The New Jersey venue where at least 150 people gathered Thursday night for the New York Young Republican Club’s annual gala was shuttered on Friday amid public outcry and another coronavirus wave in the tri-state area.
The 108th annual gala—which was supposed to feature star speaker Sarah Palin before she backed out—was held at the Maritime Parc in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park after the group appeared to scrap plans to hold it across the river in New York. Videos and images posted on Twitter showed attendees gathered inside, flouting COVID-19 guidelines.
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop blasted the event as “an egregious violation” of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. In a statement to The Daily Beast on Friday morning, he said the “establishment has been ordered closed” until it submits a written operational plan to the Health Department on how it’s complying with capacity mandates and mask-wearing.
In two furious tweets, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the group “allegedly snuck into Jersey City” for a party that would now be investigated by law enforcement. He called attendee Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) a “fool” who was never welcome back in New Jersey.
“It is beyond the pale that anyone would willingly endanger people in another state,” he wrote.
But while the GOP event—at which Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe also spoke—has prompted outrage from New Jersey officials, those who attended didn’t seem to care about the ongoing pandemic.
It appears the event was held in a private space, dubbed the Sky Room, on the Maritime Parc’s second floor. The room fits up to 500 seated guests, with a view of lower Manhattan and a 270-degree wraparound outdoor terrace.
According to the 26-year-old president of the group, Gavin Wax, the event had “about 150 people” show up to hear Gaetz, a staunch Trump loyalist who infamously wore a gas mask on the floor of Congress ahead of voting on COVID-19 relief legislation.
One guest, Joel Fischer, posed for a selfie with the Florida lawmaker in front of tables of maskless guests. “Hey @NYGovCuomo. Come and get me,” Fischer wrote, taunting Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his state’s strict COVID-19 rules.
Another series of photos posted by Wax showed guests tightly huddled together smiling, without masks. “Eat shit Antifa. God bless America,” the 26-year-old wrote.
One video posted by lawyer Ron Coleman with the caption, “Uh oh. The Rona got loose,” shows dozens of guests hovering around Gaetz.
New Jersey limits indoor gatherings to 10 people, with an exception for “religious and political activities protected under the First Amendment.” Exempted gatherings can have up to 150 people in an indoor space, but social distancing and mask-wearing are mandated. In New York, where the Young Republican Club’s event is usually held, there is a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings.
Wax kept the event’s location under wraps, even implying to The Daily Beast earlier this week that it was still to be held in New York City.
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 venue’s name was suddenly removed from the gala’s Eventbrite page Tuesday, which later said the location is “to be announced.”
When questioned on the location change on Friday, Wax insisted the gala was always going to be held in the Jersey City venue and was finalized at least two months ago.
“New Jersey has way more lax rules,” Wax said. “It’s been in New Jersey for a while. We never ‘ran there,’ we saw we can do 150 people in New Jersey vs 50 people in New York and it made more sense.”
However, a spokesperson for the Maritime Parc told The Daily Beast on Friday that it was a “last-minute booking.”
The spokesperson insisted that the event complied with state restrictions as tables were six feet apart, drinks were served table-side only by servers in masks and gloves, there was no dancing, and guests were told to wear masks while entering and exiting the venue. Additionally, New Jersey State Police visited the venue beforehand to ensure compliance, the spokesperson said.
“It has been brought to our attention that videos and photos have emerged... showing people in close proximity; we surmise this was at the end of the evening as we believe the agenda called for 2 hours 45 minutes of speaking out of the entire 3.5-hour event,” the spokesperson added.
The venue said they only heard about Fulop’s closure order through media reports and had been scrambling to get more details.
The New York Young Republican Club has a history that can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century but, as The Daily Beast has reported, they’ve 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.
Earlier this week, Wax said in a statement 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.”
On Friday, Wax again insisted the gala was “in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations” and said any suggestion “to the contrary and any legal threats are made in bad faith and politically motivated.”
“As far as we are aware, the First Amendment has not been repealed,” he tweeted, before adding in a follow-up post: “The nihilist left is self projecting when they call the NYYRC a ‘death cult.’ We are the exact opposite. We embrace life and living while you all cower in your pods worried about a disease with a 99 percent + survivability rate.”
Once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, New York and its neighbor states put strict guidelines in place to curtail its spread. But New York City’s current positivity rate, 5 percent, is now at its highest since April. Across the river, New Jersey is also experiencing a surge in cases. The New Jersey Health Department on Friday reported 15,373 residents have died and 350,999 more have been infected.
Gaetz’s in-person appearance also defies New York and New Jersey guidelines as both states have established quarantine guidelines for those who travel from hot-spot states.
If the Florida lawmaker traveled to New Jersey from the Sunshine State, he would have had to quarantine for at least three days before getting tested to adhere to New York state rules, and as many as 14 days to comply with New Jersey’s guidelines. (Gaetz said earlier this month that he’d tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies but was unsure when he got the virus.)
During his Friday coronavirus briefing, Gov. Murphy called Gaetz “Sarah Palin’s backup act for this event” and someone for whom “based upon his past performances, it is obvious being a knucklehead is not beyond the pale for him.”
Varick Boyd, who worked at Maritime Parc several years ago, told The Daily Beast he first learned about the event from one of Coleman’s tweets and “immediately recognized the views.”
He said he was “not surprised by people’s behavior anymore” but felt sad that former colleagues were being forced to risk their lives and the health of family members during the holiday season to keep their jobs.
“In general I feel bad for the people that ‘had’ to work and can’t believe that management would put them in that position. The attendees can do whatever they want but it is selfish to force others to serve you so you can have a secret party to own the libs. Their words not mine,” Boyd, 51, said, adding that Coleman has since blocked him on Twitter.
“I find it odd that the NY Young Republicans would have an event in NJ. I also find it odd that they were able to break any and all NJ restrictions for the state.”