Trump and Pence: We might have to move the convention if North Carolina can't guarantee full capacity in August

There’s an ulterior motive to this. There has to be, as it’s nutty to expect a guarantee about how a state will react to an unpredictable global pandemic three months in advance.

The convention is scheduled to begin three months from yesterday. To give you a sense of how much can change in that span of time, here’s what Trump was tweeting three months ago yesterday:

The United States had no confirmed deaths from coronavirus on February 24, although later investigation found that a few had already occurred and gone undetected. A lot can change in 90 days.

Another odd thing about this is that North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, isn’t still in “Shutdown mood.” The state is moving to reopen. They moved to phase two just a few days ago, in fact, with restaurants, salons, retail businesses, and child-care facilities all allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. (Bars, gyms, and movie theaters are still closed.) Phase one lasted just two weeks so it’s not as if Cooper and his team are slow-walking the process. Local health officials expect phase two to last five weeks, but even on that timeline they’ll reach phase three nearly two months before the convention starts.

“The tweets completely blindsided party officials and those involved in planning the convention, who have repeatedly argued that health and safety will come first,” said CNN of Trump’s new convention demand this morning. I’ll bet. A few days ago there was a report that the RNC had itself begun planning for a limited-capacity convention, just in case.

But behind the scenes, Republicans are looking at possible contingency plans, including limiting the number of people who descend on Charlotte to only delegates, and making alternate delegates stay home, according to interviews with a half-dozen Republicans close to the planning.

Mr. Trump, who was heavily involved in the staging of his last nominating convention, has even shown a new openness to participating in a scaled-down event. He has mused aloud to several aides about why the convention can’t simply be held in a hotel ballroom in Florida, given all of the health concerns and the fact that Florida is further along in reopening portions of the state…

[RNC chair Ronna] McDaniel and other Republicans have said that they have hired a medical expert and that they are consulting with the governor of North Carolina and the mayor of Charlotte, who have been focused on controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Local politicians in North Carolina, including Republicans, have expressed skepticism that the convention will be able to go forward as planned.

Assume North Carolina reaches phase three by July 1 and manages to meet its benchmarks to remain at that phase until the convention. Do state and federal guidelines allow for mass indoor gatherings even at phase three? Trump’s federal guidelines refer to “limited” social distancing at that stage, whatever that means: “LARGE VENUES (e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under limited physical distancing protocols.” North Carolina’s guidelines are even vaguer: “Allow increased capacity at restaurants, bars, other businesses, houses of worship and entertainment venues.” What about full capacity with no meaningful physical distancing, though?

Here’s a timely article from the WSJ about the latest scientific thinking on containing COVID-19. Some believe that the spread of the disease can be effectively limited in day-to-day interactions with measures as simple as mask-wearing and common-sense distancing, as most people are practicing right now. What we should strictly avoid, though, are “superspreader events,” huge mass gatherings in confined spaces, like sports and concerts. And, uh, presumably political conventions.

The theory is that banning mass public events where hundreds of attendees can infect themselves in the space of a few hours, along with other measures such as wearing face masks, might slow the pace of the new coronavirus’s progression to a manageable level even as shops and factories reopen.

Researchers believe the explosive growth of coronavirus infections that overwhelmed hospitals in some countries was primarily driven by such events this year—horse races in Britain, carnival festivities in the U.S. and Germany or a soccer match in Italy…

The Mardi Gras festivities in Louisiana, a choir practice in Skagit County, Wash., and a meeting of executives of the Biogen drug company near Boston are among the one-off events scientists think helped give the pandemic a fateful boost.

Mass transit is essentially an endless superspreader event, which may explain the apocalyptic outbreak that gripped New York City. Scientists have also suspected for months that a soccer match in northern Italy in mid-February lit the fuse on the horrendous contagion that afflicted Lombardy. Worse, researchers believe that superspreader events not only spread the disease but may generate deadlier infections in attendees: “The people who attended not only got infected and then spread the virus across the county, but also showed stronger symptoms and a comparatively severe illness, Dr. Streeck said—possibly because they received a higher load of the virus from close and prolonged exposure,” said a German researcher about a carnival held in Germany on February 15.

There’s a reason why every pro sports league that’s considering resuming play is expecting to do so without fans. By what twisted logic should the RNC hold a full-capacity event at an arena in August if Major League Baseball and every musical act in the world is refusing to do so because safety comes first?

Picking a fight with Cooper over this shows how Trump continues to misunderstand the mechanics of reopening. Whether the RNC holds a convention or not isn’t really up to Cooper in the same way that whether Michigan’s economy comes back isn’t really up to Gretchen Whitmer. Consumer confidence will determine the fate of the economy; the safer it is to shop, the more people will do it. If cases begin to climb and people perceive risk, they’ll retreat into their homes again, whether or not there’s a local lockdown order. By the same token, if there’s a second wave in North Carolina this summer, Cooper could throw open the doors to the RNC and invite them to hold their convention at whatever capacity they want and Republicans would end up opting for limited capacity voluntarily. They’ll have no choice, as the spectacle of Trump cavalierly inviting attendees to put themselves at risk would cost him more politically than holding a scaled-down convention would.

Exit question: If they moved the convention, where would they move it? Most other key swing states are governed by Democrats (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada) so Trump would run into the same cautious approach by state leadership on reopening there as he would in North Carolina. His obvious options would be either Florida or Arizona, each of which is governed by a Republican who’ll let him do whatever he wants. Given Biden’s growing strength with senior citizens and the outside possibility that he nominates Val Demings for VP, moving the convention to Florida might not be a bad idea. Maybe that’s what today’s Twitter gambit is about — as suggested by the boldfaced excerpt above, Trump may be looking for an excuse to move the convention to a state he needs more than NC. If he insists on holding it at Mar-a-Lago then he can fleece the RNC on costs as well. Two for one!