Donald Trump has cancelled the part of the Republican national convention that had been due to take place in Jacksonville, Florida, his biggest public retreat yet from the ferocity of the coronavirus pandemic.
The US president’s insistence on a packed crowd had forced the Republican National Committee to announce in June that it would move most of its agenda – including Trump’s acceptance speech as nominee – to Jacksonville from Charlotte, North Carolina, where health guidelines are stricter.
But since then, virus infections have soared in Florida, including a record 173 deaths on Thursday, forcing Trump to reluctantly pull the plug.
“I told my team it’s time to cancel the Jacksonville, Florida, component of the convention,” he said in a White House press briefing. “I’ll still do a convention speech in a different form, but we won’t do a big, crowded convention per se. It’s just not the right time for that.”
The move is the latest and starkest example of Trump bowing to the scientific reality of the pandemic, which has now infected 4m Americans and killed more than 144,000. A campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month suffered a poor turnout, presumably in part because of fears that the virus would spread in the indoor arena. Another recent plan for an outdoor rally in New Hampshire was cancelled, ostensibly because of the weather.
After months of refusing to wear a face mask in public, Trump finally did so and urged people to do likewise. He had still hoped to press ahead with a splashy acceptance speech before a raucous crowd in Jacksonville; the candidates’ convention remarks are usually made-for-TV moments that help define presidential election campaigns.
But the difficulties became clear when Jacksonville recently imposed a requirement that people must wear masks indoors. Florida, governed by Ron DeSantis, a strong Trump ally, has become one of the hardest-hit states: it reported 10,249 new cases on Thursday. The president finally threw in the towel.
Questioned by reporters about the decision, he explained: “I just felt it was wrong to have people going to what turned out to be a hotspot. When we chose it, it was not at all hot. It was free and all of a sudden it happened quickly. It happens quickly. It goes away and it goes away quickly. The key is we want it to go away without a lot of death, without a lot of problems.”
Some events will continue as planned in Charlotte, Trump confirmed, including his nomination as party standard bearer. “We’re going to do a fairly reasonably quick meeting in North Carolina. The nomination will be produced and then we’ll announce what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, whether it’s something that’s done online.
“There can be nothing like our last convention, unfortunately. That was a great convention in a great place, as you know, we had a great time, a great time in Cleveland. But it’s a different world and it will be for a little while. We want to get the world back to what it was.”
Asked which one factor changed his mind, the president denied that Florida officials had asked him to cancel. “I would just say safety. I could see the media saying, ‘Oh, this is very unsafe.’ I don’t want to be in that position. It’s safety – not because of the media, but that’s what they would say, and we’ll have a very nice something. We’ll figure it out.”
Florida is Trump’s adopted home state and a perennial election battleground. But even before Thursday’s announcement, Republican senators including Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Chuck Grassley had said they would not attend.
Democrats have taken a more guarded approach to their own convention in August. Some events will be held virtually and some will still be in person in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The party will anoint Joe Biden, the former vice-president, as its nominee.