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Is this convention really necessary?

Seriously. I know they don’t care about anyone else, but maybe the state GOP might think about the health and well-being of their own people?

As the coronavirus pandemic engulfs Texas’ metropolitan areas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has left the door open for massive indoor gatherings. And organizers are moving forward with some big ones, including the Texas Republican party’s upcoming convention in Houston.

Harris County, where Houston is located, has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the state, but the Texas GOP plans to press forward with plans to hold an in-person convention from July 16-18 in the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

“All systems are go, folks. This is happening,” Kyle Whatley, the party’s executive director, said Tuesday during a tele-town hall, noting the convention program is already being printed.

On Tuesday, Abbott granted local officials the power to restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, but made no mention of indoor gatherings. The Texas GOP convention is expected to draw about 6,000 attendees, roughly half of what it would expect for such a convention in normal times, according to Whatley. The party’s website brands its annual convention as the “largest political gathering in the free world.”

Whatley said registrations are “increasing exponentially” as the convention nears.

David Lakey, the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said he believes large indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are not advisable at this time.

“I think, right now, I wouldn’t hold a group larger than 100 individuals,” he said. “I think people need to be very cautious about making — especially in the month of July — any plans for a big conference.”

The party does not plan to require masks at the convention, though chairman James Dickey acknowledged Tuesday that Harris County is currently under an order mandating that businesses require customers to wear masks.

“The Republican Party isn’t considered a commercial entity so they themselves are not required to comply with the mask order,” said Melissa Arredondo, a spokesperson for the office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who issued the mask order.

That order expires Tuesday, and Dickey said the party will “revisit” the mask issue during another tele-town hall next month before the convention.

Maybe read the story of Bill Baker, and then rethink this? Just a suggestion. And it truly is ridiculous to be allowed to ban outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people while being forced to allow a much riskier indoor event of thousands of people. I’m sure someone pointed out to Abbott that if he did the sensible thing and allowed all gatherings of large sizes to be banned by local officials, the GOP convention would be immediately canceled. It’s still ridiculous.

And look, if this were only a bunch of Republican activists putting themselves at risk, I’d shrug my shoulders and let them enjoy their “freedom”, for whatever it was worth. But of course, they’re not just putting their own health and safety on the line, they’re endangering everyone who will be working at the convention as well. Those folks deserve better.

The situation has created what union leaders say is a potentially perilous situation for workers at the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, which is connected to the convention center and expects to see an uptick in guests during the convention. Officials from Unite Here Local 23, the union that represents hotel and other hospitality workers, say health insurance benefits are set to expire for Hilton workers at the end of the month, since many of them were laid off at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them short of the hours needed to qualify for coverage.

Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm, owns the Hilton Americas-Houston and operates the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Houston First Chairman David Mincberg disputed the union’s claim, saying in a statement to the Chronicle that all Houston First and Hilton employees “will have health insurance coverage (except those who have opted out) while working at the George R. Brown Convention Center or the Hilton” during the convention. Mincberg also said Houston First officials “do not anticipate any part-time workers being utilized.”

Hilton employees are set to lose their health coverage at the end of July if they do not work enough hours in June to qualify for coverage, while those laid off earlier will lose it by June 30. Union officials said nearly 450 employees have been laid off by the Hilton since February, accounting for about 95 percent of the hotel’s employees.

Bo Delp, senior political organizer for Unite Here Local 23, questioned how the Hilton could adequately staff the convention if only 5 percent of its employees are set to qualify for health coverage through the end of July.

“Houston First has made a decision that during a global pandemic, it is going to continue to host events,” Delp said. “The minute they made that decision, from our perspective, they had a moral and public health obligation to make sure that the workers who are coming in as a result of their decision to host events, that they are healthy and safe.”

Mincberg said Houston First lacks the ability to cancel the event or require convention guests to wear masks, even if conditions worsen before mid-July.

“(Houston First) does not have the authority to require safety measures, unless included in the original license agreement. Since this agreement was issued prior to the pandemic, no such provision was included,” Mincberg said.

Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, urged Houston First officials to provide health coverage for hospitality workers and “institute preventive activities” to limit the spread of COVID-19 during large gatherings at the convention center.

“We know that closed spaces, crowded conditions, close contact, and duration of contact all enhance transmission of this virus,” Troisi wrote in a letter to Mincberg on Tuesday. “This convention space includes all of these risk factors and particularly without mandatory masking, transmission of the virus is almost inevitable, both to convention attendees and to hospitality employees.”

Every employee who works this dumb convention should have full health care coverage. Whatever it takes to give that to them, make it happen. And in the future, all contracts for conventions in Houston facilities should include clauses about pandemics and requirements for face masks and following county health mandates. The very least we can do from this experience is learn from it.

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14 Comments

  1. brad says:

    What are you going to do?!….Whatley, the exec director of the GOP convention, says that the programs are already being printed.

    Too bad all those deaths are going to happen because the programs are being printed. The tragedy.

  2. Flypusher says:

    “ Every employee who works this dumb convention should have full health care coverage.”

    And hazard pay. Also Greg Abbott needs to set an example here. He ought to encourage cancellation, but if he won’t, at least do the bare minimum and tell the people who attend that they MUST wear masks. No excuses.

  3. brad says:

    Sadly, I think the most effective way for Gov Abbott to get GOP “freedumbers” to wear masks is to tell them that if they don’t wear them there won’t be any in-person football this season.

    Worked like a charm in Mississippi when the SEC said no more big sports tournaments/championships unless they lose the racist stars/bars battle emblem from their state flag.

  4. Lalo says:

    Wow. This is one huge train wreck waiting to happen.

  5. David Fagan says:

    Isn’t Houston First a public/ private partnership? Would that mean the public side of the deal would have a say in it? Or does Houston First just say “give me the tax dollars and leave us alone.”?

  6. Paul Kubosh says:

    Glad to see everyone worried about Republicans getting together. Maybe y’all don’t care about the people in the riots getting the virus. Hypocrisy.

  7. Brad says:

    Paul,

    Actually if the rioters had rented a convention hall and printed up programs I too would’ve told them how incredibly stupid and irresponsible they are.

  8. Flypusher says:

    Inside is more risky than outside. No mask is more risky than mask. The protests had a risk (just how much infection they spread is still TBD), but not as much as these conventions.

  9. Brad,

    I am sure you would have.

  10. Manny says:

    Paul my concern is really that Republicans would spread to none Republicans, some of those maskless wonders are lawyers and come in contact with Independents, Democrats, and people who don’t vote or cannot vote.

    Wasn’t it a Republican that said and that your president tweeted, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat”. I believe in playing by the same rules as the other side.

  11. C.L. says:

    I don’t care if its Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or Romulans and Klingons holding a convention in Houston – doing so without mandatory masks right now is just plain stupid.

    GRB management should be requiring a mask on every face who wants to walk through their doors. No mask, no admittance.

  12. Flypusher says:

    The Cardassians probably refuse to wear the masks just to spite the Klingons.

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