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Hundreds Of GOP Delegates Journey To Charlotte Semi-Bubble For Scaled-Down Convention

Convention attendees must get a coronavirus test upon arrival and carry badges that record their movements.
Steve Harrison
Convention attendees must get a coronavirus test upon arrival and carry badges that record their movements.

Delegates arriving in Charlotte for the scaled down, in-person portion of the Republican National Convention aren't being greeted by the Charlotte mayor or even business leaders.

Instead, they are ushered into a purple tent outside the downtown Westin hotel. That's where they are given a coronavirus test — even though they already had to take a self-swab coronavirus test at home before getting on a plane.

Delegate Steve Scheffler, 72, is from West Des Moines and has been to eight other GOP conventions. He wants the 2020 convention to be safe, but he said the rules are all a bit much.

"I mean I'll follow the rules because it's what we're here to do to get the president renominated — and the vice president," he said. "But I don't like where this might be going down the road. Maybe mandatory masks today, maybe mandatory vaccines tomorrow."

But there's more.

Every delegate's badge has a fob that uses Bluetooth technology to track who they come in contact with, said the RNC's health consultant, Dr. Jeffrey Runge.

Runge said that data will only be used if someone gets infected with COVID, and it's meant to make contact tracing easier.

"It's completely private," Runge said. "The badges have a number, and we will know what numbers are in contact with other numbers. But they won't be identified with a person unless there is someone who is positive for COVID."

The GOP created a semi-bubble to satisfy the state's Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has been cautious during reopening.

It slashed the number of people coming, to just 336 delegates. A traditional convention has nearly 2,500.

The RNC is requiring masks and temperature checks. And it says delegates can't even move their chairs inside meeting rooms. That rule is to make sure everyone stays six feet apart.

Chris Ager is a delegate from New Hampshire.

His state doesn't have many coronavirus cases — 7,000 to date — and he doesn't usually wear a mask.

"There's very, very low risk up there, but to me if you join an organization and you attend their event then you follow their rules," he said. "And so the rules of wearing a mask ... it's fine."

Earlier this summer, Republicans wanted Cooper to give them assurances that they could fill the city's downtown arena with delegates and other guests. The governor refused.

The GOP then moved most of its convention to Jacksonville, Fla., whose Republican mayor said the city could safely host. But then coronavirus cases spiked in Florida, and the Republican sheriff of Duval County said he couldn't create a security plan on such short notice.

President Trump reluctantly canceled the Florida events, saying "the timing of the event is not right."

That left Charlotte. The GOP had kept a small part of the convention there to satisfy contractual obligations.

Charlotte Democratic City Councilor Larken Egleston cast a deciding vote two years ago to host the GOP's convention, despite opposition from Democratic activists.

"I don't think anyone is going to be sad to see the RNC packing up and leaving town when they do," he said. "It's just been one thing after another. And even four days out I don't there is still any certainty over exactly what this is going to look like.

After the City Council voted 6-5 to host, activists pasted stickers around the city mocking the Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles and Egleston for agreeing to host.

"[My sticker]" said "One-term Larken — vote him out for selling us out," Egleston said. "But what is a pretty big mistake for an attack ad, they used a pretty decent picture of me from my wedding day."

Lyles is out of town this weekend, making good on a 2018 pledge not to speak at the convention.

And there are only a few banners downtown welcoming delegates, a similar amount of pomp for an American Legion convention.

John Lassiter is a longtime Republican, who raised $38 million as the CEO of the local host committee for the traditional convention. He was shocked when the GOP announced they were leaving for Florida.

He's not attending any part of the scaled-back convention.

"No, we're not connected at all at this point to whatever goes on," he said. "We're fully focused on efforts to finish our wind down."

By winding down, Lassiter means settling broken contracts for a convention that didn't happen. The city of Charlotte has spent $17 million on security preparing for the event. Leaders are keeping their fingers crossed that the federal government pays it back.

Copyright 2020 WFAE

Steve Harrison is a reporter and host at WFAE, covering politics and government. In addition to his on-air stories, Steve hosts theInside Politicspodcast and writes itsweekly newsletter.