WASHINGTON — With coronavirus cases surging in Florida, President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he’s “flexible” on the size of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville.
The president spoke as a growing number of Senate Republicans said they’d skip the event, and even as the White House tried to tamp down nationwide concern about the virus’s spread.
Asked in an interview Tuesday whether he’d want to limit the gathering if the state’s coronavirus cases continue to rise, Trump replied that the decision “really depends on the timing.”
“We’re always looking at different things,” Trump said during an interview on Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren.”
“When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good,” the president continued. “And now, all of a sudden, it’s spiking up a little bit. And that’s going to go down. It really depends on the timing. Look, we’re very flexible.”
Florida’s COVID-19 positive test rate is 18.7%, making it second only to Arizona among states where coronavirus infections are surging.
Trump spoke as Republican lawmakers increasingly expressed concern about the gathering. Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, 86, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, 80, were among those saying they would stay away from the event. The virus takes a high toll on older people.
Grassley was explicit about the reason for skipping the convention for the first time in his 40 years in public office.
“I’m not going to go, and I’m not going to go because of the virus situation,” he said on a conference call Monday with Iowa reporters.
Alexander, who is retiring after this year, was more subtle.
In a statement released by his office Tuesday, he acknowledged that choices must be made and that fewer people gathered for the event is desirable. Alexander did not mention Trump, the pandemic or the fact that health experts say the virus is more transmissible among people in close proximity for prolonged periods.
“Sen. Alexander is an honorary chair of the Tennessee Trump campaign, but he will not be attending the convention because he believes the delegate spots should be reserved for those who have not had that privilege before as he has had,” the statement said.
A few other Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, have also said they’re not attending. Romney, 73, has already said he won’t vote for Trump.
About a dozen states are reporting worrying spikes of cases. The White House is trying to tamp down the nationwide concern despite more than 2.9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 130,000 deaths.
Trump has falsely declared that 99% of cases of COVID-19 are harmless, a claim that is not supported by science.
Florida is one of the nation’s hardest-hit states, and hospitals are warning they’re in danger of being overwhelmed. Florida’s COVID-19 positive test rate is 18.7%, making it second only to Arizona among states where coronavirus infections are surging. According to public health experts, a rate of 10% or more indicates the virus is spreading in communities.
The rate is a snapshot of current conditions, and measures like social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding crowded indoor locations and frequent hand-washing can bring it down.
Florida reached a grim milestone over the weekend, with health officials reporting that more than 200,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the outbreak.
The highest number of confirmed cases in one day came Saturday, when more than 11,400 cases were reported in the state. More than 3,700 people have died.
The convention is scheduled to begin Aug. 24. Officials in Jacksonville, Florida, began requiring face masks in public a week ago.
“If you want to have a convention, and I think we should have a convention, I think you should do whatever you can to make it as safe as possible, so that would be with face masks and social distancing,” Grassley said.
Grassley said he plans to continue his tour of all of Iowa’s counties, visiting 29 counties during the current two-week break. He and his staff will wear masks, but he doesn’t plan on requiring it for Iowans who come to see him.
“There’s no way a United States senator can force anybody in Iowa to wear a mask,” he said. “It’s going to be up to the individuals and I would say that there’s generally a rule that if you’re 6 feet apart, you don’t have to wear a mask, but I think doing both makes common sense and I’m going to encourage people to do both.”
Associated Press writers David Pitt in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.
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Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press