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Local leaders weigh in on COVID uncertainty surrounding national conventions

National conventions uncertain amid pandemic

There's no crying in baseball this year, because there is no baseball. There's also no basketball
and no Olympics. America's favorite sports are on hiatus, and swaths of the nation are under stay-home orders. At least voters will be able to tune in for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, which are still scheduled to take place in August in Milwaukee and Charlotte, respectively. (Granted — watching Donald Trump and Joe Biden accept the nominations of their respective parties is not exactly the same as watching a thunderous dunk from Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo.)

Local and state leaders usually look forward to the spotlight afforded by the conventions, which typically draw thousands from around the country. But this year is different, given the COVID-related constraints. CBS News talked with community leaders, business owners, health experts and elected officials in both cities about their hopes and fears surrounding the conventions this year. 

DEMOCRATS STRESS "FLEXIBILITY" 
Democrats have already begun to make concessions, announcing their convention would be postponed by a month, to August 17 because of the virus.

This week, the DNC advanced a resolution to allow delegates to attend the convention remotely and empower convention planners to make health-based decisions about the event without going through the usual lengthy approval process, a tacit acknowledgment that the convention could look different this year. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said this week he expects and hopes to have "an exciting and inspiring convention in August in Milwaukee," but "does this mean that a precise format has been decided? No." 

"We certainly don't want to plan an event that's going to put anyone's health at risk," DNCC spokesperson Katie Peters told CBS News. Peters said planners are "building in as much flexibility" as possible, to "scale up or scale down as the nation continues to learn more about the direction that this health crisis is going."

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley says the data will dictate when officials need to make a decision about how to conduct the convention, but for now, "I don't think that it is appropriate for us to talk about a timeline." Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says there remain a wide range of "contingency options" due to the pandemic. 

"When people leave, I want it to be clear that the event posed no risk to public health," Barrett said.

This is Milwaukee's first national political convention, so a virtual convention would be disappointing to business owners, elected officials and local activists. Even so, some who favor holding the convention if it's safe are concerned about its safety. 

"I don't want the people I represent to get sick and die because of this," said Democratic State Representative Daniel Riemer, who represents part of Milwaukee. He believes some sacrifices may have to be made and wants to hear assurances from party leaders and health experts.

"I would want them to look me in the face, so to speak, and to be able to look the people of my community in the face and say, 'You are no more at risk because this is happening and here's why,'" Riemer said. 

The convention was not only a chance to show off Milwaukee but also presented an opportunity to highlight the city's challenges, says Angela Lang, executive director of the Milwaukee group Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. But she, too, worries about the thousands of visitors who might infect Milwaukee residents. 

We "need to make sure that we're walking the walk and making sure that everyone is safe," Lang said. "If that means not having an in-person convention and not risking the health and safety specifically of black and brown communities, we need to do that as a party."

"FULL STEAM AHEAD" FOR RNC
As one of 11 cities to ever host both parties' political conventions, Charlotte will hold this year's Republican National Convention just eight years after the Democratic National Convention was there in 2012. Charlotte won a bid for the convention in 2018, over the objections of some residents.

Robert Dawkins, political director for the grassroots community organization Action NC, explained that Charlotte residents feared the gathering could attract radical right-wing groups and white supremacists, but now, they might welcome it, if reluctantly.

"It's been hard and simmering bad feelings about this convention coming here for the past year," said Dawkins. "You're going to find now that people are like, 'Charlotte's taken such a beating that if this convention goes along and has to still be in person, we're going to turn our noses and just let you do it just because COVID has cost us so much money.'"

In April, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted the party is "full steam ahead" in planning for the event, which is scheduled for August 24-27. And the party is bringing in a health adviser to ensure the safety of convention attendees. McDaniel told the Washington Post that she's checking to see whether the federal government can provide protective equipment for both conventions. 

Charlotte Assistant City Manager Angela Charles told CBS News that while COVID-19 has changed what it means to host an event safely, she's confident "we've got the right people around the table to host it safely and securely." 

Charlotte City Councilwoman-at-large Dimple Ajmera, who voted against hosting the convention in 2018, has been receiving numerous emails from constituents.

"One resident said, 'Well, how can we go from gathering up just a few people now, to 50,000 in August?'" Ajmera recalled. "Some residents have said this feels like a slap in the face and this is not about politics, it's about people's lives." 

Another council member, Larken Egleston, who was one of four Democrats to vote in favor of hosting the convention, said it's too early to know how either convention should be modified, but called it "foolish optimism" to think it can be executed as originally planned.

"Some leadership around the RNC has said things like 'full steam ahead,'" said Egleston, who is hoping to be a delegate for Joe Biden at the Democratic convention. "That decision lies with our governor, with our state health director, with our county health director, and not with the president, not with the chair of the Republican National Convention."

