Even Donald Trump knew Florida is too dangerous for a big gathering, having just canceled the GOP convention there. But a major anti-abortion group is forging ahead with a 1,300-person, three-day conference in the coronavirus-ridden state—and won’t even require masks unless officials force them.
Care Net, one of the country’s largest networks of “crisis pregnancy centers,” plans to hold its annual conference six weeks from now in Florida, which broke its record for single-day COVID-19 deaths this week.
The convention, which the group describes as the “largest pregnancy center conference in the nation,” will include in-person keynote speeches, more than 80 group workshops, an indoor exhibition hall, and at least six shared meals.
Gretchen Newman, an infectious disease expert at Wayne State University, called it “an extraordinarily bad idea.”
“Overall, I don’t think hosting this conference in person—and certainly not with the lack of clarity and lack of stringent planning for how to do this safely—is consistent with a life-affirming message,” Newman told The Daily Beast.
“This is not a pro-life message.”
The reproductive rights group ReproAction has launched a petition calling on the group to cancel the event, writing in an open letter to CEO Roland Warren that it is “dangerous and repugnant to plan a large national gathering of participants from around the country during a global pandemic.”
“While we always object to misleading and shaming people seeking abortion care—what fake clinics exist to do—this moment adds urgency,” the petition reads. “This is no time for anti-science, anti-healthcare, anti-woman forces to plan a gathering of followers from around the country to one of the hardest-hit states for this virus.”
Care Net did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. A statement on the conference website says employees are “working very closely with the staff at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort, our vendors and Care Net staff to provide attendees with a socially-distant conference experience for 2020.”
Care Net is a network of more than 1,100 so-called crisis pregnancy centers—clinics that purport to give unbiased pregnancy counseling, but serve largely to divert women from getting abortions. A 2018 paper published in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics found these centers often provide “false and misleading” information—such as the suggestion that abortion is tied to breast cancer—and that their actions should be regarded as an “ethical violation that undermines women’s health.”
Care Net describes itself as a “nonprofit organization that empowers women and men considering abortion to choose life for their unborn children and find abundant life in Christ.” Along with its crisis pregnancy centers, the group runs a 24-hour “pregnancy decision line,” and provides online courses and ebooks on how to “better intercede for the babies at risk.”
“At Care Net, we don't stop at saving the life of unborn children...we work to ensure that they—and their mothers and fathers—can experience the abundant life Christ brings,” its website reads.
Its convention, which draws members from across the country and Canada, is scheduled for Sept. 8-11, just as local children start returning to school. (Coronavirus cases among children are currently surging in Florida, increasing 34 percent in just eight days.)
Speakers include Warren, the Care Net CEO, as well as religious lecturer Peter Heck and activist Danielle Strickland, author of The Liberating Truth: How Jesus Empowers Women.
A website for the conference boasts more than 80 “intensive” workshops, with titles like “Making a Compelling Case for Life” and “Encountering Gender Confusion.” While all of the conference events will be in person, at least one workshop will teach participants how to fundraise entirely online. The workshop, titled “Virtual, Viral and Virus,” promises to “look at several different virtual fundraising models to help you go virtual with ease,” noting that the country is in “new times that require new ideas and new ways of fundraising.”
The conference website also boasts a collaboration with the “destination management” company Hello! Florida to allow participants to buy discounted tickets to Orlando theme parks—including for Disney World, which is not currently making new ticket sales due to the pandemic. The site also offers to connect participants with other attendees for the purpose of sharing hotel rooms, which flies in the face of basic social distancing precautions.
Tickets for the conference run upwards of $500 per person. Due to the coronavirus, the organization is allowing cancellations up to Aug. 11, though the prognosis for the state may still be cloudy at that point. No refunds will be provided after that date, and all cancellations—regardless of when or why—will incur a $25 charge.
Care Net did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for RSVP numbers, but its website says the $575 “Premium Exhibition Booths” are already sold out.
The conference website lists five safety precautions it will take, including the cancellation of valet parking. Other safety measures include “less people per table and more space between tables” at general session and break-out sessions, “wider aisles and spaced out exhibits” at the exhibition hall, and “signage and floor markings” to help with social distancing in common areas.
The site also notes that Orange County is currently requiring masks in all public places, but notes that “our hope is that this will be lifted by the time the conference starts.” If the mandate is lifted, the site states, “masks will be recommended, but not required.”
Newman, the Wayne State University expert, said that aside from the sheer number of people involved—she said she had not heard of another conference this big happening this year—the proposed social distancing measures were too vague to be of any use. Promising “wider” aisles and “less people” per table is “not the level of specificity I would look for for a plan that’s been well thought-out,” she said.
Newman added that the event is not only a risk to the attendees, but to the hotel employees and any person the attendees come in contact with in the two weeks after the event—including their pregnant patients. (A note on the conference website says Care Net pregnancy centers serve “hundreds of thousands of clients each year.”)
Just this week, Florida surpassed New York to become the state with the second most coronavirus cases in the country—with more than 440,000 positive tests— behind only California. On Tuesday, it recorded 186 coronavirus deaths in one day, a record for the state. The local death toll is now approaching 6,000. Orlando is in Orange County, which has the fifth highest number of cases in the state.
President Trump had originally planned to host in-person portions of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville next month, but pulled out due to the recent surge in cases, saying he needed to “protect the American people.”
"We have to be vigilant. We have to be careful. And we also have to set an example,” he said. “It’s hard for us to say we’re going to have a lot of people packed in a room and then other people shouldn’t do it."