Unless a plea for sanity prevails, thousands of Texans will be gathering for the state GOP convention in a COVID-19 hotspot later this month.
To make it completely nuts, party officials have said they do not plan to require masks at the July 16-18 event in Houston.
“We do not intend to mandate mask wearing at the convention,” Texas GOP chairman James Dickey said at a June 23 town hall meeting.
Dickey allowed that the question will be “revisited” after July 4, but the party’s current position is that the mask mandate for businesses in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, does not apply to the convention.
The event is also not affected by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order to address “the growing spread of COVID-19 and the resulting imminent threat to public health.” Abbott restricted gatherings of more than 100 people outdoors. But he said nothing about indoor assemblies such as the 6,000 fellow Republicans he is expected to join at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
A plea for sanity came on Tuesday from the Texas Medical Association (TMA), which represents 53,000 doctors and medical students in the state. An open letter from TMA’s president, Dr. Diana Fite, urged the state GOP to reconsider.
“This is just not the time to bring thousands of the party faithful from around the state to an indoor meeting in a county that, as I write, reports more than 18,000 active COVID-19 cases,” Fite wrote. “While much of our state has so far been spared the brunt of the coronavirus attack, our metropolitan areas in general—and Houston in particular—are now among the national epicenters of current COVID-19 outbreaks. The daily chart of active cases in Harris County has been nearly a straight line upward for the past two weeks.”
Fite noted, “As an emergency physician in Houston treating patients with COVID-19, I speak from firsthand experience.”
Fite ended with what is becoming a standard letter closing in the pandemic, but had particular meaning in this context.
Nobody could rightly say the TMA was driven by politics. The group notes that it made $5,000 pre-pandemic donations towards both the state Democratic and the GOP conventions in exchange for being able to show a promotional video. The video was shown when the Democrats held their event online from June 1 to June 6.
But in this climate where precaution is seen as partisan, the TMA initially seemed prepared to go along with the GOP’s madness. The rising number in Houston apparently caused the group to recover its senses.
Some added sanity came late Monday afternoon, just as a COVID-19 disaster declaration by the Harris County board of commissioners was set to expire. The board voted to extend the measure until August 26. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo—who is self-quarantined at home after being exposed to somebody who tested positive—had instituted the mask mandate and a number of other orders to accompany the board’s declaration. She indicated that she will extend them as well.
The state GOP offered no immediate public reaction to these developments and failed to respond to a request for comment. The number of registrants for the convention indicates that the party faithful include a great many souls who are either misled or reckless.
“It's been increasing exponentially to borrow a term from some of the coronavirus stuff,” state GOP Executive Director Kyle Whatley said of the registrations earlier this month.
He continued, “Our rolling averages… are continuing to increase. So we’re very encouraged.”
Whatley reported that paramedics will be on hand as at previous other conventions. They will be assisting anybody found to be running a fever by the temperature monitors at each entrance or otherwise showing possible COVID-19 symptoms. .
“I’m excited the paramedics are going to have so much to do this time,” Whatley said. “Usually, they’re just hidden in the back someplace.”
He did not seem to be attempting black humor, though he did say that the gathering would include “a comedy convention event.” That is scheduled for July 16 . There will be a breakfast the next morning, followed by a gala in the evening.
One party loyalist who planned to attend was 75-year-old Bill Baker of Terrell, who was for a time GOP chairman in Kaufman County. He was able to attend a county convention on June 6.
“Had a good Kaufman County Republican Party Convention yesterday,” Baker posted on Facebook the next day. “60-70 people attended, which I thought under the conditions was good. Delegate again to the State Convention. Re-elect President Trump and keep Texas red.”
On June 11, Baker fell ill. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and admitted to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. The local press reports that he died there on June 25.
“Due to unforeseen circumstances the viewing and funeral of our beloved Billy has changed,” reads a subsequent post on his Facebook page. “There won’t be a public nor family viewing. His burial will be limited to a small group of his immediate family.”
The post goes on, “As a family as a whole we will celebrate his life at a later date to be announced later. The loss of Uncle Billy will be forever deeply felt.”