RALEIGH — Organizers of the Republican National Convention said Tuesday they will begin visiting potential alternative sites after North Carolina’s governor told them the COVID-19 pandemic requires them to prepare for a scaled-back event if they want to hold it in Charlotte.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a letter to the top convention organizer and the national GOP chairwoman that “planning for a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings is a necessity.” The letter came on the eve of a deadline from the GOP for assurances that Cooper would allow a full-scale event in August.
Later, Cooper told reporters it’s unlikely he will allow a full-capacity nominating convention for President Donald Trump to proceed at Charlotte’s NBA arena.
“We think it is unlikely that we would be to the point at the end of August to be able to have a jam packed 19,000-person convention in the Spectrum arena,” Cooper said. “So the likelihood of it being in Charlotte depends upon the RNC’s willingness to discuss with us a scaled-down convention, which we would like to do.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, one of the recipients of Cooper’s letter, accused him of “dragging his feet” on giving them guidance for proceeding with convention plans. She released a statement saying that while the party would like to hold its event in Charlotte, “we have an obligation to our delegates and nominee to begin visiting the multiple cities and states” that have reached out to express interest in hosting.
Republican governors of Tennessee, Florida and Georgia have said they would be interested in hosting if North Carolina falls through. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said that GOP officials are coming to scout Nashville on Thursday, calling the city “the best place in America to have a convention.
Wednesday was the GOP’s deadline for assurances from Cooper. Last week, Trump demanded Cooper that guarantee him a full-scale event or he would be forced to move the event elsewhere.
North Carolina faces an upward trend in its virus cases, reporting about 29,900 cumulative cases and 900 deaths as of Tuesday. Around 700 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized. Mecklenburg County accounted for 4,500 cases — more than double the next-highest county — and nearly 100 deaths.
Earlier in the day, North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley acknowledged some changes would likely be needed, but maintained Republicans want a “full-scale” convention.
“Look, we’re not going to move forward with any activities that do not follow federal, state or local requirements and regulations. So, we need to know what those requirements are going to be,” he said.
Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, said that Cooper’s popularity in North Carolina may give him a stronger position than Trump to convince the public of his approach.
But Bitzer said it’s hard to imagine Cooper and Trump will strike a deal that fully satisfies both sides by Wednesday.
“The deadline is gonna push one side to do one thing, and the other side is just going to say, ‘no’ or ‘we can’t,'” he said.
A Charlotte convention could help Trump boost enthusiasm among North Carolina supporters, but he could also frustrate some voters if he pushes too hard during a delicate time for health and public safety, Bitzer said.
Whatley said the convention could generate $200 million for the regional economy, especially in the hospitality industry and in restaurants and bars.
Still, two Charlotte restaurant owners said they didn’t expect a huge hit if the RNC moves or is scaled back.
“I feel like it would be a small impact on our business,” Greg Zanitsch, who owns the Fig Tree near the city’s central business district.
When the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte in 2012, he said an increase in business from visitors was balanced by the fact that his regulars stayed away.
“So, it was pretty much just a normal weekend. We didn’t see a big increase in business because of the convention,” he said.
Patrick Whalen, owner of 5Choice in Charlotte, said the convention would be good for the city, but he added: “Whether the RNC was going to be here or not, we would have done fine.”
Whalen, whose restaurant’s windows were smashed during recent protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, said he thinks the RNC could also bring protesters, but that the city is equipped to deal with them.
“So my guess is that will probably happen again during the RNC, but hopefully with less violence,” he said.