Joe Biden, convention speakers won't travel to Milwaukee for 2020 DNC due to COVID-19 concerns

Joe Biden will not travel to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic presidential nomination because of concerns over the coronavirus, party officials said Wednesday, signaling a move to a convention that essentially has become entirely virtual.

It is the latest example of the pandemic’s sweeping effects on the 2020 presidential election and the latest blow to traditional party nominating conventions that historically have marked the start of fall general election campaigns.

US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden  (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

“From the very beginning of this pandemic, we put the health and safety of the American people first,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. “We followed the science, listened to doctors and public health experts, and we continued making adjustments to our plans in order to protect lives. That’s the kind of steady and responsible leadership America deserves. And that’s the leadership Joe Biden will bring to the White House.”

Neither the Biden campaign nor DNC officials offered details about how Biden might accept the nomination, which even in the pandemic could be a made-for-screen event that reaches tens of millions of voters via television and online.

A DNC official said all speakers and presenters for the Aug. 17-24 convention are now expected to speak from remote locations.

Governor Tony Evers

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said Biden made the right decision.

“A lot has changed since we set out on this journey more than a year ago now, but the one thing that hasn’t is Democrats’ commitment to putting health and safety first,” Evers said in a statement. "It has never been more important for elected officials to lead by example — that’s the kind of leader Joe is, and that’s the kind of president we need. I know he will continue to have a presence in Wisconsin, virtually or otherwise, and I look forward to doing everything we can to win Wisconsin.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters he learned of the decision early Wednesday in a phone call with the leadership team of the Democratic National Convention.

“I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m very, very disappointed in this, professionally and personally, because I think we all have had so much pride in having Milwaukee chosen to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention,” Barrett said.

At a fundraiser, Biden reacted to the announcement.

"The mayor has put in place a 225-person limit on people assembling in any one place. I think it's the right thing to do," Biden said. "I've wanted to set an example as to how we should respond individually to this crisis."

But Barrett, a Democrat, added that the higher priorities are public health, economic recovery and nation’s reckoning on systemic racism. “I think all of us have to keep this in perspective,” he said.

President Donald Trump has abandoned his own plans to accept the Republican nomination in person. On Wednesday, he mused about potentially making his acceptance speech from the White House.

Biden and Democrats for months have moved toward a virtual convention, first by delaying the convention from its original mid-July date to the week before Republicans' scheduled convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

DNC officials later authorized organizers to plan for virtual proceedings, then added an explicit call for delegates not to travel to Milwaukee. More than 4,000 delegates already were casting mail ballots for Biden's nomination and a platform that had been written and approved in meetings conducted online. But until Wednesday, it was expected that Biden and his running mate would speak from Milwaukee.

As for the convention's impact on the city, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said he wouldn't mind a rain check for the 2024 event.

"Obviously, I think we have a case for it, considering the fact that not even the nominee is going to be on the ground in Milwaukee to accept the nomination," Johnson said. "I think there's a really story to tell here around why Milwaukee should be given another opportunity to host."

US Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden is in the final days of deciding on a vice president, who he has said will be a woman.

President Trump was far more reluctant than Biden to alter his convention plans, as he sought to downplay the pandemic's significance and push the country to return to normal operations. Trump jousted with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, because Cooper wouldn't guarantee the president that he'd lift restrictions on large public gatherings so that Trump could pack Charlotte's NBA arena.

President Trump then said he'd travel to Jacksonville, Florida, to make his address, a decision welcomed at the time by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Florida has since seen its COVID-19 cases spike, part of a national trend that led President Trump to yield to public health experts and cancel the event.

Statement from Gov. Tony Evers regarding the 2020 DNC: 

"The upcoming Democratic convention is different than we’d imagined. A lot has changed since we set out on this journey more than a year ago now, but the one thing that hasn’t is Democrats’ commitment to putting health and safety first. It has never been more important for elected officials to lead by example—that’s the kind of leader Joe is, and that’s the kind of president we need. I know he will continue to have a presence in Wisconsin, virtually or otherwise, and I look forward to doing everything we can to win Wisconsin."

Statement from Peggy Williams-Smith, president/CEO of VISIT Milwaukee:

“We are deeply disappointed that the DNC will not be the convention we had hoped for or the convention Milwaukee deserved. We understand that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the entire nation, and that the decisions made by the convention organizers are designed to protect public safety. I want to thank all of our hotel partners, retail businesses, restaurants, bars, event venues, attractions, businesses, donors, and elected leaders who have worked tirelessly for the past 2+years to bring the DNC to Milwaukee. Your dedication, patience, and flexibility has united us as a community to brag about what an amazing city we live in. I am so sorry this will not be the event we wanted it to be. I will continue to work with DNC officials to garner any Milwaukee-centric coverage we can get out of the event.”

Statement from WisGOP Chairman Andrew Hitt:

“Now that Joe Biden is formally abandoning the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin, it’s becoming clear that Democrats have not learned from their mistakes in 2016 and are poised to repeat them again in 2020.

“Joe Biden has not visited the state of Wisconsin once this year and now is using coronavirus concerns as an excuse for his absence despite recent travel to other states. What’s even more clear in Joe Biden’s refusal to travel to even take a private plane to Milwaukee to accept his party’s nomination in a nearly empty room, is that he would rather use the COVID-19 pandemic for political gain rather than lead the country.

“Do Democrats think that they can keep Joe Biden hidden in his basement through Election Day?”

Statement from Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler:

"Protecting the public’s health is a core value for Democrats. The fact that keeping Wisconsin safe requires making the convention fully virtual illustrates the total failure of Donald Trump to control the coronavirus pandemic, reflects Joe Biden’s commitment to making life better for Wisconsinites and all Americans, and underscores the life-and-death necessity of making Joe Biden the next President of the United States. 

“The disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Donald Trump, as well as Wisconsin Republicans Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald, and others in the state legislature, has left Wisconsin reeling from an increase in infections and hospitalizations. In order to best protect our state, Democrats are following the advice of public health experts and telling speakers not to travel to the convention.

“Unlike Republicans, protecting the public’s health is the utmost priority for Democrats. The decision only further reflects that we need Joe Biden's commitment to ensuring the safety of all Americans in the White House.  

"Throughout this crisis, Democrats have shown smart and rational leadership. From Vice President Biden to Governor Evers and down to local officials, Democrats are living their values, and demonstrating their willingness to make the tough decisions necessary to put the public good first. Today, as Republicans threaten to attack Governor Evers’s mask mandate and Donald Trump and his colleagues refuse to help Americans navigate this crisis, Democrats will hold a convention that will energize voters around the clear choice in this year's election."