At the beginning of June, Texas Democrats drew some national attention for holding a virtual state convention that might serve as a prototype for the (mostly) virtual national convention now being planned for August. They made a good case that going virtual was not simply an intelligent accommodation to the coronavirus pandemic, but also a potentially better way to engage more people, raise money, and organize for general elections in the post-pandemic future.
Texas Republicans, who until very recently labored under the reckless illusion that the pandemic was over and it was time to go back to business as usual, are holding their convention in Houston on July 16–18. As with the party’s national convention, it will be a live, in-person, not virtual event. But it will take place in what is now emerging as one of the most dangerous COVID-19 hot spots in the country, as the Texas Tribune reported earlier this week:
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, predicted over the weekend that Houston is on the brink of a disaster, based on the latest trends in increasing numbers.
“My observations if this trajectory persists: 1) Houston would become the worst affected city in the US, maybe rival what we’re seeing now in Brazil 2) The masks = good 1st step but simply won’t be enough 3) We would need to proceed to red alert,” Hotez tweeted.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed the concern in a Monday press conference.
“Today we have another grim reminder that the virus is very much alive in our community,” Turner said. “We’re moving very fast in the wrong direction.”
It’s bad enough that Texas’s Republican governor Greg Abbott, hardly a coronavirus alarmist, has just suspended elective surgeries in Harris County (where Houston is located) and three other urban counties to preserve hospital bed space for COVID-19 patients, while pausing the state’s “reopening” process. Yet plans for the Texas GOP clambake continue, and the state party chair made it clear this week that any mask-wearing would be optional, as the Corpus Christi Caller reported:
The Texas Republican State Convention, which is projected to have about 2,000 more delegates and alternates than the party’s planned national gathering, is continuing as a live event next month in Houston with no mandate that participants wear masks.
Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said Wednesday there will be “no mask shaming” for those who chose to cover the faces to avoid any coronavirus spread. But no one will be required to wear one even though Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this week strongly encouraged all Texans to wear masks in public as a way to help tame the renewed surge in COVID-19 cases statewide.
Texas Republicans aren’t completely oblivious to the risks they are taking. They’ve tried to cut convention attendance in half from the 15,000 or so originally contemplated. And Dickey indicated to the Caller that “the party has doubled the space it had planned to reserve for the convention so that official meetings and gathering can be conducted without cramming people together.”
Still, such precautions could be too little, too late, as Texas Democratic Party executive director Manny Garcia was quick to point out in an email:
Texas Republicans holding an in-person convention in the middle of one of coronavirus’ top hot spots is another example of how they’ve downplayed and mismanaged this crisis from day one. Not requiring attendees to wear masks is unconscionable and will lead to more cases and deaths. They are willing to put everybody’s life at-risk in order to score political points with their base. We wish they would follow the advice of healthcare experts and not put people at risk, especially the hospitality workers that will need to host them.
If things do go wrong in Houston, it will be an ominous sign for the national confab. After all, Donald Trump took the extraordinary step of moving key parts of his party’s convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville precisely because in the former venue he couldn’t be guaranteed a packed hall of sweaty, cheering, mask-free supporters when he makes his acceptance speech. But from Houston to Jacksonville to Washington, Republicans may soon pay a high price for encouraging their base to believe the pandemic didn’t exist, or was already over, or was no big deal compared to the stock market.