JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the wake of the Republican National Committee’s decision to move some of this year’s convention festivities away from Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville is readying to welcome thousands of convention-going visitors.
For some residents and business owners, it feels like a blessing. Barbara Bredehoeft owns multiple restaurants in Jacksonville, including BB’s Restaurant and Bar. While the year started strong for her, coronavirus has put a dent in business.
“It has been crisis mode for 10 weeks,” Bredehoeft told Fox News. “It’s been very hard. It’s been especially hard for our employees.”
Bredehoeft adds that while things have improved since the state started reopening in May, there’s still a ways to go.
The decision to call a last-second audible on the Republican National Convention's location comes after a back-and-forth dispute between North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, President Trump and the RNC over whether Charlotte, the original site, could accommodate a full-scale convention because of the state's coronavirus social-distancing guidelines. When it became clear the RNC would be unable to host a full-fledged event as desired in North Carolina, Trump called for a change in venue and the committee went looking for another host city to handle the celebration and festivities.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry threw his city's name into the hat for consideration, which became the ultimate selection. For the sake of business owners like Bredehoeft, he believes that this is just what his city needed.
“This is particularly special and important as we come out of COVID-19,” Curry told Fox News. “This is an opportunity to get people back to work, it’s also an opportunity to showcase our city.”
Curry told Fox News that the convention will have an estimated $100 million economic impact on Jacksonville. With the decision made less than three months before the main event itself, Curry affirms that’s he confident they can pull it off.
That said, he does admit that it will be a proverbial sprint to the finish line.
“The RNC, they know what they want to accomplish. So, it’s not like they’re coming into our city trying to figure out what’s the goal or what do we want this to look like. It’s just on a compressed timeline,” said Curry.
Still, some planning and fundraising remain. In an exclusive sit-down with Fox News, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel did not downplay the magnitude of the location swap, but said she feels good about the decision overall.
“This is a massive undertaking,” said McDaniel. “We’ve planned for three years for one city. Of course, we love North Carolina, we’re going to showcase that state as well, not at the level we want to, but we’re happy to be here in Florida.”
The convention will run from Aug. 24-27 in both Charlotte and Jacksonville. The RNC emphasizes that much of the "business" will take place in North Carolina, but some of the more celebratory events, including President Trump's acceptance of the party's nomination, will take place in Florida — most likely at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
With Florida being home to major metropolitan areas like Miami, Orlando and Tampa, Curry acknowledges that his city can sometimes be overlooked. But, if all goes according to plan, he believes the convention could change that perspective.
“What I want people to see that are here and are watching it from their television sets are our beautiful skyline, our beautiful river, our natural assets, [and I hope that] people would take in some of our food scene, our art and our culture,” said Curry.
But, some are worried about the convention coming to town due to the risk of spreading COVID-19. That includes Dr. Leo Alonso, an emergency medicine physician who works in the city.
“It’s risky because you’re bringing thousands of people from outside — most of whom haven't been tested — and you’re introducing them into close quarters,” Alonso told Fox News.
Alonso and over 100 Florida doctors have signed a letter, organized by the Committee to Protect Medicare, calling on the city, state and RNC to take extra safety steps.
“As health professionals, we are concerned at the Republican National Committee’s decision to hold its convention acceptance speech and celebration in Jacksonville at a time when COVID-19 infections and deaths in Florida are on the rise,” the letter reads in part.
While the letter makes no demand of outright canceling the event, it does ask Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to require “some basic safeguards during the convention.”
These safeguards include mandating the usage of facial masks and social distancing, amping up testing in the Jacksonville area, and instituting screening and sanitizing at the event itself.
Alonso points to the rising case numbers in the state as a reason to be more cautious.
“I’m not personally against a gathering, I’m just concerned with this one on the timing and that the way it’s going to be carried out is not going to be prudent — all the data is pointing as we should (sic.) not be having a mass gathering in Florida.”
Case numbers have spiked in the last week in the Sunshine State, and DeSantis acknowledged in a news conference Saturday that the rise cannot be explained simply by an increase in testing.
McDaniel says that she hears these concerns loud and clear, and they will be taking precautions to ensure the safety of attendees.
“Testing if it warrants at that time in August, PPE, sanitization, obviously temperature checks, and we’re going to be taking that very seriously,” said McDaniel. “This is a national security event with the president of the United States. There’s not going to be any safety and health precaution we’re not going to take that’s necessary.”
At this time, McDaniel foresees facial masks being distributed and social distancing being encouraged, but both being optional. She adds that is all subject to change.
With thousands expected to make their way to Jacksonville, Bredehoeft believes that the convention will make a difference for hundreds of business owners just like her. As such, she’s excited for what’s to come, despite the risks.
“That is going to be the absolute shot in the arm that this particular city needed to get our sales back on track,” said Bredehoeft. “I think we’re going to rock this town.”