Val Biancaniello knows the threat the coronavirus poses.
A respiratory therapist working in Center City hospitals, she’s spent months intubating infected patients, most of them older people with compromised immune systems. And in cases where they’ve been too weak to overcome the virus, she’s sat with them as they died.
Biancaniello, of Marple Township, Delaware County, is also a Pennsylvania delegate to the Republican National Convention. And she has every intention of going to Jacksonville, Fla., in August to nominate President Donald Trump for reelection — even though Florida has emerged as one of the country’s biggest coronavirus hotspots.
“I have absolutely no problem attending,” she said. “I feel like I’m getting attacked for this. I’ve been called a monster because I would like people to gather, and liberals are screaming at me that I want to kill Grandma. It’s completely unfair.”
Democrats last week announced that their convention will be almost entirely virtual given the spike in confirmed coronavirus cases around the country, though Joe Biden still plans to travel to Milwaukee to deliver a speech accepting the party’s nomination.
Trump moved most of the late-August Republican National Convention from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville last month, after he couldn’t get assurances from North Carolina officials that they would permit a traditional packed convention under state health restrictions. Jacksonville has seen a surge of confirmed cases, and this week local authorities announced a new requirement for people to wear masks in indoor venues and where social distancing is not possible.
With the convention less than two months away, GOP delegates from Pennsylvania interviewed this week said they’re undeterred. If anything, they said, recent large gatherings of protesters have motivated them to travel to the 15,000-seat VyStar Veterans Memorial arena, where Trump is due to speak Aug. 27.
“What is the difference between me going to a convention or Gov. [Tom] Wolf marching with hundreds of protesters?” said Biancaniello, one of 88 Pennsylvania delegates. “If they have a right to protest, I have the right to celebrate with my fellow patriots and cast my ballot on behalf of the greatest president in our history.”
The risk of spreading the coronavirus is far higher indoors than outside, epidemiologists have said. So far, cities that saw big protests over the death of George Floyd, including Philadelphia, have not experienced subsequent upticks in infections. Wolf marched with protesters and has called systemic racism a public health crisis, encouraging demonstrations to continue.
“So they can support people’s First Amendment right and view it as an important social responsibility, but I can’t have a BBQ with my friends and family without a list of recommendations and precautions?” Biancaniello said. “And my 10-year-old son can’t play baseball?”
Jim Worthington, who owns a health spa in Newtown in Bucks County, said his biggest fear about attending the convention isn’t the coronavirus — it’s protesters. At the 2016 convention in Cleveland, he said, state delegations moved around the city with armed guards ushering them through crowds.
”Every time we went somewhere, I found the oldest, weakest, frailest people, and I walked in with them because I was afraid for their safety,” Worthington said. “So if something happened, I could help defend them. Who knows what’s going to happen this time — but imagine if it was that bad four years ago.”
Worthington is on Trump’s Presidential Fitness Council and helped develop guidelines for reopening gyms and salons. He’s been frustrated that Pennsylvania has reopened its economy slower than other states. But he said it’s a misconception that Republicans won’t follow basic safety guidelines. His employees all wear face masks and he said he would wear one in Jacksonville if they are still required.
As a businessman, Worthington considers the convention more than political spectacle. It’s a networking opportunity to reach Republicans on issues he cares about. He also thinks it’s politically critical for Trump’s campaign, and less so for Democrats.
“His strong suit is to get out in front of people and rally the troops,” Worthington said. “If I was the Democratic Party and my candidate was Joe Biden, I would probably do it virtual. I think less is more with the Democratic Party right now.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez put it a different way last week, saying Biden doesn’t need the spotlight Trump craves.
“It’s not a vanity initiative for Joe Biden,” Perez said. “He doesn’t have an ego, a need to be surrounded by thousands of people fawning on him.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said the GOP convention would comply with all local health regulations in place at the time.
“The event is still two months away, and we are planning to offer health precautions including but not limited to temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing,” he said.
Some of those steps were taken in Tulsa, where Trump held a rally last month. Calvin Tucker, a Republican delegate from Philadelphia, got a coronavirus test before the Oklahoma event at the campaign’s insistence. He was seated in a VIP section near Trump, so the test was required, he said. He tested negative.
“I observed all of the health requirements,” Tucker said. “I socially distanced. I had my mask on. I anticipate the same thing will happen in Jacksonville.”
“People need to have social interactions, political interactions. This is our opportunity to nominate the president of the United States,” he said. “If we can have peaceful protests and riotous protesters, some in masks, some not, I don’t see why we should be prohibited from an in-person convention.”
While masks — which have been found to significantly reduce the risk of spreading the virus — are currently required indoors in Jacksonville, Trump has discouraged mask wearing. They were not required at his Tulsa rally. Delegates interviewed for this story said they would wear masks, if required, in August.
“Personally, I feel very uncomfortable with the mask on,” said Josephine Ferro, 65, who plans to attend the convention as an alternate delegate from Monroe County, one of the state’s 88 alternates. “It hinders breathing. It’s not good for me. But if it’s what makes other people comfortable, I’ll do it.”
Even before the pandemic, the relevance of political conventions was under scrutiny. Historically, parties decided nominations there amid heated debate, but now they ratify voters’ choices in primaries. Modern conventions have become expensive celebrations and fundraisers that receive less live broadcast time every four years. This year, the GOP’s executive committee initially voted to adopt the same platform as in 2016, though Trump has since called for an update.
For Trump, the show is the whole point of the convention, said Erin Elmore, an attorney and political strategist from Philadelphia who plans to attend the RNC as an alternate.
“The other side wants to say we’re just a bunch of smelly Walmart deplorables who are racist and sexist,” Elmore said. “But the fact is, Trump spoke to people who felt they had never been spoken to before. It had nothing to do with race, creed, ethnicity, gender.”
Elmore has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, but said even without that peace of mind she wouldn’t miss Jacksonville: It will be the party of the summer for Trump voters. It’s important, she said, not to discount what a large-scale celebration means to his base.
“The thing President Trump has done that no one before him in the history of the United States has done — he’s made politics fun,” she said. “He’s made politics a sport. Going to a Trump rally, it’s more fun than the Super Bowl to tailgate. It’s a great time.”