Texas GOP defies medical association: The in-person state convention is on

Texans are stubborn people. Add some party politics to the mix and well, anything can happen. In this case, despite pleas against it from medical experts, the Republican Party of Texas voted Thursday to move forward with an in-person state convention in Houston this month.

This debate and vote by the State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) lasted about three hours. The SREC meeting was held virtually. The convention is scheduled for July 16 to 18 in Houston. About 6,000 attendees are expected to attend, down from the normal amount of attendees which is about 15,000. The SREC vote was 40-20 in favor of holding the in-person convention.

The Texas Medical Association (TMA) has strongly voiced objections to holding an in-person convention during the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, the TMA is concerned about the convention-goers adhering to mitigation measures like wearing facial masks, social distancing, and personal hygiene like hand washing. At the time the convention was announced, facial masks were not going to be required of attendees.

Meanwhile, Governor Abbott has now mandated that all Texans wear a facial mask in public places if the county has more than 20 COVID-19 cases. Houston is in the midst of battling a spike in virus, with the percentage of positivity rising, though hospitalizations are decreasing. The death rate is falling, too, so that is good news. However, the virus is still very much with us and that cannot be brushed aside as fake news.

The reasons that the members of the SREC voted in favor of the in-person convention show a strong sense of responsibility and loyalty to President Trump. Some said that President Trump is counting on Texas – the nation’s largest red state – to show the example that a political convention can be held during a pandemic. Since Trump plans to accept the party’s nomination in Jacksonville, Florida in August during a scaled-down in-person convention, the nation’s eyes will be on what happens after the Texas GOP’s convention. The message is Do it for President Trump.

The Texas GOP issued a statement after the SREC vote. The message was one of reassurance that all precautions possible will be taken for the safety of the attendees and speakers.

According the party’s statement: “The convention is prepared with multiple precautions and safety measures for attendees. Thermal scanners will be present at entryways. Expanded seating will be in place for social distancing in caucus and general session meetings. Meeting areas will be deep-cleaned thoroughly after each gathering to prepare for the next meeting. Hand sanitizer stations will be found throughout the convention center. Sponsors have donated masks which will be readily available for delegates’ and attendees’ use in compliance with Governor Greg Abbott’s most recent order.”

There is nothing in the governor’s most recent orders that would eliminate the option of the state GOP holding its in-person convention. He has the ability to shut it down if he chooses to do so but that is highly unlikely to happen. Governor Abbott will be expected to speak at the convention. If the governor did shut it down, the party base would be furious with him. As gingerly as Abbott has tried to find a balance between public safety in a pandemic and trying to keep businesses open, it is hard to believe he would do anything at this point to do away with the support of the party base now.

And, some Republicans just don’t believe media reports on the severity of the coronavirus.

“First I would underscore that while this is a very serious pandemic, it is not Ebola,” said Mark Ramsey, representing Senate District 7 in Harris County. “And it’s not as bad as everybody was fearful three or four months ago that it would be. There’s indications it’s even weakening as it goes forward as almost all viruses do, nature being a little bit unstable.”

He said his delegates were 89.8% in favor of going ahead with a convention in their midst.

“The people that see it firsthand want to go to convention,” Ramsey said. “We have the firsthand knowledge that the media is exaggerating this. And those of you that are not here in Harris County don’t have that benefit we do have of actually having the data on the ground. It’s wreaking serious economic damage.”

Some SREC members are concerned that a virtual convention would not have the same outcome as an in-person one as far as having the ability of delegates speaking with others and working on specific issues.

And some point to the technical difficulties of a virtual convention, especially for those who live in rural areas with limited broadband service. Even the Zoom meeting held for the SREC debate and vote Thursday was criticized as a poor substitute for an in-person meeting.

For those who voted against it, the reasons were personal. Most either point to existing health concerns or that the convention is an unnecessary risk which sends the wrong message.

Some had close-to-home experience with the coronavirus.

“I get all the arguments for liberty,” said Senate District 10′s Susan Wright. But, she said, she would prefer a virtual convention, “with as many voices as possible than as few voices as dare to go.”

My thoughts on an in-person convention won’t endear me to the majority of SREC members. I think of all the GOP conventions and meetings I have attended and I know one thing to be true – most attendees are older people. The loyal party members who participate in these large gatherings are predominately AARP-aged folks. The coronavirus hits people above the age of 60 particularly hard. And, there is a new focus on the 50 and under crowd as they get out more and contract the virus in Houston. So, essentially, in Houston right now, everyone is considered at increased risk for the coronavirus.

I’m a more cautious person, as I’ve written many times, and if I were an SREC member – which I am not – I would have voted no to an in-person meeting, especially since it is scheduled less than two weeks from now. There is no sign of a let-up in the spike of new cases of the virus in Houston. The truth is no one can accurately predict when that will come. Strict mitigation measures are still in place and necessary. I wish my Republican friends and acquaintances well with the convention but I sure wish they were doing it virtually.