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Case count weighs on GOP gathering; Arkansans unsure they’ll make trip

by Frank E. Lockwood | July 6, 2020 at 7:32 a.m.
Confetti and balloons fall during celebrations after then-candidate Donald Trump's acceptance speech on the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in this July 21, 2016, file photo.

WASHINGTON -- As the number of covid-19 cases soars, Arkansas Republican leaders are still deciding whether to attend next month's presidential nominating convention.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was supposed to lead the Arkansas delegation, indicated Sunday the trip is not his top priority.

"Attendance in Charlotte depends upon the situation with the COVID-19 virus in Arkansas. My duties as Governor come first," he said in a written statement. "It is always an honor to be part of the Presidential nominating convention but in this environment it will also depend upon the healthcare guidance for the convention."

Members of the state's all-Republican congressional delegation also are keeping their options open; none of the six are delegates.

"Who knows what the world will look like during that period of time, the next few weeks," U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Rogers said. "Right now, like I say, I'm planning on going and participating."

With the coronavirus curve trending upward, lawmakers aren't eager to buy nonrefundable tickets to either of the Republican convention cities, Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

"It's in flux right now," said U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs.

"I've got to see what's going to be happening there in Jacksonville, what the arrangements are with the social distancing," he said.

If he decides it isn't worth the time and money to attend in person, he may just watch it on television, Westerman added.

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President Donald Trump, who easily won his party's primaries, has stated his preference for a packed convention hall when Republicans gather.

Arkansas has assembled a 40-member delegation.

Initially, they expected to spend Aug. 24-27 in the Tar Heel State. The public health emergency disrupted those plans.

Convention organizers, balking at potentially sweeping covid-19 related restrictions, announced last month that they'll be shifting most of the events from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville.

Instead of a state with a Democratic governor who envisioned "a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings," they'll spend most of their time in a state with a Republican governor who has enthusiastically welcomed them.

While Trump will be nominated in the original host city on Aug. 24, he'll give his acceptance speech roughly 400 miles to the south later in the week.

Only about 336 of the 2,550 delegates will actually participate in the official Charlotte proceedings.

Others will head straight to Jacksonville.

Florida, like North Carolina, is a battleground state.

Florida is also a covid-19 hot spot, with 40,000 new cases tallied over the past four days, according to state officials. By comparison, Arkansas has had 23,814 since March 11.

Arkansas Republican leaders are aware that the numbers in the Sunshine State are trending upward.

"I'm a little concerned about what may happen now, given the situation in Florida," said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro.

"My plans were to attend in some capacity but those plans are going to stay relatively fluid based on whatever guidance comes forward at that time," he said.

Jonathan Barnett, Arkansas' Republican National Committee member and a member of the original site's selection committee, said organizers are taking steps to minimize covid-19 related risks.

"I do know there will be a lot of precautions. I'm sure they'll take temperatures before and after and I'm sure they're going to ask [health-related] questions."

"Social distancing, I think, inside the arena, will be difficult, but I think there'll be some effort to at least try," he said.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, the delegation's vice chairman, said he still plans to attend.

"I am confident the planners will take the appropriate precautions, and I will socially distance and wear a mask when appropriate," he said.

Other prominent Republicans are still making up their minds.

"I'm leaning towards attending for a couple of days but I just haven't made those final commitments or those final plans yet," said U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack will be keeping an eye on the covid-19 numbers.

"Tentatively, I am scheduled to go but that's a fluid situation," the lawmaker from Rogers said.

Asked how he'll make his decision, Womack said, "Probably by gut [instinct]."

"We need to see where the nation is with regard to its reopening and whether cases are trending higher," he said. "I know there's been some concerns in Florida, but that may not be the case throughout the summer."

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Little Rock noted that the convention isn't imminent.

"We still have two months," he said.

Cotton will assess conditions in both cities as the date draws near "as all of our delegates and officials should," he said.

"My hunch for now is that both sites, Charlotte and Jacksonville, will be able to pull off something that looks like a traditional convention ... in a safe and productive manner," he said.

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