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Jacksonville Residents Nervous As The City Prepares For The RNC

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The city of Jacksonville, Fla., is getting ready for a scaled-back version of the Republican National Convention. Some residents there were excited about the opportunity because it could help out struggling businesses. Many others, though, are worried it could lead to a health disaster. Sky Lebron with member station WJCT in Jacksonville reports.

SKY LEBRON, BYLINE: In early June, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced the city's selection.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "JACKSONVILLE WELCOMES THE RNC")

LENNY CURRY: What city would take on the Republican National Convention with just 75 days to pull it off? Probably not many. But Jacksonville isn't just any city.

LEBRON: At the time, the city had just under 2,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. Since then, Florida has become one of the world's biggest COVID hotspots. But the decision to host the convention is proving controversial here. On Monday, Republican Sheriff Mike Williams says he's short on money, equipment and officers to secure the convention.

MIKE WILLIAMS: So with a growing list of challenges - be it financial, with communication, with the timeline - I cannot say with confidence that this event or our community will not be at risk.

LEBRON: The mayor says he agrees with the sheriff. But he's still pushing ahead, saying the city could use the business.

CURRY: I think the economic benefits will outweigh the badness of - that's the wrong word, but the bad of it.

LEBRON: Al Penttila manages a restaurant a few blocks away from the venues expected to host the RNC. Florida allows dining indoors at 50% capacity. Penttila says business started to pick up again when cases dipped. But with the sharp rise in recent weeks, the restaurant is hurting.

AL PENTTILA: I understand there's a pandemic going on. But we still want to make sure that people know they can come to Jacksonville safely, have a good time and go home without any worries.

LEBRON: Many locals don't feel that way. A group of residents are suing the city for bringing the RNC to Jacksonville, calling it a public nuisance. They claim the event's negative impacts will fall on the poor, historically Black East Side neighborhood that surrounds the convention venues. African Americans account for at least a third of coronavirus cases in Jacksonville. Pastor Gary Williams was one of a group of Black clergy members who wrote the mayor, asking that it be canceled. He says they got no response.

GARY WILLIAMS: I think it says that people are more concerned about either profits or their agenda than people's health. That's what it says. And then - especially people of color, but then it's not a surprise.

LEBRON: In recent weeks, the RNC host committee announced a raft of safety precautions including moving events outdoors. Omar Shabazz (ph) lives near the venues and had COVID-19 in March. He says none of the plans he's seen are comforting, and that's before you get to some obvious questions.

OMAR SHABAZZ: Who wants to really be outside in Florida in August in the heat and the thunderstorms? So, you know, no. I do not think it is going to go to plan.

LEBRON: Still, others in the community are looking for any sort of economic lifeline. Cookie Gantt owns The Avenue Grill restaurant in the East Side neighborhood.

COOKIE GANTT: I hope Trump can come in and taste some of these wings and burgers himself (laughter), you know, so he can go back and let everyone know. So, you know, it's a good thing for businesses. So, you know, I'm very happy that this is coming.

LEBRON: Mayor Curry initially projected the RNC could be a $100 million boost to the city. But these days, he's conceding it won't be nearly that large. For NPR News, I'm Sky Lebron in Jacksonville.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINACK'S "ONDAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.