Leading conservatives in the United States have gathered in Orlando, Florida for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where former president Donald Trump will return to the spotlight two days from now.
The conference got off to a fiery start today, with multiple speakers denouncing coronavirus restrictions across the country.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, called his state an “oasis of freedom”.
“We look around in other parts of the country, and in too many places we see schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed,” he said.
Florida has recorded the third-highest number of coronavirus infections in the US, with 1.9 million, and its death toll of 30,500 is the fourth-highest in the country.
However, Mr DeSantis’ approach, with an emphasis on keeping the economy open as much as possible, has been widely praised in Republican circles.
Utah Senator Mike Lee was another early speaker. He slammed the Democratic state government in California for trying to limit church attendance amid the pandemic.
Mr Lee argued it was no coincidence that freedom of assembly had been “severely restricted” during the “growth of government that’s occurred during this pandemic”.
“We’ve been prevented from gathering in our churches, in our schools and in our workplaces, in some cases even from gathering in protest while seeking redress of grievances,” he said, casting coronavirus restrictions as a threat to Americans’ freedoms more broadly.
“Those in power have struck at the core piece that has the ability to cause the whole structure to collapse. And we’re suffering the consequences.”
Josh Mandel, a Senate candidate in Ohio, continued this theme. He labelled Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, an “authoritarian”.
“(The) deep state, if you will, is not just led by radical liberal governors like (California’s) Gavin Newsom and (New York’s) Andrew Cuomo, but even squishy Republican governors like our Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio,” said Mr Mandel.
He said “bureaucrats” had used the pandemic as an excuse to “trample on the liberty of families and small businesses”.
Mr Mandel ended his time by picking up a chant of “freedom” from the crowd.
That was followed by an awkward moment for CPAC’s organisers.
The conference’s Director, Carly Conley, appeared on stage with Dan Schneider, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, to remind attendees they should be wearing face masks.
CPAC is in Florida this year because of Mr DeSantis’ relatively relaxed coronavirus restrictions, which allow large indoor gatherings to take place.
Some precautions are in place, such as temperature checks at the entrances. The Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is hosting the event, has asked attendees to wear masks and practise social distancing.
“I know this might sound like a little bit of a downer. But we also believe in property rights, and this is a private hotel,” Mr Schneider told the audience.
“We believe in the rule of law, so we have to comply with the laws of this county we’re in. But a private hotel, just like your house, gets to set its own rules.”
He then yielded to Ms Conley.
“Well, as Stan mentioned, we are in a private facility, and we do want to be respectful of the ordinances that they have as their private property, so please, everyone, when you’re in the ballroom, when you’re seated, you should still be wearing a mask,” she said.
“So if everybody can go ahead, work on that. I know, I know, it’s not the most fun.”
There were boos from the crowd, and a few audience members shouted the word “freedom” at the stage.
“You have the right to set the rules in your own house. And we’re borrowing somebody else’s house, so we need to comply with their rules,” Mr Schneider said.
“So thank you all for putting on your masks. I wear a mask when I’m in the halls, and we’re going to comply with their rules.”
Members of the crowd continued to heckle the pair.
“Thank you everyone, and have a good conference,” Ms Conley added.
Both officials framed the request to wear masks as a matter of respecting the Hyatt Regency’s private property rights, rather than a public health issue.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz was another prominent speaker today.
Mr Cruz found himself in the news for the wrong reasons last week when he flew to Cancun with his family while his constituents back home in Texas were struggling through a massive winter storm, which left hundreds of thousands without power or running water for days.
Mr Cruz promptly flew back to Houston after photos of him at the airport and on his flight emerged online. He said he’d travelled to the resort city because he was trying to be a good father.
Today, the Senator started his remarks with a joke poking fun at the controversy.
“Orlando is awesome. It’s not as nice as Cancun. But it’s nice,” he quipped.
Observers on social media made their own amusing references to the Cancun trip while Mr Cruz spoke.
Incidentally, the other US Senator for Texas, Republican John Cornyn, is in his home state today to meet President Joe Biden, who is visiting to survey the damage from the storm and speak to first responders.
Mr Cruz, however, was in Orlando to attend CPAC. He used his speech to confirm Mr Trump’s continuing role as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, saying the political left remains “terrified” of him despite his defeat to Mr Biden last year, which made him the first one-term president since the 1990s.
“They look at Donald J. Trump, and they look at the millions and millions of people inspired, who went to battle, fighting alongside President Trump, and they’re terrified,” Mr Cruz said.
“And they want him to go away. Let me tell you this right now, Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere.”