COVID-19 Has the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee on the Ropes 1

As of Friday, the 2020 Democratic National Convention was still theoretically on for August in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But to say it remained to be seen what kind of in-person confab could feasibly be held in the city during the coronavirus pandemic would be putting it lightly.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on April 5 that the party “may have to do a virtual convention,” which as The Daily Beast previously reported, party officials had already begun to look at as a possibility. But after Biden’s comment, convention leadership quickly walked the statement back, focusing instead on the decision to delay from their previous planned date in July.

“There’s obviously a lot we all still need to learn about the scope and scale of the pandemic, which is why moving the Convention to August was the right move,” Alex Lasry, finance chair of the Democratic National Convention, told The Daily Beast. “It provides the convention planning team more time to monitor how the situation unfolds and adjust plans accordingly.”

This past week saw even more discouraging signs. The Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee is saying farewell to more than half of its staff—11 were offered positions with the DNC, six were laid off. In the wake of the restructuring news, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler added, “If there’s not a convention coming with thousands of people coming in, you plan something different. The host committee is making sure we do the best thing to host our nominee.”

Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and former chairman of the DNC, fueled even more skepticism on Wednesday when he deemed a Milwaukee convention “unlikely,” period.

As of Friday evening, Milwaukee County had 2,055 confirmed cases and 111 deaths from COVID-19.

Given the epidemiological fiasco that was the recent primary in Wisconsin, these developments and interviews with a slew of key players in the local business community suggested the IRL convention was on life support at best.

In summer, Milwaukee is known as the “city of festivals,” as nearly every weekend is marked by a different cultural or ethnic celebration. Most of those—Pride Fest, Polish Fest, Greek Fest, Festa Italiana—have now been postponed or canceled. Summerfest, the 11-day event on the shores of Lake Michigan known as “the world’s largest music festival,” has been moved to September

The event furthest out on the city’s festival calendar to be completely canceled over coronavirus concerns is German Fest, which would have celebrated its 40th annual festival on July 24-26. The event brings about 80,000 attendees each year, according to festival president Eric Radue, which includes more than 1,200 volunteers, more than half of whom are at a higher risk of contracting the virus due to their age.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind could accept the risk of sending them out there,” he told The Daily Beast. “There are just so many unknowns.”

Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group, which runs four Milwaukee venues, said they were among the first that were closed, and will likely be the “last ones to open.” 

And when those venues reopen, would they be insured? Witt said yes, as long as there were no active stay-at-home orders like the one currently in place in Wisconsin until May 26.

Fiserv Forum, which opened in 2018, was set to be the primary host location for the convention, where delegate voting and candidate speeches would take place. A source close to the convention planning process in Milwaukee said the decision to host the convention at the arena would ultimately lie with the DNC. 

Rev. Leah Daughtry, who led the party’s 2008 and 2016 conventions, told Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball—before the convention delay—that canceling the in-person event was “a rising possibility, especially now that the Olympics are postponed for a year.”

Professional sports will certainly be watched closely, as the NBA and MLB try to figure out ways to go forward with their respective seasons, and the NFL makes decisions about its August preseason games. Lollapalooza, scheduled for July 30—Aug. 2 in nearby Chicago—where more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed and more than 400 people have died from the virus—is still in wait-and-see mode, with a decision on the festival expected in May.

In the Milwaukee area, the event to watch could be the Wisconsin State Fair, which set an attendance record last year with 1.13 million people going to the 11-day event, and is currently still scheduled for Aug. 6-16—despite the fact that an alternative care facility to treat COVID-19 patients was being constructed at the fairgrounds. And, of course, the Republican National Convention is scheduled for Aug. 24-27 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and President Trump has said there’s “no way” he’s canceling the event. 

But in Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett recently acknowledged he could not envision hosting “the type of convention that we had anticipated.” 

“I know two things for certain,” Mayor Tom Barrett said on CNN Thursday. “I know for certain that the Democrats are going to nominate a candidate and that candidate is going to be Joe Biden, obviously. And they’re going to nominate him in Milwaukee. Those are the two things I know for certain. I’m very confident about both of those things.” 

So, if there is any certainty for the convention, it’s that Joe Biden will be nominated in Milwaukee. But whether anyone else will be in attendance when he—maybe—delivers a convention floor speech at Fiserv Forum remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the painful economic impact of losing the convention looms.

Juli Kaufmann is a Milwaukee developer who helped lead the transformation of a bank branch burned in 2016 during violent unrest that broke out after a fatal police shooting into a thriving, 27-tenant multi-use entrepreneurial and events space called the Sherman Phoenix. In an interview, she said local businesses have been investing time and money to plan for the DNC to have “significant financial impact” on the city. 

“Having the DNC happen is absolutely critical, in a very basic way, to our plans for survival at the Main Street level,” she said. “But that assumes we can make it to August, too.”