Elections

Is Holding Normal Party Conventions amid the COVID-19 Pandemic a Good Idea?

Then GOP nominee Donald Trump celebrates with his family as balloons fall at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 21, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
We’ll know more clearly in the coming weeks, as the epidemiological data on the George Floyd protests come in.

The Republicans will not be holding their national convention in Charlotte this August, because North Carolina governor Roy Cooper said he couldn’t guarantee that social-distancing regulations would allow for full-capacity crowds.

There is no shortage of other options. Tennessee governor Bill Lee has said his office is in early discussions with GOP leaders about hosting the convention in his state. West Virginia governor Jim Justice has invited Republicans to hold it in his state. And Florida governor Ron DeSantis said last week that “We want to host it.”

The coronavirus is still dangerous, but after watching large crowds gather in the centers of major cities to protest and chant, oftentimes standing shoulder-to-shoulder, many Americans will conclude that crowds are no longer dangerous and that social distancing is no longer necessary.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have argued that they didn’t enforce quarantine restrictions on the protests because these mass gatherings were just “different.” The virus will not be so charitable. A group of “medical experts” whose desire to appear socially conscious outpaced their judgment wrote an open letter contending that local governments should not break up crowded demonstrations “under the guise of maintaining public health.” Perhaps the protesters’ widespread, but not completely uniform, wearing of masks will help. But the lack of distance between people and the shouting will not.

In the next two to three weeks, we will know whether the nonenforcement of restrictions on crowd size was a wise adjustment of strict policies or a terrible mistake for public health. Public patience had waned even before George Floyd’s tragic death, but the characteristics of the coronavirus have not. Those who have the virus can be asymptomatic carriers and unknowingly spread the virus to others if they are not taking precautions. Already, we’ve seen reports of Americans’ testing positive after attending the protests. Oklahoma State University linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga announced on Twitter that he had caught the virus at a protest despite taking precautions. In Lancaster, Pa., an arrested protester tested positive.

For the past two weeks, coronavirus hospitalization rates have been falling or flat in most states and rising in only five. If we see a jump in cases by mid to late June, we will know that the crowded protests of the past week were a dangerous misjudgment. But if cases remain flat or continue to sink, even after the large gatherings of the past week, state and local governments will have little reason to keep restrictions on gatherings. The usual precautions — hand-washing, masks, self-quarantining if anyone feels sick — should stay in place regardless, but there’s little reason to think that a political convention would be more dangerous in the latter case than “thousands” gathering in lower Manhattan or “tens of thousands” gathering in Houston, or similar shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings in Washington, D.C., or Hollywood.

Governor Cooper’s hesitance to hold a traditional political convention with tens of thousands of delegates and media officials gathered inside the Spectrum Center and big crowds outside is understandable. Usually, a decent number of delegates are senior citizens. Right now medical experts and HVAC engineers don’t think the virus is likely to travel from room to room through air-conditioning systems or air currents, but a lot of convention events are held indoors. Besides the formal proceedings of the delegates’ voting and the prime-time speeches, every convention brings luncheons, fundraisers, cocktail parties, meetings, seminars, press conferences of every kind, small armies of protesters, and a force of cops to keep protests in check. The odds of everyone involved wearing a mask consistently and properly and avoiding the traditional handshakes are small.

But late August is probably close to the ideal time for heat and humidity and at least some of the events could probably be held in a football stadium instead of a basketball arena. The risk of gathering in groups may be less than we think.

On April 7, Wisconsin held its primary elections, and about 413,000 people voted in person across the state. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services identified 67 people who voted or worked the polls and subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many Wisconsinites believed that casting their ballot was worth the risk, and took precautions they thought appropriate. Every American who attended a protest in the past week knew about the coronavirus and decided the risk was worth it. It’s not clear why RNC attendees shouldn’t be allowed the same option.

Still, it all depends on what we learn in the coming weeks. If it becomes apparent that the Floyd protests reignited a stagnating pandemic, then holding conventions probably won’t be worth the risk to potential attendees. If the protests are shown not to have prompted a spike in cases, and the risk is minimal, there won’t be a good reason not to give conventions the green light. Only time will tell.

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