CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> Shirlene Ostrov, the Republican state party chairwoman from Hawaii, has barely left her home in Mililani since March because of the island’s rigorous stay-at-home order put in place to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.
So Saturday morning found her releasing a lot of pent-up energy as she waved an American flag and hammed it up for photos in a colorful dress, on a red carpeted backdrop outside the Westin Charlotte, where delegates were gathering over the weekend for the Republican National Convention.
Ostrov took an overnight flight from Hawaii to get here, and she will have to quarantine for two weeks upon her return to comply with state law. She said it was worth it.
“Even though I live in Hawaii, this is a nice break,” she said.
The convention unfolding in Charlotte is nothing like anyone envisioned more than two years ago when the city was selected to host a raucous gathering to renominate President Donald Trump. There were going to be parties and after-parties, and the city expected $200 million of economic impact.
But despite the pandemic upending carefully laid convention plans for both parties, there is, against all odds, still a convention in town. It is modest, and contained to a COVID-tested bubble inside the Westin hotel and the Charlotte Convention Center down the street. It’s not what Americans will see starting Monday, when the Republicans stage a prime-time program on television, where Trump will deliver his renomination speech from the White House.
But keeping in place at least a piece of an in-person convention, in the original host city, has been a priority for the Republican National Committee, both symbolically and procedurally. The various RNC committees must meet to complete the formal paperwork to nominate Trump by the coming deadlines.
For example, Delaware, has a Tuesday deadline. And an in-person formal roll call Monday, when 336 delegates representing 50 states, six territories and Washington, D.C., will formally renominate Trump from inside the convention center, was seen as a statement of where the party stands on lockdowns. The president and Vice President Mike Pence are expected to attend.
Even the scaled-back event has been tricky to pull off. The delegates participating were required to take at-home tests before arriving and are being tested daily now that they are here. The RNC has spent half a million dollars on tests and safety measures, according to officials, drafted a 42-page health plan, and still had to get an exemption from the state to host a large indoor gathering of out-of-towners.
Convention participants Saturday were all wearing privacy-hardened safety fobs, which are supposed to provide notifications if they come into close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
And they still have to abide by the rules of a city that is only in Phase 2 of reopening. Bars in Charlotte are still closed. Restaurants are allowed to open only at 50% capacity. Delegates are being told they can’t necessarily bring their spouses to planned dinners, and masks are required at all times, even outdoors.
But once they have entered the safe zone, delegates in town said they are here to experience a little slice of life as it used to be.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for months,” said Henry Barbour of Yazoo City, Miss. “I want to be part of this. For those of us who are really engaged, this is a reward.”
The Democrats decided not to go to Milwaukee, where their convention was originally set to take place, going all virtual instead. But Barbour, who drove nine hours to Charlotte, said an in-person gathering was critical at the grassroots level, to energize delegates across the country to reelect Trump in November.
“There’s a lot of just hanging out,” he said. “We’ve known each other for a number of years. There’s some illegal hugging going on. We all feel very safe because we all took a test before we came and when I got to the hotel, a lovely lady stuck a cotton swab into my brain.”
The Republican National Committee doesn’t expect people to sit in their hotel rooms ordering room service once they are here and has tried to make the trip worth it for its members. It has rented out four venues for attendees to choose from for each night they are here: the Billy Graham Library; a tour of a local brewery; a night at Middle C Jazz, a live jazz venue; and an evening at TopGolf, which has a high-tech driving range.
Republican officials said it was symbolically important for the party to show that locking the country down again — as former Vice President Joe Biden has said he would do if necessary to stop the spread of the virus — wasn’t a realistic way of life for many Americans, and that with the right precautions in place, life had to go on.
“It’s been an unusual year,” said Toni Anne Dashiell, a delegate from Texas who has attended every Republican convention since 2004. “We were surprised and disappointed, maybe, that the convention in Jacksonville was canceled, but it was the right thing to do. And we still made a footprint here in Charlotte.”