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As RNC nears, Northeast Florida political scene grapples with COVID-19

Can Northeast Florida curb COVID-19 before the convention?

Politicians around the world have wrestled with COVID-19, and Northeast Florida, the home of the 2020 Republican National Convention, is no exception.

With the weeks running short before what was expected to be the biggest political event in the city’s history, prominent politicos continue to hazard coronavirus exposure.

The latest examples have been in the last week, a time in which Duval County saw positive testing rates that, on some days, hit 20%. Despite all evidence of community spread, many in the political and donor class may have been exposed.

The latest grim anecdote came from a Ponte Vedra Beach fundraiser for Florida House members where a lobbyist in attendance tested positive for the virus.

Among those in attendance were House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls and future House Speaker Paul Renner, along with a handful of other present and potential future legislators. Reps. Elizabeth Fetterhoff and Tom Leek are from the Daytona area, while Reps. Cord ByrdWyman DugganClay Yarborough and Jason Fischer are all Jacksonville Republicans.

Except for Sprowls, Leek, and Fetterhoff, all are yoked to the Jacksonville-area Republican machine.

Yarborough has tested negative. The others contacted by Florida Politics have thus far not commented.

Complicating the picture was that at least some people at the event, like Byrd, also attended an event with Vice President Mike Pence Saturday.

Pence came to Jacksonville to “thank” RNC volunteers, and despite Jacksonville’s controversial indoor mask “mandate,” pictures of the event don’t show much evidence of masks being worn.

Though the host committee “temperature checked, provided masks in the health screening tent, encouraged guests to wear them inside and socially distanced the space into 6-foot grids for guests,” only time will tell if that was enough to protect volunteers and the political class.

Some will say these politicians were singularly cavalier, but in terms of eschewing masks in indoor spaces, they took their cue from the top. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who held a press event at JAXPORT late last week, did not wear a mask when he was not speaking. The same held true for other politicos on hand, including U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. 

Of course, many Republicans are anti-mask and COVID-skeptics, even four months plus into the state of emergency.

But for Northeast Florida politicians, the disease has been a real consideration.

Paul Waldron, a St. Johns County Commissioner who voted against a mask mandate, was hospitalized last week. He had gone into “septic shock,” his daughter said. He is recovering still.

Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat running for state House, also contracted the virus.

“I will be self-quarantining for the foreseeable future and working with my doctors for the right course of treatment over the next few weeks,” Nixon tweeted.

With the Republican National Convention headed to Jacksonville next month, Jacksonville’s Mayor Lenny Curry was self-quarantining out of COVID-19 fears.

However, Curry is back to normal. A Monday evening tweet showed the Mayor and convention co-chair brandishing a skateboard.

“I got my board. I’m ready to cruise. Let’s go,” Curry wrote.

As the Mayor skated, meanwhile, the President prevaricated when it came to a hard commitment to the Jacksonville convention itself.

“Well, we’re going to see,” Donald Trump said Monday about the Jacksonville event, noting that the city’s positive test rate “built up a little bit.”

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at

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