Will Republican convention in Florida be a ‘super spreader’? Locals sue to keep it away

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Michelle Marchante
·8 min read
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Seven Florida residents, including a pastor, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to block the upcoming Republican National Convention in Jacksonville “to protect the health and welfare” of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plaintiffs — two attorneys, two barbershop owners, a pastor, an employee of Duval County Public Schools, and a public accountant and property developer — live, work or own businesses near the “Convention Zone” and the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, according to the lawsuit.

Jacksonville attorney William C. Gentry filed the lawsuit in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Duval County against the city of Jacksonville, the Republican National Committee, President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign “Donald J. Trump for President” and VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena operator ASM Global Parent Inc.

The suit lists several reasons why the Aug. 24-27 RNC Convention, where Trump will accept the Republican presidential nomination, should not be held in Jacksonville during the novel coronavirus pandemic. They include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of avoiding crowded areas to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and Florida’s rising case numbers.

As of Friday, Florida has 244,151 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 4,102 deaths. Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, has 11,772 known cases and 74 deaths.

The VyStar Veterans arena is also in a “predominately African American” community that is home to older individuals who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 and “also encompasses Jacksonville’s largest homeless residential center,” another high-risk population, the suit says.

RNC Convention will be a ‘super spreader event,’ lawsuit alleges

The RNC Convention, which is expected to bring thousands of people together, would be a “nuisance” and “will result in a previously unprecedented super spreader event which will not only result in a massive number of illnesses among the people in attendance, but will spread COVID-19 through Jacksonville and Northeast Florida,” the lawsuit alleges. It will also “interfere in Plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their property and right to be free of infliction of disease and death.”

Jacksonville’s Director of Public Affairs Nikki Kimbleton told the Miami Herald in an email that the city would not be commenting on the pending lawsuit. She did confirm that the city’s legal team had received the lawsuit and was reviewing it.

When asked about what steps Jacksonville planned to take to lessen the risk of COVID-19 transmission during the convention, Kimbleton said that the city would “continue to follow the state’s reopening guidelines, as well as our current executive order regarding masks,” and to contact the RNC for more specific details regarding its participants.

The Republican National Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, Tulsa City-County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart told The Associated Press that Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in late June, which drew thousands of participants and sparked protests, “likely contributed” to a surge in new coronavirus cases.

“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Dart told the AP.

Tulsa was the president’s first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States. About 6,200 people attended the rally, The Tulsa Fire Department told CNN.

TV coverage of the rally showed that while masks were provided, many in the crowd chose not to wear one.

All of Trump’s campaign staffers who were at the rally went into quarantine after interacting with colleagues who later tested positive for the disease and multiple Secret Service officers were also told to self-quarantine after two agents who were on site for the rally tested positive, CNN reports.

“There were literally no health precautions to speak of as thousands looted, rioted, and protested in the streets and the media reported that it did not lead to a rise in coronavirus cases,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement to the AP and CNN. “Meanwhile, the President’s rally was 18 days ago, all attendees had their temperature checked, everyone was provided a mask, and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available for all. It’s obvious that the media’s concern about large gatherings begins and ends with Trump rallies.”

On Tuesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said at a virtual news conference that as of now, the major political event would have to adhere to state orders and fill no more than half capacity. But Curry said things could change and the city would continue to monitor the state’s cases.

The VyStar Veterans arena, with a maximum capacity of 15,000, is still closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has had to postpone or cancel events including Disney on Ice, the Backstreet Boys (rescheduled for June 21, 2021 ) and Impractical Jokers (rescheduled for July 11, 2021).

Based on Florida’s current COVID-19 capacity restrictions, the arena would have to limit the convention’s crowd to 50 percent — that’s 7,500 people.

When asked in an interview with journalist Greta Van Susteren whether he would consider a smaller convention, Trump said the final decision on the convention’s venue and size will depend on what happens to the state’s case count in the following weeks.

“Well, we’re always looking at different things. When we signed in Jacksonville, we wanted to be in North Carolina. That almost worked out, but the governor didn’t want to have people use the arena, essentially. And so I said, ‘Too bad for North Carolina,’ “ Trump told Van Susteren on her show, “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren,” which will air Sunday on Gray Television.

“Look, we’re very flexible. We can do a lot of things, but we’re very flexible,” the president added, according to a transcript of the interview.

What is the goal of the RNC Convention lawsuit?

The lawsuit, which alleges its actions are “not a political matter,” is asking the court to keep the arena closed. If it opens, the plaintiffs are demanding additional safety measures. They include reducing the arena’s maximum capacity to 2,500 for the convention, with at least 12,500 seats in the arena roped off to keep people at least six feet apart. They are also asking that everyone undergo a COVID-19 health screening before being allowed into the event and enforcing a ”mask on” policy at all times inside the arena.

Erin Isaac, the spokeswoman for the host committee of the Jacksonville portion of the convention, told CNN this week that “everyone attending the convention within the perimeter will be tested and temperature checked each day.”

Last week, Jacksonville also made it mandatory to wear masks inside places where physical distancing is difficult. If the mandate is still in place in late August, it would likely apply to the RNC Convention, which is expected to bring thousands of people together.

Who are the Plaintiffs?

According to the lawsuit, all seven plaintiffs live, work or own businesses near the “Convention Zone” and the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena:

Attorneys Dexter V. Davis and Thomas A. “Tad” Delegal believe the “nuisance” will affect their individual businesses and community. Both attorneys have also had close family members test positive for COVID-19. One of Davis’ family members died from COVID-19 complications.

Pastor Curtis. L. Booker Sr. of God’s Way of Living International Church, says many of his parishioners are elderly and because of the additional COVID-19 exposure the convention may bring to the area, “he will not be able to carry out his ministry during the time leading up to, including and after” the convention “when a large number of out of town visitors will be in the neighborhood.”

Albert. L Buckner III, an employee of Duval County Public Schools, says he and his wife have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease. His wife also cares for “an extremely high risk person and she must assure she is not exposed to COVID-19 by Convention attendees.”

Jack Meeks, certified public accountant and a historic property developer who owns multiple properties in the area, believes the “nuisance” will affect their individual businesses and community.

Dana Miller, who operates Man Cave Barber Shop, says he would normally expect people attending the convention to use his shop but because of the “high risk of exposure” to the disease, he will have to close his shop and lose revenue to protect himself and his local customers from falling ill.

Robin Wallace, who owns and operates Hair Architects, Grooming and Styling, a beauty salon/barbershop says she will not be able to carry on her normal business because of the COVID-19 exposure the convention attendees will cause.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys William C. Gentry of Jacksonville, C. Rufus Pennington III of Atlantic Beach, James C. Blecke of The Haggard Law Firm in Coral Gables and Craig A. Gibbs of the Law Office of Craig Gibbs in Jacksonville.

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Miami Herald staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.