WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said he will no longer hold a large, in-person Republican convention in Jacksonville, Florida, because of the coronavirus but will hold virtual events and still give an acceptance speech.
“I told my team it’s time to cancel the Jacksonville, Florida, component of the G.O.P. Convention. We will be starting in North Carolina for the Monday, as has always been planned, we were never taking that off,” Trump said at a press conference at the White House Thursday afternoon.
Trump said that it was “not the right time” for a big convention, adding that he had “to protect the American people.”
“People making travel arrangements all the over the country, they wanted to be there,” he said.
Trump’s plans for Jacksonville appeared to be in peril earlier this week when the city council president raised safety and health concerns and threatened to oppose a key funding bill for the convention.
The convention had also been struggling to raise funds from donors, said Republican sources. After losing millions of dollars moving it from North Carolina to Florida, major donors — already skeptical the event would take place — were being asked to contribute again for the Florida location.
Coronavirus-related deaths in Florida reached a new high Thursday with 173 dead, marking the state’s largest daily increase. Florida also announced 10,249 new cases, bringing the total count to 389,868.
Trump said he had spoken with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about his decision to cancel the convention but that the governor had not pressured him to do so. Trump said his decision was based on safety concerns and the media backlash he thought he would receive.
“I could see the media saying, ‘Oh this is very unsafe,'” Trump said. “I don’t want to be in that position.”
Trump said that he would be making an announcement in the coming days about what the new convention plans will look like, saying that it would be in a “different form” rather than the large arena event he had hoped for.
“We’ll announce what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, whether it’s something that’s done online,” Trump said, lamenting that “there could be nothing like our last convention, unfortunately.”
“That was a great convention … But it’s a different world, and it will be for a little while,” Trump added.
Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry thanked the president Thursday night in a statement, writing that, “We appreciate President Donald Trump considering our public health and safety concerns in making this incredibly difficult decision.”
Trump was slated to deliver his acceptance speech on August 27, the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, when a group of white men in Jacksonville attacked peaceful Black protesters demonstrating in support of racial justice.
Florida is one of the most critical battleground states to Trump’s reelection. He narrowly won the state in 2016, earning 48.6 percent of the vote over Hillary Clinton’s 47.4%.
A poll from Quinnipiac University released earlier Thursday showed Trump struggling with Florida voters as 51 percent of voters said they backed former Vice President Joe Biden compared to 38 percent that said they supported Trump. Fifty-eight percent of Florida voters also said they thought Biden would do a better job responding to the coronavirus compared to 38 percent for Trump.
Democrats have planned for Biden to accept the party’s presidential nomination at a nearly all-virtual convention in Milwaukee the week before the GOP event. Due to health concerns, delegates were told to stay home.
Trump moved the convention from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville earlier this year after officials in North Carolina raised concerns about hosting such a large event amid a global pandemic. Many Republican officials and party leaders had said that they did not plan to attend the Jacksonville event due to the coronavirus.
At the same press conference, Trump announced he would throw out the first pitch at the Yankee Stadium August 15. Mariano Rivera, the legendary Yankees closer and only unanimous first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, was seated in the briefing room for the announcement.
Shannon Pettypiece contributed.