City Council member-at-large Braxton Winston III predicted that "we're in trouble" if we can't figure out how to "make democracy work in a socially-distanced reality." 

He proposed top Republicans could meet at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, while state delegations meet at large stadiums in their home state, such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles or Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to allow people to spread out.

"You're able to connect those folks through technology, but they are still able to meet together and caucus amongst each other," said Winston.

North Carolina state Senator Rob Bryan is the sole Republican representing Mecklenburg County in the state's general assembly. He reiterated that everyone, regardless of party, wants to keep people safe.
"Conversations go much better if you don't accuse the other person of wanting to kill people or you know, 'you want to kill all these businesses, you don't care because you've got a job still,'" Bryan said, echoing what he's heard from some North Carolinians. 

"IF YOU HAVE INFINITE RESOURCES AND A REALLY GOOD PLAN..."
Health experts in Wisconsin and North Carolina agree it's too early to tell what the pandemic will look like by convention time. It will depend on things like how well people follow social distancing and hygiene practices, testing and contact tracing abilities, as well as whether there's an effective treatment or vaccine — or flare-ups of the virus as states reopen. Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers this week that he does not expect to see a vaccine by the time school begins in the fall, which would put it out of the reach of the conventions, too. These metrics will likely determine what type of event could be safe. 

"You're going to have a second wave, no matter when you open," said Dr. Colby Ford, of the University of Charlotte's Bioinformatics Department. "It's just how large is that second wave going to be, and can we hold off on reopening or reconvening in social settings until we have a way to combat the virus."

"If there is a secondary wave, I think it's going to be difficult to really move ahead with plans for a significant convening here in Milwaukee," said Dr. John Raymond, president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin. 

Experts are concerned about bringing people from across the country into a single city for close interactions. Some states and cities may have the virus under control by August, while others may not.

"We have to put a bunch of people in the same place, the same city at the same time and that's really just asking for trouble because even if we reduce the number of people that come to the convention by 90%, it's still a lot more people in Charlotte than we normally have," said Ford. 

"If you have infinite resources and a really good plan, it's possible," said Dr. James Conway, an infectious disease expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Global Health Institute. He recommended testing attendees and workers at the convention site and other businesses, along with screening for temperatures, frequent and thorough cleaning of event spaces, "abundant" hand sanitizer, social distancing and masks. 

"The testing literally has to be, 'Are you shedding the virus right now?' and doing that on a reliable basis, at least at the beginning, and ideally you would do it every day." Conway said. "Anybody with a fever gets turned around and asked to leave and then goes and gets tested."

But mass testing and other precautions could come at a huge cost and might pull resources away from state and local officials. Barrett suggested Congress should provide funding to help cover health costs related to both conventions, as they do for security.

CONVENTIONS COULD BE "STIMULUS PACKAGE" FOR BUSINESSES
In the past, convention week has been a boon for local businesses in the host city. The Democratic National Convention generated $230.9 million for Philadelphia in 2016 and brought in nearly $164 million for Charlotte in 2012, a record for a single event held in the city.

According to a report by the 2012 Tampa Bay Host committee, the Republican National Convention that year produced $214 million for the city, about $25 million more than the 2016 RNC generated for Cleveland. 

The Democratic National Convention was part of a series of events that would put Milwaukee "on the big stage with bright lights," said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. In addition to the convention, the Ryder Cup is supposed to take place about an hour outside of the city, and the Milwaukee Bucks were a favorite to make the NBA finals. 

"The big stage and bright lights — those lights are flickering," Sheehy said. "They haven't gone out, but they're clearly flickering." 

Some businesses were banking on a boost from the convention to keep their budgets afloat, like the Middle C Jazz club in Charlotte. It had only been open for four months before it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"The RNC to Middle C would be a stimulus package [of] far greater value than anything that we could get through the government to help us survive as a new important business in Charlotte," said Larry Farber, the club's managing director.

Despite the potential economic benefit, most small business owners agree that health and safety are paramount. They're waiting for public health guidance on how they should proceed.

Ben Hebl, who owns Pourman's, a bar in downtown Milwaukee, has furloughed his 11 employees and closed his bar due to COVID-19. Even a small scale convention would "cushion the blow," he says. But Hebl is worried about the risks that could come with people traveling to Milwaukee.

"I wish more than anything we could have it," Hebl said. "If people started dying, I would be upset that we made that decision because I don't value money over human lives."

North Carolina-based businessman Eric Burg insisted that there is "absolutely a way" to conduct a convention in August, by taking precautions, like using LED-sanitized stations. The event side of Burg's company, Apple Rock Displays, has seen an 80% loss in revenue due to COVID-19 but his team stayed afloat by making PPE, including face shields and masks for businesses. 

"There are ways to do this and everyone knows how to do it," Burg said. "You just have to conquer your fear and be able to get comfortable with it."

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report.

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