At the beginning of this week, plans were moving along for the Texas GOP’s in-person convention on July 16-18, where around 6,000 state Republicans would gather at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center without any requirement for attendees to use face masks.
Thanks to sustained negative press and a public plea from the state’s leading organization for doctors, that plan might be close to falling through.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Medical Association sent a letter to leading state Republican operatives, including Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey and Executive Director Kyle Whatley, asking them to reconsider their plans to go ahead with the in-person party convention in Houston. The TMA, which represents more than 53,000 Texas doctors and medical students, argued that having such a large gathering indoors with no face mask requirement in place would be far too risky given the worsening state of the pandemic.
“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,” wrote TMA President Dr. Diana Fite in the letter.
Fite didn’t mince words in her warning to state Republicans about the folly of going on with the convention as planned, especially when COVID-19 is running rampant throughout Houston and Harris County as a whole.
“The daily chart of active cases in Harris County has been nearly a straight line upward for the past two weeks,” Fite wrote. “As an emergency physician in Houston treating patients with COVID-19, I speak from firsthand experience: It would be best for the health of your convention-goers and the residents of Houston for the RPT not to hold its biennial convention there as planned.”
One local Republican, Texas House Representative Sarah Davis of West University, agreed with the TMA’s recommendation to nix the in-person convention. On Tuesday afternoon, Davis replied to a tweet from a reporter highlighting the TMA’s letter. “@TexasGOP PLEASE listen to the docs!” she tweeted.
In a live streamed statement Tuesday night, Texas GOP Chairman Dickey said that the State Republican Executive Committee would meet on Thursday to consider possible changes to the convention plan, and explained that the state party had already prepared for the possibility of having a virtual convention “as the ultimate contingency plan if we are forced by a government order at any level and not able to hold our convention in person.” The Texas Democratic Party cancelled its in-person state convention and opted to hold a virtual event earlier this month.
Tuesday’s letter from the TMA came after days of incredulous coverage of the GOP’s decision to hold a massive in-person gathering without a mask requirement from media outlets across the state, many of whom highlighted how such a gathering would likely place service industry workers staffing the convention at heightened risk for contracting COVID-19.
A preface to the TMA’s letter on their website stated that their organization had contributed $5,000 to both the Texas Democratic Party and the Texas Republican Party for each of their state conventions “in exchange for advertising,” and that the TMA had previously recommended that any potential in-person meeting should at the very least “utilize CDC, state and local guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks,” while offering their assistance to the state GOP to help enact these public health best practices.
However, Dickey wrote in a Friday convention update that they were still planning for an in-person event in July where face mask use would be optional. “We have said all along that people are welcome to wear masks if they wish or welcome not to wear a mask,” Dickey wrote last week, promising that there would be ample hand sanitizer at the party event.
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On Tuesday evening, the Houston Chronicle reported that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner updated his executive order on COVID-19 on Monday to remove language that previously allowed him to force the cancellation of any event with more than 50 attendees in any city-owned building.
Under the pre-amended language, Turner apparently would have had the authority to cancel the state GOP convention since it would be held in the George R. Brown Convention Center which is owned by the city despite being managed by the public nonprofit organization Houston First.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, councilmembers Abbie Kamin and Robert Gallegos both asked Turner to cancel the event. Turner replied that he didn’t plan to step in, signalling that he wanted state Republicans to make the call themselves.
“It is a political convention, and unlike the others, I’ll leave it up to the political personalities of the political convention, and the people who are going to be attending, to make wise decisions,” Turner said.