Business Owners Hang Hopes on Increasingly Doomed FL Convention

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty The last few months have been bleak for Liz Grenamyer’s catering company.  Business has been pretty much gutted during the coronavirus pandemic, she says, as Grenamyer and her staff have dealt with the harsh fallout of an economic shutdown where the kinds of events […]

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

The last few months have been bleak for Liz Grenamyer’s catering company. 

Business has been pretty much gutted during the coronavirus pandemic, she says, as Grenamyer and her staff have dealt with the harsh fallout of an economic shutdown where the kinds of events that would dominate their workload have been wiped off the map. 

That means next month’s Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, where her business is listed as a vendor on the host committee’s website, has the chance of boosting her operation at a crucial time. 

“It’s a difficult situation to be in as a business owner,” Grenamyer said. “We want to stay in business. We want to continue to be in business. And this is an opportunity that we might get some business for the first time (in months).” 

As the clock counts down until late August and cases of COVID spike in Florida, local business owners like Grenamyer are counting on the big, splashy event promised by Republicans looking to send President Trump soaring to a second term with a bang. Just weeks until the party’s most-hyped event of the general election, the feeling of anticipation, for some, is not linked to any specific allegiance to the president, but rather the much-needed economic boost that it could offer their outfits. 

Indeed, acknowledging the same public health risks the GOP has sought to downplay for months, business owners in Florida are still hopeful the partisan political event can proceed with an abundance of caution to help keep their financial prospects intact. 

“You have to go into it with your eyes open, knowing that there is a pandemic going on and you’ve got to keep your team careful,” Grenamyer said. 

The fast-approaching extravaganza has some in the area watching with caution as the city tries to rapidly scale up for Trump’s renomination speech. That the looming threat of the coronavirus continuing to grow worse in the state only makes the preparations more tense. 

“I get the vendors, everybody’s hurting right now,” said Johnny Miller, the mayor of nearby Fernandina Beach, who remains worried about how overflow is going to impact the community. “I see it every single day…. but again public safety is my first priority as an elected official and I just don’t think it’s safe to be inviting a whole bunch of people from out of state to come down here.” 

For the recently selected vendors who have longed for more business—and patiently waited to hear if they were accepted for the party’s marquee event—during the sparse times brought about by the pandemic, the possible influx of cash is top of mind. At least for now.

James Rogers, a baker at Sivada’s Cupcakery, which was included in the RNC’s approved vendor list posted this week, said he predicts that all “will be fine”—if attendees follow safety precautions, he said. 

Rogers seemed to possess a sense of low-key optimism shared among several other local businesses selected. But the hope for a good showing isn’t necessarily out of excitement for the chance to show off goods and services at a big partisan event, but rather mostly for the exposure and potential revenue boost it might offer.  

“I don’t really care about the event itself, except for the opportunity to make an earning and be able to pay my people,” Rogers, who said he doesn’t wade too much into Republican politics, said. “I’m just trying to make a dollar.” 

Lee Livingston, the owner of 3 G’s Grill and Soul Food Catering, was also accepted as a vendor. “It’s not so much RNC,” he said. “It’s really tourism… I’ve always supported my city.” 

Karen Bassham, the owner of Mai Oui Catering & Event Planning, had been in personal contact with an RNC official to discuss logistics, and even had mentioned putting a reminder to touch base on her calendar if she hadn’t heard about the status by Friday. When asked if setting up at the RNC would be a game changer for her catering business, Bassham didn’t hesitate. 

“Right now it would be,” she said. “If we’re lucky we’re doing maybe a 15-person backyard wedding or birthday party.” 

“That would be a huge boost for us.”

The RNC began searching for a new home after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper faced off with Trump over the president’s push for a packed arena despite the pandemic remaining ongoing.

The event then headed to Jacksonville. But since that decision was made in June, Florida’s coronavirus situation has rapidly grown more bleak. Cases have spiked in the state in recent weeks. More than 15,000 daily new cases were reported in Florida for July 11, according to state data, while Wednesday brought another 13,837 new cases. 

That’s done little, however, to limit Elizabeth Bacher’s enthusiasm for the president coming to town. Being a huge fan of Trump means the owner of Lizzie’s Cheese Straws will be among the vendors involved with the convention. 

“He’s been my voice for the small businesses,” Bacher said. “It’s kind of my way of saying, this is great.’ I can’t wait to be there.” 

While the president’s speech was originally set to be held indoors at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, the RNC is moving towards an outdoor space instead, according to a report Tuesday in The New York Times.  

The RNC recently caved to the reality of needing to hold a more limited convention in the state, according to The Washington Post. Delegates were informed Thursday that the initial days of the convention would be restricted to delegates, while the convention’s conclusion and the president’s marquee speech meant attendance could then be as high being between 6,000 and 7,000 attendees, according to the newspaper.  

The party had earlier estimated in a slideshow based off past figures that 15,000 or more people could come to the area for the convention, though the presentation noted the virus could of course impact that prediction. 

And while the city’s Republican mayor has defended his aggressive push to woo the convention to his city, both the city council’s Democratic president and a leading GOP voice on the governing body made clear last week they were growing more anxious about the convention coming to town. 

Others in the community have taken more aggressive action. A group that included locals and business owners filed a lawsuit last week against the convention, citing the idea that the convention would be “nuisance injurious to the health, welfare and property rights,” for them. 

Yet there was also a clear drive among some of the vendors who said they did not want to be anywhere near critical of the convention or its plans, despite the palpable tension the RNC is bringing to the city during the pandemic. 

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hillary Dolaher, the vice president of florist Anything with Plants, said that the RNC was going to great lengths to “mitigate any risks.” And she was emphatic about her excitement about the convention coming, saying “we all need the business, that’s for sure.” 

“We’re all struggling to survive here,” Dolaher said.

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