Sarah Palin Cancels and Matt Gaetz Signs on to NY Young Republicans’ Pandemic Gala
Plans for an indoor event in the middle of a COVID-19 surge have sparked anger.
Sarah Palin pulled out of the New York Young Republican Club’s annual gala amid outrage that it could spread COVID-19. But like a sick game of whack-a-mole, the organizers have found a replacement: Rep. Matt Gaetz.
A source close to Palin said she has told the group—which has refused to answer many questions about the event—that she did not feel comfortable traveling from Alaska. Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, the other advertised keynote speaker, is still scheduled to attend.
Shortly after The Daily Beast reported that Palin would be a no-show, club president Gavin Wax tweeted that Gaetz—the Florida Republican who infamously wore a gas mask on the House floor for a vote on a coronavirus bill—had signed on.
He told The Daily Beast that Palin had been “wavering” for a week and that Gaetz was on standby to fill in.
Gaetz said in a statement on Wednesday that he was “honored to be invited” and “looking forward to the event.” Gaetz did not answer questions from The Daily Beast about whether he had concerns regarding the virus intended to follow local public health guidelines about wearing a mask indoors when within six feet of other people.
After the Thursday evening soiree raised alarms about an indoor event happening in the middle of a pandemic, Wax claimed the club would comply with what he called New York’s guidelines—which include a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings.
But on a Facebook page for the 108th annual gala, 68 people had already marked themselves as attending and another 239 people said they were “interested,”—and Wax did not answer follow-up questions about that apparent inconsistency. Meanwhile, Wax tweeted on Tuesday morning that the event had sold out.
The original venue for the party, The Caldwell Factory, has a capacity of 500 people, but it appeared the plan to hold it there was scrapped as outrage grew. The site’s name was suddenly removed from the gala’s eventbrite page Tuesday, which now says the location is “to be announced.”
The admission price included a cocktail reception, awards ceremony, three-course seated dinner, and a “premium open bar.” Tickets sold for $175 to $325, depending on membership to the group. The club noted that “temperatures of all guests will be checked before entering the venue,” and a disclaimer at the bottom of its website notes that “by registering for our events, you understand and expressly acknowledge the inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 in any place where other people are present.”
The club has a history that can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century but, as The Daily Beast has reported, has taken a sharp right turn during the Trump presidency, inviting anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, conspiracy theory Jack Posobiec, and Pizzagate enthusiast Mike Cernovich to speak.
Wax said in a statement on Tuesday that “our club has held its annual gala without interruptions for the past 107 years, through two world wars and the Spanish Flu.”
“We felt it was important as an institution to continue that great legacy and tradition,” he continued. “In doing so, we will comply with all state-mandated capacity limits and social distancing requirements. Masks will be required when attendees are not seated, and temperatures will be taken at [the] door.”
Wax—who said in a tweet Tuesday that he won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine—called the state’s pandemic restrictions “capricious,” saying he disagrees “with both lockdowns and capacity restrictions in principle, as they are unconstitutional and unscientific.”
“They have done nothing to slow the spread of this novel disease and are simply measures designed to control and subvert a population through fear tactics,” he added, apparently either skeptical of—or ignorant of—the many, many studies that have shown the effectiveness of mask mandates, restrictions, lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical measures in mitigating spread of the virus.
According to New York state guidelines, “individuals must wear face coverings when they are in a public and are: within six feet of distance from other individuals; or in a situation or setting where they are unable to maintain six feet of distance from other individuals; or in a public or private transportation carrier or for-hire vehicle.”
New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman called for the event to be canceled “immediately,” adding that the timing was all the more shameful for coming “exactly a week after so many of us made the sacrifice of an in-person gathering with family and loved ones on Thanksgiving to stop the spread of COVID.”
“The New York Young Republicans are setting the stage for a superspreader event in my district,” said Hoylman. This is a public health disaster in the making.”
Wax did not answer follow-up questions from The Daily Beast about where the event will now be held. But he and Wax and the club’s Twitter account appeared to be engaging with unhappy New Yorkers and members of Rise and Resist—a direct action group that describes itself as “opposing, disrupting, and defeating any government act that threatens democracy, equality, and our civil liberties.”
Wax called activists opposed to the event, who photographed themselves next to a large rat styled to look like President Trump in front of The Caldwell Factory, “losers” and “impotent yogurt” in a series of back-and-forths.
Even if the event follows all guidelines to the letter, experts agree that indoor gatherings of this size are still ill-advised as authorities brace themselves for a post-Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases across the nation.
“Large gatherings pose two specific threats, the first being a superspreader event,” said Dr. David Larsen, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Syracuse University who specializes in global health and infectious disease epidemiology. “The second threat is that they overwhelm contact-tracing operations.”
“I’d keep the numbers down,” Larsen said, when asked how he would advise organizers. “It doesn’t make sense. We have this collective sacrifice, we have a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine, and people are going to die after the vaccine has been announced and is gearing up to be distributed.”
“That’s just silly,” continued Larsen. “It’s disheartening and frustrating that we’re still in this pandemic, but it does have an endpoint. If we just stay the course and finish strong, then we’ll save American lives.”
Boston Children’s Hospital’s Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, who is also a researcher at Harvard Medical School, had the same advice.
“We should be doing everything we can in the darkest moments of this pandemic to bring transmission down, and one of those things is to limit indoor gatherings,” said Brownstein. “Indoor gatherings pose a risk, even if you reduce that risk with mask-wearing and social distancing.”
As of Tuesday, New York City had a cumulative case total of 292,395 infections since the pandemic, with a weekly case average increasing, according to the city’s data. Over the last seven days, there were 9,130 new cases, 750 hospitalizations, and 63 deaths.
Wax parroted a popular conservative talking point on Monday, arguing in his statement that “no one is required to attend this event, and everyone who chooses on his or her own volition to attend understands the associated ‘risks’ and has rationally assessed them not to be cause for material concern.”
But that doesn’t take into account that those who accept the risk can be infected and spread the virus to others who did not get to make a choice. A recent study of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota found that in neighboring Minnesota, at least 35 people who didn’t go caught COVID-19 from those who did.
“We have to put the rules in context of what we’re trying to achieve,” explained Brownstein. “If we want to prioritize in-person learning, we want to reduce the opportunities for transmission in other settings. The larger the indoor gathering, the larger the opportunity for transmission and for a superspreader event.”
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday inquiring if it was aware of the event or keeping an eye on its transmission potential.
Actor and activist Jonathan Walker, a member of Rise and Resist, told The Daily Beast this week that his group has been in touch with city leaders over their fears that the gala will “be a spreader or superspreader” event.
“We practice trained non-violent civil disobedience and direct action when we feel it’s necessary to elevate an issue, event or problem and shine a light on it,” said Walker, noting the non-hierarchical group will plan a protest or action at the event itself if they aren’t able to get it shut down in advance.
“Our deep concerns are for the people who will be working the event, their families, and the health-care infrastructures which are already feeling the strain of the current spike,” Walker told The Daily Beast.