Officials in Florida expressed concern about public safety as coronavirus infections hit a record number for the third straight day following the Republican National Committee's decision to relocate part of its annual convention to Jacksonville.
The state saw at least 2,581 new confirmed cases on Saturday, a 35% increase over the previous day. It was the third consecutive day that the state recorded its highest daily total of cases yet, according to the Miami Herald. The number dipped slightly Sunday, but the state still reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases for the second straight day in a row. The state has now seen more than 1,000 new cases for 12 consecutive days.
The spike comes after the RNC announced last week that President Donald Trump's renomination speech would be moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville due to North Carolina's coronavirus restrictions. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, repeatedly said it was too early to tell whether it would be safe to pack large crowds of attendees in August. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, appears to have no such qualms.
DeSantis on Friday sought to downplay the huge spike, attributing the rise to increased testing in nursing homes and an outbreak among farmworkers in the state. He told local news outlet WPLG that he was sure the convention could be held without resulting in a large influx of new cases.
"They are really working hard on it," he said. "They are working hard with the folks at the White House."
But a Republican official told The Washington Post that the RNC will not insist on social distancing in the arena for Trump's speech and masks would be offered by not required. There are no plans to test attendees for the virus, as officials said they would do in Charlotte. Instead, convention organizers plan to conduct temperature checks on attendees, provide sanitizer and disinfect the space.
The RNC plans defy the Trump administration's own guidelines, which urged organizers of large gatherings to "strongly encourage" attendees to use face coverings in order to reduce the potential spread of the virus.
The Trump campaign plans to require attendees at his upcoming rally to sign waivers vowing not to sue if they contract the coronavirus. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox News it was too early to say whether the party would have a similar waiver for the convention.
"We haven't even gotten there yet," she said. "I mean, as you can imagine, we've got 74 days to plan a whole new celebration in a different city."
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, assured reporters on Friday that unspecified new rules would be implemented if infections continue to rise by the time the convention approaches.
"The status of COVID-19, the risks of COVID-19, what it will look like in late August will likely not look like what it does today," he argued. ". . . Clearly, the RNC wants a large event with a lot of people. I want that, too."
But many lawmakers and business leaders in the area disagree.
"It's irresponsible," Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis, a Democrat, told The Washington Post. "It will increase the number of COVID infections and put the locals at risk."
More than 100 Florida doctors signed an open letter to DeSantis on Friday urging him to require masks and social distancing at the event.
"Florida does not have COVID-19 under control," the letter said, warning that a large convention without proper precautions "will only increase the likelihood of community spread across Florida, strain our healthcare resources and put people in danger."
Education officials worried that the convention could disrupt the state's plans to reopen schools in August.
"It's hard to believe that anyone would think that it's a good idea to bring tens of thousands of people to Jacksonville from every corner of America just as Florida's schools are reopening in August," Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement. "We're not over this."
Trump has rejected the idea of social distancing at his speech.
"We can't do social distancing," he reportedly told Cooper on a call last month. "I don't want to be sitting in a place that's 50 percent empty."
Florida leaders are also concerned that Trump's speech, which is scheduled to be held on the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, when a mob of white residents beat mostly black people protesting segregated lunch counters with ax handles and baseball bats.
"It doesn't make any sense" Florida state Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat, told CNN. "It's disrespectful, and it's very callous."