President Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled the portion of the Republican National Convention he moved from North Carolina to Florida because of a spat over coronavirus restrictions, saying the surge that blanketed the Sun Belt with infections made it impossible.
“To have a big convention is not the right time. I have to protect the American people,” he said at the White House.
Mr. Trump notified Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of his decision and said he probably will hold online rallies instead, while allowing some business to continue in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He said Republican supporters were desperate to be in Florida for the Aug. 24-27 festivities and that “the drawings look absolutely beautiful,” but he decided it wasn’t worth it.
“They said, ‘Sir, we can make this work very easily,’ ” Mr. Trump said in his retelling of conversations behind closed doors. “I said, ‘There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe.’ “
It’s an incredible U-turn for Mr. Trump and his Republican allies, who sparred with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, over social distancing restrictions that would have made it difficult to hold his nomination party the way he wanted.
Mr. Cooper’s office told The Washington Times in May that “pandemics cannot be political.”
Jacksonville officials, meanwhile, crowed about the economic opportunities the RNC would provide.
The president on Thursday said when he chose Florida, it wasn’t a coronavirus hot spot. That changed quickly in June and into July as infections, hospital visits and deaths surged in the state as well as in Texas, Arizona and California.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said the president chose to “lead by example” and “put the health and safety of the American people first” with his decision.
The Republican National Committee scaled back its layout to limit attendance, and some high-profile Republicans said they didn’t plan to attend because of safety concerns.
Typically, the president would make a grand speech on the last night of the convention as the Republican nominee. Mr. Trump said he will announce more plans in the coming days.
“We didn’t want to take any chances,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ll have a very nice something. We’ll figure it out.”
The president said he will take the spotlight — the mound, really — by throwing out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game on Aug. 15.
Democratic National Committee Tom Perez used the turnabout to boast about his party’s early decision to pivot to a largely virtual convention.
“From the very beginning of this pandemic, Democrats have put the health and safety of the American people first. Unlike Trump, we followed the science, listened to doctors and public health experts, and worked through plans to protect lives,” he said. “That’s how we made the decision to hold a responsible convention that will bring our country together, ensure our delegates can take care of official business without risk to public health, and still shine a spotlight on our host community of Milwaukee.”
Mr. Trump laid out his plans as the U.S. passed a grim milestone: 4 million known infections since the pandemic began.
The U.S. added the last 1 million cases in just over two weeks. Testing is more widespread and finding more infections, though hospitalizations also reached almost 60,000 at midweek — the highest tally since late April, when the pandemic was raging.
Mr. Trump said he is sending resources to hot spots in the South, as the previously hard-hit Northeast becomes “very clean.”
Even as Mr. Trump scrapped RNC festivities, he pushed schools to reopen within weeks, citing data showing that children aren’t affected by the virus as much as adults.
He said 99.6% of COVID-19 deaths are adults, not children, and that failing to get children back into classrooms could usher in problems that are worse than the risk from the virus.
Mr. Trump said some districts may have to delay classroom learning for a few weeks, but “they have to open.”
“This isn’t about politics; this is about something very, very important,” Mr. Trump said.
Parents and employers widely agree that schools need to reopen to pave the way for normal work activity, though there is disagreement over how safe it is for everyone involved.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while some children and infants have become sick with COVID-19, “adults make up most of the known cases to date.”
A recent study from South Korea says children younger than 10 were roughly half as likely to transmit the disease than adults, but those ages 10 to 19 would spread it at the same level.
Major school districts from California to Georgia have announced they will start the academic year with online instruction instead of reopening classrooms, saying the virus is transmitting too widely within their communities.
The president said he wants Congress to provide more than $100 billion to repurpose schools to make them safe. He said if school districts don’t open, parents should be allowed to get some of the proposed money from Congress to put their children in private or charter schools.
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It swiftly spread around the globe, killing about 632,000 people so far.
Mr. Trump stressed that other countries are going through a hard time, too, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin told him Thursday that Moscow is reeling.
More than 144,000 of global deaths have occurred in the U.S., for a fatality rate of 3.6% among known cases.
Scientists believe the death rate is lower, however, because plenty of asymptomatic cases haven’t been detected.
Though death rates have varied from country to country, scientists have suggested the standard is somewhere around 0.5% to 0.6% — higher than the 0.1% rate frequently cited for seasonal flu.
Though it kills only a small fraction of patients, the wily virus is spreading so easily that it can cause plenty of deaths.
In California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled back some efforts to reopen the economy, officials in Los Angeles County said COVID-19 is on track to be the second leading cause of death this year, behind heart disease. In the first six months of 2020, the virus killed more than twice the number of people who died in the most recent eight-month flu season.
Mr. Newsom on Thursday reported 157 COVID-19 deaths in California, the most in a single day. It comes one day after Texas reported a single-day record of 197 deaths.
Deaths are considered a “lagging indicator” because a surge or drop in fatalities often appears in data a few weeks after a spike or dip in cases.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. coronavirus testing czar, said the U.S. is testing an average of 770,000 people per week and the percentage of those testing positive is at 9.08% nationwide.
“We have seen that start to flatten last week, and it is going down across the country,” Adm. Giroir said.
Positivity rates in Florida and Texas have declined slightly, from the high teens to mid- or low teens, although that is still above the 10% considered to be a good threshold for catching enough cases in the community.
“We are seeing that our public health measures are starting to make a difference, and we are making progress,” Adm. Giroir said. “If we don’t continue doing what we’re doing and accelerate that, it could go in an opposite direction.”
The mayor of Miami, the epicenter of the Florida surge, said his decision to mandate masks is paying dividends.
“What we’re seeing is some early evidence that the masks-in-public rule is working, and we want to make sure that it’s being adopted universally,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told CNN.
Mr. Suarez said the city has 20 new cases a day, down from 60 a short while ago, so officials are not looking at a shutdown order as they see whether more limited measures pay off.
“We’re being patient,” he said, “and we’re letting those remediation efforts take full effect before making any decisions.”
• Dave Boyer and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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