I find myself now chronicling pandemic politics in Jacksonville, Florida, USA as we prepare for the Republican National Convention . . . though it is not always easy to keep up.
Infection rates and hospitalizations have been increasing in Jacksonville (nearly coterminous with Duval County), and according to local news the average age of those testing positive has dropped to 35. In the past week, per the state Department of Health, the total number of cases in Duval County has doubled.
Last week, the mayor insisted masks would not be required in the city/county. Very strongly insisted. If you’d asked me then, I would not have predicted a change in his position – after all, the Republican National Convention is arriving here because Charlotte, North Carolina wouldn’t promise to allow the very large gathering and NOT require masks and other precautions for convention-goers, to which the President objected.
Over the weekend, roughly 200 Jacksonville physicians signed and released to the media a bipartisan, public letter to the mayor and City Council, asking the city’s leaders to mandate masks and social distancing at the Republican National Convention in August. By today, the number of signatories had grown to over 500.
The physicians’ letter said, in part, “Unfortunately, for some, a face mask has become a political statement. This is irrational and meant to sow division. The enemy is this virus, not each other.” Of the Convention’s expected tens of thousands of attendees, it went on to say, “Allowing this number of people to descend on Jacksonville is unequivocally provocative of disease, predictably harmful, and medically disrespectful to the citizens of this city, much less the rest of the country.” (Hover here for link to the letter.) Their intent was to deliver the letter to the Mayor’s Office early this week, wearing their white medical coats and masks.
That potential photo op might have been seen as too damaging by city leaders. This morning, the Mayor’s Office (not the mayor himself) announced that masks would be required starting at 5 p.m. today for indoor public areas. The Director of Public Affairs and Mayor’s Chief of Staff said the change in policy was based on conversations with local health care leaders and they would not comment on whether masks would be required at the Convention in August, insisting it was 60 days away and the situation could change.
Within hours, Jacksonville’s mask mandate was national news: the New York Times posted a lengthy article on the overlap between the pandemic and Convention politics, touching on overall Republican support within Florida and Jacksonville, racial politics within the city, and the possibility that not just COVID-19 but hurricane season could impact the Convention.