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Update: Houston’s Democratic mayor moved to block the Republican Party of Texas from holding a massive indoor convention in his city on Wednesday, citing an exploding number of coronavirus cases in the city.
Texas is posting record-high numbers of coronavirus cases, but that isn’t stopping Republicans from planning a massive indoor convention in the state’s hardest-hit city.
The Republican Party of Texas is just a week away from gathering at least 5,000 people for its state convention in Houston, even though the city’s Democratic mayor is begging them to reconsider.
The state’s GOP leaders insist they can handle the health hazards — and that the risks are worth taking.
“New viruses are going to come and life has to continue. We can’t live in a world where there’s never again a live, in-person concert or convention or gathering of people to peaceably assemble and address their grievances with the government. That would be anti-American, and I am proud and pleased to be part of a group trying to make sure that dystopian future never becomes a reality,” Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey told VICE News Wednesday morning.
Texas reported more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, its highest single-day increase in both cases and deaths since the pandemic’s start. The state had more than 9,200 hospitalized cases as well as 75 more daily deaths from the pandemic, all new and grim records.
Houston has been the hardest-hit part of the state: The region alone saw more than 2,100 new cases on Tuesday. This recent spike forced Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to make an about-face in his rush to reopen the state. Abbott had opposed COVID-controlling efforts so stridently that he’d banned local governments from requiring masks, but last week he reversed course and ordered Texans to wear masks when in public in most of the state.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) has begged the GOP to move their convention online, like Democrats did, warning that it could turn into a superspreader event and promising to shut it down if participants didn’t closely adhere to health guidelines. On Wednesday, Turner said he has directed his administration to explore ways to force them to cancel it entirely.
"Where there are provisions that would allow us to cancel this convention — we will exercise those provisions," Turner said at a virtual city council meeting on Wednesday, according to the Texas Tribune. "And the plan is to exercise those provisions to cancel this agreement, this contract, today — to not go forward with this convention."
It’s unclear whether Turner has the legal standing to force Republicans to cancel their convention, however. The George R. Brown Convention Center, the event’s host, is run by a public-private partnership, not solely by the mayor’s office.
Dickey rolled his eyes at Turner’s concerns.
“Harris County [Houston’s county] has 4.6 million people. We’re talking about bringing maybe 5,000 people. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s 1 person per thousand,” he said. “The idea that this would be a meaningful impact on the volume of what Harris and Houston is seeing or what Texas is seeing is so disingenuous that the best possible reading of it is a total lack of awareness and the most likely readings are, sadly, political gamesmanship and distraction.”
Gov. Abbott's decision
The one man who does have the clear legal authority to do so is Abbott. The governor has remained mum about whether he would consider canceling his own party’s convention, and has refused to say whether he thought it should be moved online. Abbott’s spokesman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. But tellingly, Abbott decided not to give an in-person speech and will instead deliver a video address.
The convention is expected to be smaller than in the past, with 5,000 to 6,000 attendees, down from a peak of 12,000 in recent years — but it’s still the largest state convention in the country, and there are more actual delegates than even at the Republican National Convention.
Other Republicans admitted concerns about the event, though they said they had to be weighed against the party’s ability to codify its party platform, elect its delegates to the national convention, and settle a race for party chairman between Dickey and former Rep. Allen West.
“The risk associated with the event is considerable.”
“The risk associated with the event is considerable. You have a large number of people traveling in from all over the state, and if anyone contracts it while they’re there, they’d be taking it home with them,” said Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak.
But any concerns have been outweighed by Texas Republicans’ skepticism of the health officials’ dire warnings against large indoor gatherings, frustration that reporters have been so critical of their plans for an indoor event after what they saw as boosterism for outdoor Black Lives Matter protests. The Republican Party of Texas’ executive committee voted by a two-to-one margin earlier this week against moving the convention online.
“I don’t know if I buy everything Fauci says.”
“I don’t know if I buy everything Fauci says,” said Chuck Branch, a member of the 62-person Texas State Republican Executive Committee, who voted for an in-person convention after his idea for a hybrid option was shot down by the committee. “What about all the riots and all the protesters out there, no social distancing and no masking? I don’t hear the media having any problems with all the challenges that has caused.”
Mackowiak and Branch plan to attend, but others aren’t so sure.
Brendan Steinhauser, a senior GOP strategist in the state, was an early COVID survivor — he and his wife got sick in March. His company is a convention sponsor and had long planned to have a major footprint at the event, but he said they were now debating whether he’d go, while trying to figure out how to minimize exposure for his employees.
“We’re deciding as we speak. I don’t want to put my team in a position where their health is threatened,” he said.
Some sponsors have gotten cold feet as well, including the Texas Medical Association, which pulled its sponsorship after the GOP refused to move the convention online. Multiple Republicans said they’d talked to older activists who had decided against going because of the health risks, and some GOP strategists were struggling with how much risk they were personally willing to take.
Dickey insisted the committee is taking plenty of precautions, with temperature checks at every entrance to make sure people with fevers can’t enter the convention, plans for social distancing in the convention, and a mask requirement for participants that mirrors the governor’s own order.
Dickey shrugged off questions about whether the fear of the virus was disenfranchising longtime activists — ”One of the characteristics of a convention always has been that the activity at a convention is determined by those who make it to convention, those who physically arrive at our convention, and it has been such since the days of our founding at Independence Hall,” he said.
The party’s insistence on an in-person convention in Texas sets up a crucial test of whether it’s feasible to safely hold an indoor event of thousands just one month ahead of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida.
“This is certainly a test run,” said Mackowiak. “If they have significant problems in Houston, then it would make Jacksonville very difficult to pull off.”
But a number of high-profile Republicans have said in recent days they won’t attend the Republican National Convention as coronavirus cases spike in Florida as well. On Tuesday, Trump himself signaled he wasn’t quite as bullish about a massive convention as he once had been.
“When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good. And now all of a sudden it's spiking up a little bit — and that’s going to go down — it really depends on the timing,” Trump told Greta van Susteren. “Look, we’re very flexible. We can do a lot of things, but we’re very flexible.”
Dickey said he wouldn’t order or even suggest that groups cancel the ancillary social and networking events that usually ring the convention, though many of those events’ hosts have decided to cancel their events anyway.
But while he acknowledged there was some health risk for those attending, he downplayed any concerns.
“Is it worth driving to work on any given day?” he asked rhetorically when asked why it was worth risking people's health and possibly their lives to stick with an in-person convention. “People die every day on the way to work, every single day. No one argues that we should all give up our cars. How much more important is fighting for the future of our country and our state?”
But that’s not the only question facing the GOP.
“No one wants this to go badly,” said Mackowiak. “The question is, can this be pulled off with little or no public health consequences? We’re going to find out.”
Cover: Delegates clap after the National Anthem at the Republican Party of Texas State Convention at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Thursday, May 12, 2016 in Dallas. (Photo: Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)