Bryan Anderson, Gary D. Robertson and Jill Colvin
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump said he is seeking a new state to host this summer's Republican National Convention after North Carolina refused to guarantee the event could be held in Charlotte without restrictions because of ongoing concerns over the coronavirus.
Trump announced the news via tweet Tuesday night, complaining the state's governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, and other officials "refuse to guarantee that we can have use of the Spectrum Arena" and were not "allowing us to occupy the arena as originally anticipated and promised."
"Because of @NC_Governor, we are now forced to seek another State to host the 2020 Republican National Convention," he wrote.
Trump and the Republican National Committee had been demanding that the convention be allowed to move forward with a full crowd and no face coverings — raising alarms in a state that is facing an upward trend in its virus cases, with about 29,900 cumulative cases and 900 deaths as of Tuesday. Around 700 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized. Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, accounted for 4,500 cases — more than double the next-highest county — and nearly 100 deaths.
"We have been committed to a safe RNC convention in North Carolina and it's unfortunate they never agreed to scale down and make changes to keep people safe," Cooper tweeted in response to the decision. "Protecting public health and safety during this pandemic is a priority."
A traditional GOP convention brings together roughly 2,500 delegates, the same number of alternate delegates and many times more guests, journalists and security personnel. Officials in both parties have been preparing contingency plans for months given the uncertainty and dangers posed by the virus and evolving restrictions on large gatherings meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Trump's announcement came after a call with Cooper Friday in which the president had told Cooper he wanted a traditional convention with a packed arena full of delegates — and with no face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
During the call, when Trump "insisted on a full convention arena with no face coverings and no social distancing the governor expressed concerns and suggested a scaled back event with fewer attendees," Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner wrote in an email. "They agreed to continue talking about ways to have a safe convention in Charlotte."
But Cooper made clear to Trump that those conditions would likely be impossible to accommodate given the status of the epidemic in his state, and formalized that Tuesday in a letter to the RNC on the eve of a Wednesday deadline set by the GOP for assurances from Cooper that he would allow a full-scale event in August.
Cooper wrote to RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel that "planning for a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings is a necessity." And later he told reporters it was unlikely that virus trends would allow a full-capacity nominating convention for 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."
That prompted the RNC to say they would begin visiting potential alternative sites in the largely GOP-led states that have offered to host the quadrennial gathering instead.
McDaniel, meanwhile, accused Cooper of "dragging his feet" on giving them guidance for proceeding with convention plans. 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, she said.
The Republican governors of states including Tennessee, Florida and Georgia had said they would be interested in hosting if North Carolina fell through. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said GOP officials were coming to scout Nashville on Thursday and called the city "the best place in America to have a convention."
Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp responded to Trump's announcement by tweeting, "Hope you have Georgia on your mind, @realDonaldTrump!"
One RNC official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while Trump won't accept renomination in Charlotte, other convention business may still be conducted there.
Changing sites had been seen as difficult for reasons including the contract between GOP officials and Charlotte leaders to hold the convention there. In April, the City Council voted to accept a $50 million federal grant for convention security. Before the vote, City Attorney Patrick Baker noted the overall contract requires parties to follow applicable laws and regulations, including Cooper's executive orders. Cooper's current order limits indoor gatherings to 10 people.
The city of Charlotte posted on its Twitter account Tuesday that it had not received any official notification from the RNC and that Baker "will be in contact with the attorneys for the RNC to understand their full intentions."
Earlier in the day, North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley had acknowledged that some changes would likely be needed, but maintained Republicans wanted 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," he said.
Whatley said the convention could have generated $200 million for the regional economy, giving a boost to the hospitality industry as well as restaurants and bars.
Still, Charlotte restaurant owners said they didn't expect a huge hit if the RNC moved or was scaled back.
"I feel like it would be a small impact on our business," said Greg Zanitsch, who owns the Fig Tree near the city's central business district.