegates to be tested within a couple days of coming and that would be another way to overall reduce risk. That's certainly not impossible to execute,” said David Thomas, the director of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. 

Another factor to consider is the behavior officials are modeling in holding a convention, Levine said. 

“The messaging has not been clear, it’s been mixed, and we really need coherent, unified and even inspiring messages to help people know what they need to do and to demonstrate why they need to do it by role modeling that behavior,” she said. “I would hope our political leaders would consider that in their decision making.” 

While moving the convention outdoors would bring logistical challenges — namely Florida's extreme summer heat and the risk of rain or even storms during hurricane season — holding the events outside could provide a middle ground of being able to deliver Trump his coveted crowd and avert some of the most serious health concerns.

“It’s all about high energy, it’s all about the crowds. And obviously we’re not doing that,” said GOP strategist Chip Saltsman, who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“It’s not ideal because of the heat, but you’ll take what you can get. If the option is sitting in front of a TV camera inside by yourself or having a crowd outside in the heat, that’s what they’re going to take, they’re going to take the crowd outside every step of the way.”

The need for a boost is especially dire for the president as polls show him trailing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign emails supporters encouraging mask-wearing: 'We have nothing to lose' Cuba spells trouble for Bass's VP hopes Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks MORE, the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee, both nationally and in crucial swing states.

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Conventions typically provide a temporary polling bounce, but whichever format the convention takes will likely hamper whatever bump Trump enjoys.

"Not having a normal convention means you will not have a normal convention bounce. That’s a new thing that has to be factored in," said Heye.

Biden has unrelentingly criticized Trump for his handling of the pandemic, and arrangements for the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee will underscore the differences in the candidates’ messaging around the health crisis. Democrats, who have also yet to finalize their plans, are opting out of the traditional huge, crowded convention for a largely virtual platform to limit crowds amid the pandemic.

Health experts say that no event will be 100 percent safe as long as attendees are gathering in person, even if most events are held outside and health guidance is closely followed.

“Yes, it is possible to spread, [that’s] why I can’t use the word 'safe,’ ” Thomas said when asked about spreading the virus even if all precautions are taken. 

Levine put it more bluntly: “There is no zero risk.”